Oxford Committee for Famine Relief
Oxford Committee for Famine Relief - History
-From 1960, Congo Kinshasa: after the World Refugee Year organized by the United Nations in 1960, Oxfam-UK starts in 1961 a small relief programme for displaced people in the former Belgian colony. Over the following decades, the organization develops many programmes. Yet some are not efficient. In the 1990s, for instance, the water pumps of Oxfam in Kinshasa do not work. The system of costs recovery, explains Zoë Marriage, excludes the poorest inhabitants, who, consequently, still get water in surrounding polluted rivers. For the same reasons, more than half of registered pupils drop out of the two schools rehabilitated by Oxfam in the suburb of Kisenso, for their parents cannot afford to pay the fees.
-1961, Lesotho: Oxfam-UK opens its first regional office in Maseru, in a small country where development programmes can be more visible. This establishment marks the beginning of an extension which goes on with the nomination of a Director for Asia in 1964, for East and West Africa in 1965, and for Latin America in Lima, Peru, in 1968 and in Recife, Brazil, in 1969. Therefore, the number of regional directors increase from 11 in 1970 to 25 in 1980, with a strong base in Africa and Asia. From 1961, Oxfam-UK also decides to fund local development organizations instead of missionaries and expatriates.
-From 1962, Botswana: in Mochudi in the Southeast of the country, Oxfam-UK funds a reception centre and accommodates South African refugees who flee racial segregation and the repression of Black movements by the neighbouring apartheid regime. The Oxford Committee cannot work directly in South Africa and prefers to fund local partners. For instance, it pays the salaries of the permanent trade unionists of SADWU (South African Domestic Workers’ Union). From its base in Lesotho, Oxfam-UK also supports the “Self-Betterment” (Kupugani) programmes of the Zulus in Natal province. During the 1980s, it then works in Mozambique and Zimbabwe, i.e. “frontline countries” which back the armed struggle against the apartheid regime. In October 1981, an employee of Oxfam-UK, Alex Mbatha, is arrested, tortured with his wife, and detained by the South African police because he participated in a meeting in Harare to organize the inhabitants of the homelands to set up their own development programmes. By dint of petitions with the support of Members of Parliament and clergymen in Great Britain, the Oxford Committee obtains the release and the evacuation of the suspect in its offices in Harare a few months later. Because of the political implications, it hesitates to remain neutral. Eventually, it comes out against apartheid and denounces Pretoria as being the main obstacle to development in Southern Africa. As a result, the organisation does not restrict anymore its help to refugees fighting for the armed branches of the ANC (African National Congress) and the SWAPO (South West Africa People’s Organization). The situation in South Africa obviously changes when opponents are released, segregationist laws are abrogated, and the first multiracial elections of the country are planned. Chaired from September 1995 by Joel Joffe, a former lawyer for Nelson Mandela, Oxfam-UK can finally open an office in Johannesburg in 1994. As for NOVIB, it funds the VEETU (Voter Education and Elections Training Unit), which prepares ANC activists to win the presidential election of April 1994 against their rivals of the IFP (Inkatha Freedom Party).
-From 1963, Canada: with a former “colonel” of the Salvation Army, Albert Dalziel, Oxfam-UK opens a section in Toronto which will be legally registered in 1966. Led by Henry Fletcher, the new organisation is different from the British model because of its Marxist leaning and its concern for raising “public awareness”. In an internal document, the Canadian branch denounces the “paternalist” and “neo-colonial” attitude of the parent structure in Oxford. It wants to stop sending expatriates and only fund local NGOs struggling against oppression. In Brazil, for instance, it threatens to withdraw and to start a public campaign against the military dictatorship then in power in Brasilia. In Bolivia, it also backs a Centre for the Study and Promotion of the Campesino (CIPRA) which was launched by Jesuits in 1971 and supports farming co-operatives. Oxfam- Canada thus follows Paulo Freire’s method to raise the masses and make them “active agents of social transformation”, even if it means approving revolutionary violence. As for the Quebec branch, it follows a different path and was created in Montreal in 1968 by Brother Raymond Cournoyer, Pierre Rivard, Jean Perrault, Jean Foisy-Marquis, Yvon Deschamps, Guy Latraverse, Jean O’Keefe and Pierre-Marc Johnson. Originally a simple advocacy office, it becomes a fundraising centre in 1971 and splits from Toronto in 1973 when Quebec struggles for its independence. Unlike its Anglophone counterpart, it claims to be apolitical, tries to remain neutral, and focuses on emergencies rather than development. In 1993, it merges with the OCSD (Organisation Canadienne pour la Solidarité et le Développement) and its affiliate SEE (Solidarité Europe de l’Est), before taking over AMI (Assistance médicale internationale) in 2000. Today, the Quebec Francophone section is completely operational and twice richer than its Anglophone counterpart in Toronto, which is managed by Rieky Stuart from 1999 and Robert Fox from 2004, and chaired by Marion Dewar until 1999, Cassie Doyle until 2001 and Dick Evans from 2002.
-From 1964, Belgium: Oxfam opens a section in Brussels which quickly becomes autonomous and clashes with the parent structure in Oxford when its volunteers want to support hunger strikers in Northern Ireland. Like its Canadian counterpart, the Belgian organization experiences an anti-capitalist drift. Once operational, it fights against trans-national corporations and ends up supporting “socialist” regimes. In 1976, for instance, it supplies school equipment in Cape-Verde and sets up a medical programme in Vietnam. Close to the Palestinian and Western Sahara Red Crescents, it does not hide its sympathy for “progressive” liberation movements such as the PLO (Palestine Liberation Organization) and the Polisario (Frente Popular de Liberación de Saguía el Hamra y Río de Oro). Dominated by pacifists who oppose nuclear energy, it also favours disarmament in Western Europe and becomes more radical with Pierre Galand, its Director from 1967 onwards, who leads a national campaign against the American plan to install atomic missiles Pershing II on behalf of NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) in 1983. However, increasing governmental funding compels Oxfam-Belgium to balance its political positions. When a centre-right coalition led by Christian-Democrats comes to power in Brussels in 1982, subsidies from the Belgian State decrease and the organization compensates for the loss through private fundraising during the Ethiopian famine in 1984. Afterwards, it takes the name of Oxfam-Solidarité and Stefaan Declercq succeeds to Pierre Galand as its General Secretary in 1996. Yet the organisation still mobilises campaigners like Raoul Marc Jennar from 1999 up to 2005. An early militant of the Walloon Rally (Rassemblement wallon, a regionalist party founded in Belgium in 1968), this activist led the International Forum of NGO in Cambodia between 1989 and 1998. Opposed to the Treaty establishing a Constitution for Europe in 2005, he will contest in France the 2009 European elections for Olivier Besancenot’s New Anti-capitalist Party (Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste), from which he will resign in 2010.
-1965, Senegal: while the United Nations High Commission for Refugees opens an office in Dakar, Oxfam helps displaced people from Guinea Bissau who fled the repression of the Portuguese army and resettled in the neighbouring departments of Kolda and Sedhiou in Casamance. However, the Oxford Committee does not attempt to set up clandestine operations on the other side of the border. Following the advise of the British Foreign Office in August 1965, it rejects the requests for medical aid of a women’s organization, the Uniao Democratica Das Mulheres Da Guine e Cabo Verde, which actually emanates from the PAIGC (Partido Africano da Independência da Guiné e Cabo Verde), the armed movement struggling against the Portuguese.
-From 1966, India: Oxfam-UK sends for the first time a field team to help the victims of famine in Bihar, where it already funded programmes in 1951. The Oxford organisation decides to circumvent catholic charities, which are not representative of the religious majority in the country, and the Indian Red Cross, which embezzles relief. It rather works with the Society for Truth (Sarva Seva Sangh) and the Bihar Relief Committee of Jaya Prakash Narayan, a socialist who favours the non-violent philosophy of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi and the promotion of Untouchables through gramdan, i.e. “village self-help”. The problem is that the allocation of vacant plots to former serfs arouses the hostility of the big landowners, who consider it as an insurrection. Besides, food distribution by the Sarva Seva Sangh does not target the poorest because it aims at spreading the influence of the Gandhi’s political clientele. In Gujarat, Oxfam-Australia encounters the same kinds of problems with the VIAS (Vedchii Intensive Area Scheme). Managed by Bikhu Vyas to support rural development in Gram Bharati, this NGO is the main beneficiary of CAA’s funding between 1968 and 1976, until Melbourne completely stops to back it in 1980. In their book, Ghanshyam Shah and Het Ram Chaturvedi show that the VIAS programmes are not economically sustainable, do not reach the poorest and do not empower the Untouchables, who refuse to participate and repay their loans. As a result, the projects are not self-sufficient and rural alphabetization does not improve much when the VIAS primary schools are taken over by the Indian government. During the drought of Maharashtra in 1973, which is less covered by the medias for lack of famine, Oxfam-UK then decides to intervene directly and to set up a mission with its own funds. Some of its programmes meet strong resistances from landowners. The Oxford Committee reacts consequently. Among the Adivasis, a native and non-Hindu minority in Rajpipla, it starts in 1977 to back a Free Legal Aid Programme (FLAP) to facilitate the resolution of land conflicts in Gujerat. In Jamshedpur in Bihar, the FLAP even extends its scope and supports the families of prisoners within the limits of Indian laws, which follow the British model and forbid charities to fund criminals. Oxfam’s activism sometimes arouses sharp criticisms. In May 1981 for instance, an Indian Member of Parliament denounces an advertisement of the Oxford Committee which shows destitute people eating rats’ leftovers. The difficulties also stem from the beneficiaries of the projects: hence, the women of the St Mary’s Education Centre in Ahmedabad go on strike when the organization wants to change the patterns of their embroidery before exportation to Great Britain. Oxfam still continues to fund local NGOs nonetheless. From 1981 onwards, it supports jointly with ActionAid a micro-credits programme of the Organization for Economical Equality, the ASM (Arthik Samata Mandal). Eager to promote the poor and the women according to a Gandhian philosophy, the ASM was founded in Srikakulam when a cyclone devastated Krishna district in Andhra Pradesh in November 1977. After providing relief to the survivors, the organization first worked with governmental rural co-operatives, then set up its own agricultural development programmes, and eventually helped the victims of another tornado in the same region in May 1990. Its micro-credits improve the living conditions of the peasants but do not seem to be sustainable without Oxfam’s funding. Other NGOs supported by Oxford do not succeed in reaching the poorest either. Among them is the KDFSF (Kanyakumari District Fishermen Sangams Federation). Backed by Oxfam-UK and Misereor since its founding in 1983 in the South of the Tamil Nadu State, this organization tries to develop sangam village associations following a prototype created in 1974 under the aegis of a catholic dispensary, the Kottar Social Service Society. Composed of thirty-six sangam in 1990 instead of nine in 1983, the Federation works with low caste Catholic fishermen who are despised by the Hindus. It aims to provide credit and to coordinate the villagers in order to commercialize their proceeds and to avoid pawning when they sell at a loss to refund their debts. Such a programme strengthens the sense of solidarity, helps to solve local disputes and funds the motorization of fish farming. But it only targets the members of the community and ignores saleswomen, shipbuilders and traditional fishermen who precisely make up the poorest categories of population. The same problem exists elsewhere, for instance in Andhra Pradesh and in the South of Orissa, where NOVIB funds AWARE (Action for Welfare and Awakening in Rural Environment). Founded in 1975, this NGO wants to empower the Girijan and the Harijan, two marginalized groups. It plants trees, leads alphabetization campaigns, runs a technical school, supports free health centres, builds houses for the victims of floods, and contributes to the emancipation of women who, since 1987, directly approve AWARE’s financial aid for male farmers. As it refuses charity, the organisation provides credits with low interest rates, a high repayment rate of 74% to 92% during the 1980s, and a contribution which should not exceed 60% of an investment, the rest of the costs being met by the community. The objective is to help the peasants to build up a starting capital. Thus, in the sub-regions of Amangal and Tirumalaipalem, AWARE claims to have withdrawn from 400 villages that became self-sufficient between 1986 and 1991. From a social point of view, the association targets small peasants, unlike the Indian Government and the World Bank with big farmers. But all of them hardly consult the local population because of their paternalist views and top-down planning. Moreover, AWARE is linked to the Government and gets subsidies from the Andhra Pradesh State to build accommodations and a floating hospital on the Godavari River. The association, explain Marcel Put and Meine Pieter Van Dijk, implements its programmes according to the requests of its backers and the public authorities, instead of the peasants. It’s bureaucratic and not very democratic. Its technological innovations are not always relevant for the local farmers, who often ignore it. In any case, the organization cannot claim to be closer to the population and more efficient than the government to reduce social inequalities. The sangam created by AWARE are not sustainable; many of them exist only on paper, work very irregularly, or serve the big shots. After an internal assessment in 1983, the association attempts to decentralize and let the Girijan and the Harijan have a majority of votes. Yet the NGO differs little from the government: in the sub-region of Amangal during the 1980s, 80% of the village agents (the sarpanches) work both for AWARE and the local authorities.
-1967-1969, Nigeria: Tim Brierly, a former colonial officer in the Army, opens an Oxfam office in Lagos. Through the White Fathers, he helps the Ibo victims of the pogroms of May and September 1966. When the war for the independence of Biafra starts in the East of the country in May 1967, the organization tries to hand out food on both sides of the frontlines. But Howard Leslie Kirkley, Oxfam General Secretary, hurts the Nigerian government because he visits the leader of the rebellion, Odumegwu Ojukwu, and publicly condemns the blockade of the federal troops against the Ibo secessionists. The Biafran government actually opposes the idea of a humanitarian corridor and uses famine to obtain the support of Western powers. Meanwhile, explains Susan Cronje, London disapproves the rebellion and attempts to compel Oxfam to delay its relief and work hand in hand with Lagos. From August 1968 onwards, Oxfam then feeds the rebels through a consortium of thirty or so European and North-American NGOs, JCA (Joint Church Aid), which flies by night from Sao Tome Island and is ironically nicknamed “Jesus Christ Airlines”. In the Biafran regions recaptured by Nigeria in 1968 and 1969, Oxfam also sends to Itu, in Cross River State, a team of doctors led by Patrick Kemmis, another former colonial officer in the Army. But the organization does not remain neutral. In Britain, it sharply criticizes the military support of London to the government in Lagos. In Biafra, it acts without the Federals’ authorization and justifies the violation of the Nigerian airspace because the blockade is an illegitimate weapon of war and can therefore be broken. After funding in April 1968 the planes of an American adventurer, Hank Wharton, who flies for the Caritas and carries weapons for the secessionists, Oxfam cooperates with Carl-Gustaf Von Rosen, a Swedish Count who heads up the Joint Church Aid from August to September 1968 and eventually builds a Biafran Air Force in May 1969. JCA is the vital link which allows the rebels to be supplied and to resist 19 months after they lost their last access to the sea, Port Harcourt, in May 1968. Indeed, the secessionists cannot use the Nigerian Pound anymore since the Federal government introduced a new currency in January 1968. Besides, no foreign firm wants to risk purchasing rights to exploit mineral resources in the Ibo enclave, which cannot produce oil because of the federal blockade. To avoid a complete collapse of the Biafran economy, explains Kennedy Lindsay, the only sources of hard currencies come from humanitarian organizations (£4.3 millions), the French secret services (£2 millions), the donations of the Ibo in the Diaspora (£750,000) or in Nigeria (£100,000), and various solidarity groups in the western world (£100,000). Within the enclave, the strategic impact of JCA is important as well because it helps the rebels to continue receiving food and weapons. Unlike the International Committee of Red Cross, notices for instance Laurie Wiseberg, Oxfam and the churches cooperate with the Biafrans to enlarge Uli airstrip and keep it operational, though it unloads arms planes. Quoted by John Stremlau, Odumegwu Ojukwu acknowledges that “the only source of income available to Biafra was the hard currency spent by the churches for yams and garri (local cassava)”. As for Mike Okwechime, Biafra’s Chief of Military Planning, he confirms that “financing the war was largely accomplished through private and humanitarian contributions. Much was diverted from funds raised abroad. Those who wished to make strictly humanitarian contributions could give to specific agencies but those giving to Biafra often didn’t ask any questions, and the money could be used to purchase arms on the black market”. On a total of $250 millions, it is estimated that around 15% of aid to Biafra were used by the military. According to a book of Ian Smillie in 1985, this amount was equivalent to the total spent in currencies by Nigeria to buy arms in the same period of time. As a consequence, humanitarian organisations are criticised after the defeat of the Biafrans in January 1970. Quoted by Hugh Lloyd, an official of the WCC (World Council of Churches) raises doubts about JCA “because of its political effects… which include exposing the churches to charges of prolonging the war and adding to the suffering of the people”. Yet Oxfam refuses to admit any responsibility in the conflict and denies the bad consequences of its relief. In Nigeria, the organization is persona non grata and has to leave the country in 1974. Even if it helps Ghanaian immigrants expelled by Lagos in 1983, it has to wait for three decades before it can come back officially and open an office in 2001.
-1968-1976, Tanzania: from 1968 until 1972, Oxfam backs the CDTF (Community Development Trust Fund) of Marion Lady Chesham, one of the few British farmers who stayed after independence, and a personal friend to President Julius Nyerere. This organisation directly reports to the Prime Minister and works with civil servants who implement its projects locally. From 1972 until 1976, Oxfam then sets up the Chunya Integrated Development Programme to support a governmental “villagization” which forcibly resettle peasants in the so-called ujamaa communities. The Oxford Committee, explains Michael Jennings, favours the “African socialism” of Julius Nyerere and ends up funding the units (mayumba kumi) which control the population for the single party state. Seduced by its own interpretation of what ujamaa represents, it helps to carry out the programme without questioning an authoritarian policy.
-From 1969, Great Britain: the Oxford Committee, which launched a big campaign against hunger in 1964, gets politicized in the immediate aftermath of the student protests in 1968. As soon as April 1968 in Haslemere, a city in the vicinity of London, some young volunteers of Oxfam, Christian Aid and the United Nations Students Association wrote a Declaration to denounce the exploitation of the third world, support revolutionary processes and ask for an increase of public aid to development without political or economic conditions. Jointly with Christian Aid, again, the Oxford Committee then tries to lobby governmental co-operations through a lobby created in 1969, the AWD (Action for World Development). Oxfam’s deputy director from January 1968 until his resignation in May 1970, Reverend Nicolas Stacey, even wants the organisation to allocate one quarter of its financial resources to education in Great Britain in order to raise public awareness about problems in developing countries. But many volunteers do not wish to give up relief programmes overseas. Moreover, the Oxford Committee has to leave the AWD to keep its non-profit status with the Charity Commission. From 1974 on, this governmental regulatory body worries about Oxfam’s advocacy for a “quiet revolution” against poverty and a rise of public aid to development up to 1% of the gross national product of rich countries. The Charity Commission acknowledges that positions on social injustice do not infringe the humanitarian mission. But it watches very closely the political activism of an organisation which regularly lobbies the Foreign Office or the British Parliament, for instance to regulate the sale of milk for children in the third world. From 1979 onwards, Margaret Thatcher’s conservative government thus opposes Oxfam, which is directed by Frank Judd, a former Member of Parliament and Minister in the Labour opposition. Conversely, the Oxford Committee takes part in a demonstration which gathers together 10,000 people in front of the Westminster Parliament in 1981. With the media and an opinion poll, it asks for an increase in public aid to development when the government wants to reduce it, and eventually succeeds in raising official assistance to the third world at the time of the Ethiopian famine in 1984. Yet Oxfam’s political stands on South Africa, Latin America, Israel and Cambodia arouses criticisms, especially from lobbies which favour the Contras’ armed struggle against the Sandinistas in Nicaragua. Hence, the anticommunist Western Goals Foundation, which was established in 1979 by Larry McDonald, an American Congressman and President of the very conservative John Birch Society, launches a campaign in 1988 against “leftist” NGOs such as the Oxford Committee. It’s not the only one. For many observers, Oxfam has lost its humanitarian neutrality. Its various communiqués are very politicized. Jointly with Christian Aid and Save the Children in December 1988, it first condemns the closing down of primary schools by the Israelis in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Then in January 1990, Oxfam sections in Yorkshire, Humberside and Kirklees organize a fake referendum to ask the British government to support peace in Cambodia, i.e. to follow the recommendations of Eva Mysliwiec’s book and to recognise officially the Communist regime of Hun Sen, which is very isolated since it was set up by the Vietnamese occupying troops. In May 1991, again, the Oxford Committee intends to launch a campaign for the cancellation of the third world’s debt and the increase of public aid to “frontline countries” fighting against the apartheid in South Africa. This time, the Charity Commission reacts and condemns political stands which are not compatible with a charitable mission. After a first warning in April 1990 because of an issue of Oxfam News about the Israeli Palestinian conflict, it compels the Oxford Committee to stop its campaign to impose economic sanctions against South Africa. Indeed, such a position is not humanitarian, for embargoes are known to hurt civilians first: historically, Oxfam was precisely created against the blockade enforced by the British army in Greece! In 1995, however, the Charity Commission eventually allows the organisation to launch political campaigns as long as they serve the victims and do not infringe on humanitarian aims.