Oxford Committee for Famine Relief
Oxford Committee for Famine Relief - History
-From 1980, Uganda: after the downfall of Idi Amin Dada’s dictatorship in 1979, Oxfam-UK can come back in the country. In the Northern semiarid regions, the organization and SCF puts pressure on the UNDP (United Nations Development Programme) to resume distribution in Karamoja, a region suffering from drought in 1980. At that time, ACORD (Agency for Co-operation and Research in Development), an NGO sponsored by Oxfam-UK when it was created in 1976, works in the North as well. In Gulu, it sets up the WACU (West Acholi Co-Operative Engineering Union) to start again a plough factory which was established in 1963 and hardly worked since it was seized from the Indians by Idi Amin Dada in 1972. The problem is that production does not meet a demand which fluctuates a lot from one season to the other. The WACU does not manage to repay the loans contracted with ACORD and to lay the foundations of a real industrial site. Despite a total subsidy of £500,000 between 1980 and 1990, the project gets into debt and turns out to be too ambitious. It does not resist to the competition of cheaper imported ploughs, neither than the renewal of the civil war in the North in 1986, which disrupts farming activities. The last expatriate of ACORD, a technician, leaves in 1988 and the authorities order an investigation on misappropriations of funds while the workshop in Gulu has to lay staff off and close down in 1990. The situation is a bit different in the South, which stabilizes after President Yoweri Museveni comes to power in 1986 and where Oxfam-UK funds local NGOs such as ACFODE (Action for Development). Created on November 19th 1985 by academics from Makerere University, the latter defends women’s rights and is officially recognized in 1989. Competing with numerous feminist NGOs, it fails like the WACU however. Indeed, ACFOD is very dependant on foreign funding, which represent 97% of a budget of $470,000 in 1998, with subsidies of the Konrad Adenauer Foundation, World Vision, the Mennonite Central Committee and the Swedish, Danish and British co-operation agencies. The inflow is so important that some of the NGO’s managers embezzle money and are consequently fired in 1998. As for NOVIB, another member of the Oxfam movement, it starts in 1987 to subsidize the UWFCT (Uganda Women’s Finance and Credit Trust), the national branch (since 1984) of an international organization (the Women’s World Banking) launched at the First Conference on Women in Mexico in 1975. Based in the region of Kampala, the UWFCT is supposed to provide credit to rural women, yet is expensive. According to Roger Ridell and Mark Robinson, the overheads count for 80% of its budget in 1995. Meanwhile, Oxfam-UK does not only fund local NGOs. It develops its own programmes to help Sudanese refugees or displaced Ugandans in the North of the country. From 1994 in Arua district, for instance, the organization tries to enhance the agricultural self-reliance of some 55,000 Sudanese in Ikafe and Imvepi camps. But the programme is crushed in April 1996 by the guerrillas of the WNBF (West Nile Bank Front). Led by Jumas Oris, the rebels want to disturb coming elections and put the blame on refugees whom they consider as allied to their enemies of the SPLA (Sudan People’s Liberation Army). After it had to “buy back” its stolen vehicles and its offices were attacked in Bidibidi, Oxfam-UK finally decides in June to evacuate its local and expatriate staff towards Arua. As for the refugees, they go back to Sudan or to the border-towns of Koboko and Yumbe, where a driver of the organization is killed in April 1997. Since it cannot resume its agricultural programmes, the Oxford Committee shifts to emergency relief and lays a good part of its staff off when the United Nations High Commission for Refugees closes down Ikafe Camp and transfer its last residents to Imvepi. In the end, Oxfam’s endeavours are reduced to nothing because displaced people are so quickly resettled that the organisation has no time to prepare new farms. In a non-published report quoted by Monica Kathina Juma, the anthropologist Barbara Harrell-Bond criticizes the whole programme, for its infrastructures did not benefit to the indigenous villagers and are simply abandoned when the refugees suddenly leave from April 1996 onwards. The relief initiatives of the following decade are not fully convincing either. Eager to protect the victims of insecurity in the North, Oxfam-UK imposes in 2004 that 30% of the workers recruited to build shelters around the city of Kitgum should be women. Consequently, mothers have to dig out trenches while carrying their babies on their backs; others are even employed as night guard, a risky job.
-From 1981, Brazil: Oxfam-UK and NOVIB begin to fund IBASE (Instituto Brasileiro de Análises Sociais e Econômicas), an Institute for Social and Economic Analyses. Established in Rio de Janeiro in 1981, this research centre intends to promote participatory democracy and the ideals of an egalitarian society. It clearly falls within the influence of the Labour opposition and refuses any subsidy from the government until the end of the military regime of General João Baptista de Oliveira Figueiredo in 1985. Thus, IBASE works only with the trade union of the Partido dos Trabalhadores, the CUT (Central Unica dos Trabalhadores), and not with the CGT (Confederaçâo Geral dos Trabalhadores). From 1983 onwards, the Institute petitions for an agrarian reform to redistribute land and opposes the lobby of small and medium-sized farm owners, the Rural Democratic Union UDR (Uniao Democratica Ruralista). Through its Director, IBASE also gets involved in the fight against AIDS by launching a specialized NGO, the Interdisciplinary Association on AIDS (ABIA). Moreover, Oxfam-UK funds until 1989 the National Council of Rubber Peasants, chaired by Jaime da Silva Araujo, and a farm workers’ trade union in Xapuri, Acre State, whose leader Chico Mendes is murdered by a landlord in December 1988. As for Oxfam-Canada, it backs third-worldist groups such as the Federation of Organisations for Social and Educational Assistance FASE (Federação de Órgãos para Assistência Social e Educacional, which dates from 1961), the Movement for Community Organisation MOC (Movimento de Organização Comunitária, founded by the Catholic Church in 1967) and the Centre for Social Action CEAS (Centro de Estudos e Ação Social, launched by Jesuits in 1967). From November 1994, eventually, NOVIB commits itself against the controversial Polonoroeste Plan, which aims at colonizing and farming the Amazon Rainforest. Hence it subsidizes an ecologist group, Friends of the Earth, to evaluate the environmental and social damages of the Planafloro governmental project in the Rondônia State. On the 14th of June 1995, NOVIB registers its complaint at the World Bank, which funds the Polonoroeste Plan.
-From 1982, Lebanon: during the Israeli invasion of 1982 and the bombing of the civilian population in 1983, Oxfam-UK works in West Beirut, a Muslim stronghold. The crisis is widely covered by the media and humanitarian organizations. Accordingly, the Oxford Committee decides to withdraw because the needs are already met. But it is criticized. Dan Connell, a journalist who worked for Oxfam-America, accuses the organization to keep quiet and to conceal its political stand because of its funders. In October 1993, he launches in Boston a far more radical and partisan NGO, Grassroots International. The latter does not send expatriates overseas, refuses subsidies from the American government and directly funds armed struggle movements such as the EPLF (Eritrean Peoples Liberation Front) in Ethiopia or the Union of Palestinian Working Women’s Committee, an offshoot of the PLO (Palestine Liberation Organization) in the occupied territories. Meanwhile, Oxfam-UK comes back to Lebanon and has to negotiate in March 1988 the release of two employees, a British (Peter Coleridge) and a Syrian (Omar Traboulsi), who were abducted during five days by Abou Nidal’s group during a visit to a Palestinian refugee camp in Sidon. Oxford Committee then provides relief to villagers when Israel bombs Southern Lebanon in 1996.
-1983-1985, Ethiopia: Oxfam-UK intervenes on both sides during a famine that the regime of Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam tried to conceal in vain. From Khartoum, Sudan, the Oxford Committee leads illegal cross-border operations towards the Northern regions where two guerrillas, the EPLF (Eritrean People’s Liberation Front) and the TPLF (Tigray People’s Liberation Front), fight against the military junta in power in Addis Ababa. Through the British NGO War on Want since 1982, Oxfam funds the ERA (Eritrean Relief Association) and the REST (Relief society of Tigray), which respectively emanate from the EPLF and the TPLF. The organization therefore legitimates the humanitarian vocation of these guerrillas’ branches and confirms that the rebels effectively control Tigray and Eritrea. Because it is secular, the Oxford Committee is however reluctant to take part in the ERD (Emergency Relief Desk), set up in Sudan in 1981 to coordinate the cross-border operations of Christian NGOs like the Lutheran World Federation. In the zones held by the government in Ethiopia, the organization also starts food distributions. Shot thanks to Oxfam’s logistics and broadcast on the BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation) on October 23rd 1984, a reportage of Michael Buerk reveals the scale of the famine and alerts the international community. But the organization does not point out the wrongdoings of the junta, which spends its currencies to buy arms and stops wheat importation between 1982 and 1984. Unlike Médecins sans frontières, expelled in December 1985 after denouncing military atrocities, the Oxford Committee does not say anything about the way the Ethiopian army uses humanitarian logistics to empty the North and deport the population towards the South so as to deprive the guerrillas of peasants support. On the contrary, the British and American sections of Oxfam take part in agricultural collectivization, a governmental plan which destroys more than 30,000 traditional villages in order to resettle approximately 10 millions of peasants in 15,000 new sites in 1988. Yet the Oxford Committee is very much aware of the situation, for in Somalia, it helps Ethiopian refugees who started to flee this programme as soon as December 1985! After the dictatorship falls down and the TPLF comes to power in 1991, the organization continues funding the REST and sends relief to the victims of a border war with Eritrea in 1999. The radicalisation of the new regime does not make things easy. After the fraudulent elections of May 2005, the Christian Relief and Development Association, Oxfam’s main partner in the country, is accused of political activities by the Government because it denounced the manipulation of the vote.
-From 1984, Sudan: led by Guy Stringer, who replaced Brian Walker as the head of the organization in October 1983, Oxfam-UK opens an office in Khartoum in 1984 to help the victims of famine in Darfur and Kordofan in the west of the country. Until then, the organization was running its programmes from Nairobi, Kenya. In Kebkabiya in Darfur, the Oxford Committee tries for instance to enhance self-reliance and to set up co-operatives by supplying donkeys and seeds to a hundred villages. Under the aegis of elect-committees where women and men are supposed to be equally represented, the operation is taken over in 1994 by the KSCS (Kebkabiya Smallholders Charitable Society), an organization created with the Ministry of Social Affairs. As explained by Peter Strachan, who was in charge of this programme between 1987 and 1990, the difficulty is that the high salaries of Oxfam employees are too attractive and do not incite the natives to work for indigenous NGOs. Consequently, the KSCS is not sustainable without external funding: the contributions of its members are insignificant and the marketing of its veterinary services hardly provides a quarter of a budget of £40,000 in 1995, against £2,650,000 for Oxfam in the entire Sudan. Moreover, the question is to know to which extent the KSCS can really be democratic, guaranty gender equality and stay efficient after it excluded Oxfam local employees from its ruling bodies, despite their professional qualities. Outside Darfur, other problems arise regarding the Dinkas who fled to Khartoum the civil war in the South. The Oxford Committee give them goats and donkey-carts to start income-generating activities and be able to move in case they are expelled from their squatting areas. But the police confiscate the animals and accuse the Dinkas of theft. Consequently, Oxfam has to go and negotiate the release of the suspects. Mark Duffield, who worked on the project in 1986, observes ten years later that the organization reproduces the same mistakes. In the camps of Abu Matariq, El Goura and Adilla near Ed Daen, the natives seize the Dinkas’ donkey-carts under the pretext of being repaid loans. Even the displaced people resell the equipment. There are also great difficulties in the war-torn South. According to Sofrono Efuk, the seeds and farming tools supplied by Oxfam during the 1990s are diverted and do not allow the displaced people to be self-reliant in Upper Nile and Equatoria. The researcher wonders about the organization’s naivety and stubbornness: to create income-generating activities amongst women, it funds sewing workshops that can not compete with cheaper second-hand clothes imported by traders from the North. The problems also stem from local politics. In Akot in 1996, the provincial authorities of Bahr el-Ghazal briefly arrest some Oxfam-UK expatriates who deliberately tried to circumvent them. On the governmental side, the Oxford Committee started to work in the city of Juba in 1986 but has to evacuate its employees and hand over its food programmes to the local staff because of the fighting in 1990. On the rebels’ side, the Oxford Committee intervenes from Lokichokio, on the Kenyan border, since the United Nations launched Operation Lifeline Sudan in 1989. Yet the main guerrilla group, i.e. the SPLA (Sudan People’s Liberation Army), regularly attempts to appropriate humanitarian aid. In March 2000, it even expels NGOs which refuse to pay revolutionary taxes and sign a memorandum of agreement. Three months later, Oxfam-UK complies with the requests of the SPLA. Despite the hopes for peace in the South in 2003, the spread of the conflict towards Western Sudan then brings another humanitarian crisis, still with problems. In November 2004, the organization is threatened with expulsion because it asked the European Union and the United Nations to press the government to stop (para)military violence in Darfur. Oxfam’s Director in Khartoum must leave the country. In June 2006, again, the organization has to close down its office in Saraf Omra, where one of its drivers, Nouraldeen Abdalla Nourein, was abducted in May (he will be killed on the 28th of July during fighting in the village of Helelat near Kulbus). In Southern Darfur, Oxfam employees are often attacked and are evacuated from Gereida on the 18th of December, after five of their vehicles were stolen, probably by rebels of the SLA (Sudan Liberation Army). The organization has to suspend its activities in the city of Um Dukhum on the 23rd of April 2007 as well, after another car was held up. Oxfam is eventually expelled of Darfur when the International Criminal Court (ICC) issues a warrant for the arrest of President Omar Hassan Ahmad Al Bashir, on 5 February 2009.
-From 1985, Indonesia: NOVIB supports and relays abroad a campaign of the Indonesian Institute for Legal Aid, the YLBHI (Yayasan Lembaga Bantuan Hukum Indonesia), against the building of a dam which forcibly removes 5,000 families from the Serang Valley in Java. The YLBHI does not intend to stop the project and only asks for compensations for the inhabitants. Funded by the World Bank, the Kedung Ombo Dam is eventually inaugurated in 1989. As for Oxfam-UK, it continues running development programmes and provides relief for the victims of the tsunami in December 2004, especially in Aceh. After the disaster, a massive inflow of donations urges the organization to immediately spend its funds, even if the devastated coast needs long-term reconstruction. In Aceh, for instance, Oxfam-UK quickly builds houses that have to be dismantled later on because they were erected in areas liable to flooding. As a result, the organization has to change its policy. According to John Telford et al., it thus give up in December 2005 a project of 330 houses it had promised to rebuild in Blang Oi.
-1986-1996, Honduras: Oxfam-UK takes part in the funding of the CODEH (Comité para la Defensa de los Derechos Humanos de Honduras) with the Protestant WCC (World Council of Churches), the British Christian Aid, the Dutch Catholic agency CEBEMO (Centrale voor Bemiddeling bij Medefinanciering van Ontwikkelingsprogrammema), the Danish Danchurchaid, the Swedish Diakonia, the Swiss HEKS (Hilfswerk der Evangelischen Kirchen Schweiz), the American of Ford Foundation and the German Brot für die Welt. Launched in 1983 by a medical doctor, Ramón Custodio, this NGO defends human rights through regional committees established in 1979. The support it receives from the Oxford Committee helps it to circumvent the local opposition of Catholic bishops, who try in vain to set up their own human rights organization. As a matter of fact, Ramón Custodio is considered to be “subversive”, and even “communist”, because the CODEH is based on committees, the CODDERHH (Comités Regionales de Defensa de los Derechos Humanos de Honduras), which were established by an American Jesuit, James Carney “Guadalupe”, who advocated armed struggle and the liberation theology: active among peasants in the North of Honduras since 1962, the priest was expelled in November 1979, joined the guerrillas of the PRTC (Partido Revolucionario de Trabajadores Centroamericanos) of Reyes Mata, and was to be abducted then killed by the army during an offensive in the department of Olancho near the Nicaraguan border in July 1983. As for Ramón Custodio, the junta in power in Tegucigalpa suspects him of being linked to the leftist party Cinchoneros and involved in the death of Miguel Angel Pavón, a deputy chairman of the CODEH, who was probably murdered by the paramilitary in January 1988. Yet the Committee gains legitimacy thanks to foreign funding from Oxfam-UK and CEBEMO. With Dutch governmental subsidies, the latter alone provides a quarter of the organization’s budget between 1984 and 1995. As a result, the CODEH can open six regional offices in 1990 and its number of employees increase from one to twenty-four between 1985 and 1996. Meanwhile, the organization also widens its mission to economic, social and cultural rights, even if it means taking political stands likely to disturb its European backers. After 1984, the Committee does not only denounce the atrocities committed by the military junta: it also promote human rights education, defends Indian communities and provides legal assistance to the victims of the army. In July 1988 and January 1989 at the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, for instance, it wins trials against the Honduras State regarding two union activists, Manfredo Velásquez and Saúl Godínez, who were abducted and killed by the security forces in September 1981 and July 1982. In July 1993, the CODEH then gets Colonel Ángel Castillo Maradiaga and Sergeant Santos Eusebio Ilovares Fúnez sentenced for the rape and murder of a young student, Riccy Mabel Martínez, in July 1991. The affair will lead to an end of the military’s immunity, before the civilians come back to power. The CODEH is eventually legalized in November 1994, just a year after the election in November 1993 of President Carlos Roberto Reina Idiaquez, a personal friend of Ramón Custodio. In competition with a governmental commission for human rights established in 1992, the CODEH becomes more constructive and changes its policy from protest to reform. During a seminar in Tegucigalpa in 1993, it suggests to demilitarize the police, strengthen the judicial power and dismantle the secret services; later on, the new president will effectively implement these reforms. In order to prosecute human rights violators, the CODEH also helps to exhume corpses which have to be identified for the legal procedures to start in 1995. Led by Ramón Custodio, the Committee faces accountability problems however. During the military dictatorship, it got used to work underground with anonymous activists and an omnipotent president, the only face known to the public. Ramón Custodio’s democratic centralism and authoritarianism caused the departure of many employees in 1989. Among them is Bertha Oliva, who left to chair the COFADEH (Comités Familiares de Desaparecidos de Honduras), an organization helping families to trace missing people. Meanwhile, Ramón Custodio still refuses to share information, to empower women and to be accountable to the regional committees or donors. Likewise, he does not want to coordinate with other NGOs through the Plataforma de Lucha, a left-wing alliance funded by the German Foundation FES (Friedrich Ebert Stiftung) in 1990. Foreign donors complain about the lack of transparency, internal democracy and financial accountability, but to no avail. At the end, Oxfam-UK stops supporting the CODEH following Brot für die Welt and Danchurchaid in 1992 and 1996 respectively. Only CEBEMO and Diakonia, the Committee’s main supporters, continue to fund Ramón Custodio.
-From 1987, Chad: after it opened an office in N’Djamena in 1986, Oxfam-UK extends its activities in the South and starts agricultural development programmes in Moundou. Yet there are many difficulties. In 1993, for instance, Paul Starkey observes that the poorest peasants do not benefit from the funding granted to a local NGO, ASSAIL (Association d’appui aux initiatives locales de développement). Moreover, some projects are interrupted because of civil strife. The Oxford Committee therefore gives up development programmes and starts advocacy activities. In November 1998, it joins a campaign launched in December 1997 by the Germans of Misereor and Brot für die Welt to protest against a World Bank project to fund the exploitation of oilfields in Doba. The Spanish of Intermón quickly take over when the British section of Oxfam closes its office in Chad in December 1998. Actually, the organization does not press the World Bank and the Chadian government to give up the construction of a pipeline from Doba to Cameroon, even if the public opinion in Europe favours such a position. Oxfam simply asks for an environmental and social assessment so that the local population would be properly compensated. It shows that the World Bank and the oil companies will not be able to guaranty the rights of the evicted families against the Chadian government, which represses the protesters. The payment of indemnities, for instance, entails tensions because it benefits only to the farmers living along the pipeline and excludes the surrounding villagers who are also affected by the construction works. During a conference organized in Bebedjia in April 1999, the participants to the campaign ask for a moratorium of the World Bank. But the latter officially accepts to fund the project in June 2000 and the first oil barrel is extracted in October 2003. Afterwards, Oxfam tries to focus on the management of oil money, yet its advocacy is limited because of the informal and fragmented characteristic of the activists’ network. “There are no membership procedures, explain Martin Petry and Naygotimti Bambe. Everyone who gets involved is part of the network. The exact number of the organizations and active people is not known. The network is a forum open to everybody. It does not even have a name.” “Lack of accountability” and a “chaotic management” do not help to plan common strategies and objectives. In Chad, the activists’ network is divided in three regional platforms in N’Djamena, Doba and the Moyen-Chari. Moreover, it mobilizes only the Southerners and the Northerners do not feel concerned. At the national level, the attempts to coordinate advocacy do not last either. For instance, the Oil Commission of the Chad NGOs’ Committee collapses when its General Secretary is harassed by the police then fired by foreign donors like Brot für die Welt and Oxfam in 2000. As for the government, it supports competing advocacy organisations to approve the World Bank’s project, while the population generally approves oil production and believes in a coming Eldorado. Last but not least, some international NGOs, i.e. MSF-France, Africare and World Vision-Canada, publicly protest when they discover their name on the list of the signatories of the conference in Bebedjia, to which they did not participate. They refuse to be politicized and to risk being expelled from the country. They also complain about the negligence of the conference’s organizers, who did not consult each and every member of the NGOs’ liaison committees.
-From 1988, El Salvador: active in the country since 1970, Oxfam-UK shifts from relief to reconstruction when peace talks start between the guerrilla and the government. At that time, Latin America and the Caribbean represent around one fifth of the organization’s operational expenses, and this proportion does not vary much during the following years (18% in 1989, 16% in 1990, 17% in 1991, 15% in 1993, 13% in 1994, 13% in 1995, 12% in 1996, 17% in 1997, 26% in 1998, 15% in 1999, 15% in 2000, 21% in 2001, 19% in 2002). As far as Central America is concerned, the Oxford Committee focuses on three war-torn countries: Nicaragua, Guatemala and El Salvador, where it supports the democratic transition and the repatriation of refugees in the region of San Vicente. Following the World Council of Churches, the Lutheran World Federation, the Swedish Diakonia, the German Brot für die Welt and the Dutch Catholic and Protestant agencies CEBEMO (Centrale voor Bemiddeling bij Medefinanciering van Ontwikkelingsprogramma) and ICCO (Interkerkelikje Coördinatie Commissie voor Ontwikkelingsprojecten), Oxfam-UK starts for instance to fund the Permanent Committee for a National Debate, the CPDN (Comité Permanente del Debate Nacional), in 1990. This organization, which tries to facilitate peace talks between the army and the FMLN (Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberacíon Nacional), was launched in 1988 by the vice-chancellor of the Central American University in San Salvador, Ignacio Ellacuría, who is in good terms with the rebels. The CPDN gets funding from Protestant networks because it is supported by Medardo Gómez, a Lutheran bishop, and chaired by Edgar Palacios, a Baptist secretary of the Salvadoran Council of Churches. But it quickly looses the backing of the Catholic Church, which criticizes it politicization in favour of the FMLN before the opposition parties enter the Parliament with the elections of March 1991. On December 14th 1991, the CPDN thus organizes a march of 100,000 people to protest against the peace initiatives of the far right, namely Unidad y Paz 91 and Cruzada pro Paz y Trabajo, which refuse to downsize the military. Paradoxically, Oxfam-UK increases its funding just when the CPDN looses its importance and when the Chapúltepec Peace Accords are signed in January 1992. The Permanent Committee, whose budget quadruples within four years, gets 1.6 million dollars for the elections of March 1994 and turns out to be unable to spend such an amount of money. As a result, it builds up a reserve to subsidize other associations and organize street protests instead of developing its financial capacity. According to Kees Biekart, foreign donors made such a mistake because of their slow bureaucratic procedures, the CPDN’s tendency to exaggerate its financial needs, a lack of evaluation, a poor coordination between aid agencies and a wrong political analysis of the Permanent Committee’s role after the peace agreements.
-From 1989, Zambia: thanks to its preventive training, Oxfam-UK prepares local teams to respond to a drought which strikes Southern Africa three years later. Thus, elect-committees, half composed of women, hand out free rations of the World Food Programme in June 1992, yet avoid ruining the local agriculture. If some bags of corn are diverted, such an approach helps to meet the short-term needs without compromising the resumption of food production on the long run.