Oxford Committee for Famine Relief

Oxford Committee for Famine Relief - History


-October, 1942, Great Britain: Oxfam is created during the Second World War by Oxford academics who oppose the blockade of the British army against Greece, a territory which is occupied by the Germans and where a famine kills some 200,000 people. At the beginning, the organization belongs to a national structure, the Famine Relief Committee, which was established in May 1942 by Edith Pye (1876-1965), a Quaker from the Friends Relief Service. Of all its local counterparts in Great Britain, the Oxford Committee for Famine Relief will be the only one to live on, under the name of Oxfam, an abbreviation used in telegrams and definitively kept as official acronym in 1965.
-1943, Great Britain: in May 1943, Oxfam is officially recognized as a non-profit organization within the very regulated framework of the War Charities Act. Limited to fundraising activities, it cannot run its own programmes and only collects money for the Red Cross, the Salvation Army, Friends Relief Service and, later on, SCF (Save the Children Fund). Despite administrative hurdles, food is eventually sent to Greece. However, the War Office in London does not allow Oxfam to help occupied Belgium, fearing that aid would be diverted by the Nazis.
-1944, Great Britain: for lack of funds and operational capacity, Oxfam remains a small association with volunteers. Its founding members include many religious and Labour pacifists who favour disarmament and the ideals of the League of Nations. Among them, Gilbert Murray (1866-1957) is close to the Greek royal family in exile in London, Henry Gillett (1872-1955) was a Quaker mayor of Oxford in 1938 and Cecil Jackson-Cole (1901-1979) is a businessman who will launch two other NGOs, Help the Aged and Action in Distress (currently Action Aid). As for Howard Leslie Kirkley, the general secretary (between 1951 and 1961) and director (between 1961 and 1975) of Oxfam, he is a convinced Labour pacifist but not a Quaker: a conscientious objector, he succeeded in being exempted from military service when Britain declared war to Nazi Germany in 1939. The heads of the Africa department in the 1960s and 1970s, Bernard Murphy and Jimmy Betts, are also members of the Fabian Society, linked to the Labour party. Posted in Botswana, the former is an union activist who supports the formation of cooperatives; based in Maseru then Nairobi, the latter started as a forester in Nigeria and his sister, Barbara Castle, presides the Labour party: a deputy of Blackburn from 1945 until 1979, she is the minister of Overseas Development (1964-1965) then Transports (1965-1968). Finally, the director of the Asia department at Oxfam from 1964 onwards, Bernard Llewellyn, worked for the Friends Ambulance Units of the Quakers in China during the Second World War.
-From 1945, Great Britain: the collapse of Nazi Germany and the end of the conflict allow Oxfam to extend its programmes on the European continent. However, the organization is not yet operational. It is only in August 1953 that, for the first time, Oxfam-UK will directly help the victims of an earthquake in the Ionian Islands, Greece.
-1946-1950, Germany: Oxfam sends relief items to the British occupied zone and pushes for an increase of daily food rations. Its clothes are directly distributed by the British army; from 1950 on, the German authorities are to finance their transport as well. Through Protestant networks from 1947 on, Oxfam also funds a shelter to accommodate displaced persons from Eastern Europe.
-1947, Great Britain: Robert Castle, Oxfam’s first employee, hired in 1946, opens shops to fund the organization by selling crafts and antiques.
-From 1948, Great Britain: while Robert Castle’s part-time contract expires in July 1948, Oxfam hesitates to close down because its emergency programmes in Europe are less necessary after the war. In the context of the Israeli-Palestinian crisis, the Committee nevertheless decides to carry on and to widen its mission to development and the “relief of suffering arising as a result of war or any other cause in any part of the world”. For logistical reasons, it thinks about moving to London or Bristol, but eventually takes root in Oxford, where a permanent headquarters is built in 1962. The shift from emergency to longer term development means that the part dedicated to the victims of natural disasters decreases and varies between 10% of the budget in the 1960s and 20% in the 1970s. The objective is now to break the dependency syndrome and the paternalist relationship of traditional charities, so that the third world would become self-reliant. As the slogan of the time says it: “give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day; teach him how to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime”.
-Since 1949, Israel/Palestine: after the foundation of the State of Israel in 1948, Oxfam sends relief to Palestinian refugees. Between 1955 and 1973, the organization then funds the Arab Development Society of Musa Alami, which manages orphanages and agricultural projects in the West Bank. Afterward, the Committee also supports the UPMRC (Union of Palestinian Medical Relief Committees) of Mustapha Barghouti, who is a member of the PFLP (Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine) and the General Secretary of the communist PPP (Palestinian People's Party). On the Israeli side, Oxfam works with some Bedouins of the Negev desert. Generally speaking, however, the Oxford Committee does not invest much in the Middle East: the region represents only 5 % of its operational expenses in 1989, 8% in 1990, 9% in 1991, 7% in 1993, 6% in 1994, 8% in 1995, 3% in 1996, 3% in 1997, 8% in 1998, 8% in 1999, 6 % in 2000, 5% in 2001 and 5% in 2002. In Britain, Oxfam prefers to launch advocacy programmes to inform against the building of a "wall of shame" to separate Jews and Palestinians in order to avoid terrorist attacks from occupied territories. Some campaigns arouse criticisms and charges of anti-Semitism: in 2002, for instance, the organization recommends the boycott of products made in Israel, especially oranges, which are showed covered with blood. In Palestine, the political context hinders relief operations anyway. Actually, general elections in January 2006 bring Hamas to power, an Islamist movement which is blacklisted as a terrorist organization. As a result, the United States, Canada, the European Union and Japan decide to suspend their bilateral financial aid and to delegate some of it to NGOs in order to circumvent the new Palestinian government. Eager to protect its independence, Oxfam condemns these sanctions. It does not want to provide a social alibi to the foreign policy of western powers, and it refuses any funding from the European Union and the United States for the year to come.