Oxford Committee for Famine Relief

Oxford Committee for Famine Relief - History


-From 1990, Somalia: insecurity grows while the armed opposition tightens its grip against Siyad Barre’s dictatorship in the South. Consequently, Oxfam-UK must close down in December 1990 its Mogadishu office, opened ten years before to help the refugees victims of the Ogaden war between Somalia and Ethiopia. In the North in 1988, CAA had already left Sanaag Region, where some of its employees were executed because they had denounced the governmental repression against the SNM (Somali National Movement): Oxfam-Australia will eventually come back once Somaliland proclaims its independence in 1991. As for the Oxford Committee, it re-enters Mogadishu in October 1992 during the famine in Baidoa and the United Nations peace enforcement operation against warlords. Dissensions between the British and American Oxfam sections develop however, because the latter favours a military intervention of Washington to secure relief distribution. Despite the landing of troops from the United States in December 1992, the fighting continues and humanitarian programmes on the coast have to be ended in Merca and Kismayo in December 1993. Within Mogadishu, Oxfam-UK has also to evacuate its expatriates for a while when twenty-four Pakistani peacekeepers are murdered in June 1993. The organization is regularly stolen and attacked by combatants and local employees. As a result, it decides to pay armed guards, and finally leaves the country with the United Nations peacekeepers in March 1995. The organization, which sold its food stocks, vehicles and arms in the South, still funds some programmes in the North, such as Radio Galcayo, a station launched in 1993 to promote peace in Puntland. To raise funds, the Oxfam movement then starts in May 2006 a controversial campaign about a massive risk of famine in the Horn of Africa, an alert which is dismissed by other NGOs.
-From 1991, Afghanistan: after the Soviet troops withdraw, Oxfam is the first western NGO to open an office in Kabul in 1991, while the communist regime collapses under the pressure of various warlords. When the Taliban fundamentalist students come to power in 1996, the organization then interrupts its activities because the new regime forbids women to take part in relief programmes. Thus, in January 1997, Oxfam-UK has to stop a programme to rehabilitate water distribution in Kabul. After the American bombings against the bases of Ousama Ben Laden in August 1998, the authorities take an even tougher line. In 2000, Oxfam has to find other donors to carry on its programmes since the British government now refuses to fund NGOs that still send expatriates to Afghanistan. In October 2001, the intervention of the American army finally leads to the downfall of the Taliban’s regime. But it also causes collateral damages among the civilian population. Accordingly, Oxfam asks to stop the bombings so as to allow food distribution before winter comes. Eager to preserve its neutrality, the organization also worries about the American interferences. In a letter addressed to the White House through an NGO coalition, InterAction, on the 2nd of April 2002, Oxfam-America requests the military to wear uniforms when they get involved in relief. Otherwise, the population could mistake humanitarian workers for soldiers or spies. Because of the prevailing insecurity, food distributions remain difficult anyway. When Islamist fundamentalists shoot down a delegate of the ICRC (International Committee of the Red Cross) in the North of Kandahar on March 27th 2003, Oxfam withdraws its expatriates to Herat and Kabul for security reasons. Even the capital city is eventually affected, as the offices of the organisation are bombed at the end of 2005.
-From 1992, Great Britain: directed by David Bryer, who succeeds to Frank Judd in January 1992, Oxfam-UK starts to work in Eastern Europe. After the collapse of the USSR and the Yugoslavian federation in 1991, this region represents 12% of the organization’s operational expenses in 1993 (against 0% before 1992, 10% in 1994, 15% in 1995, 14% in 1996, 10% in 1997, 15% in 1998, 23% in 1999, 6% in 2000, 6% in 2001 and 6% in 2002). Geographically speaking, Oxfam also takes new directions when its British and Irish sections start in 1995 to help the poor in their own country. Over the 1990s, the Oxford Committee will therefore dedicate between 2% and 4% of its operational expenses to the United Kingdom. From the city of Leeds, for instance, Oxfam lobbies the British Parliament and the ILO (International Labour Organization) to protect exploited domestic workers, especially women.
-From 1993, former-Yugoslavia: whereas the civil war goes on, Oxfam-UK opens an office in Belgrade in 1993. From 1994 until 1997, the organization also works in Zagreb and Croatia. Eventually, Oxfam-UK gets involved in Kosovo, to which it dedicates £23 millions in 2000, an amount equivalent to all its emergency operations elsewhere in the world. The context then changes dramatically when NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) sends troops against the Serbian nationalist regime of Slobodan Milosevic in 1999. At first, the Oxford Committee seeks to preserve its neutrality. To clearly distinguish humanitarian workers from the armed forces, it asks the UNHCR (United Nations High Commission for Refugees) and not NATO to coordinate relief in Kosovo and Macedonia. Heavily funded by member States of the Atlantic Alliance, however, it does not want to confront governmental donors at a critical moment during the war. Unlike Human Rights Watch, write for instance Michael Barnett and Jack Snyder, Oxfam does not vocalize its concerns about the use of cluster bombs and the targeting of non-military facilities by NATO troops. According to a former employee, Tony Vaux, the organisation gives up all claim to neutrality and only helps the Albanians of Kosovo, not the Serbs.
-From 1994, Congo-Kinshasa: active in Goma since 1993, where it helped internally displaced people, Oxfam-UK accommodates and provides drinking water to Rwandan refugees, many of them being Hutu peasants who fled a victorious guerrilla, the RPF (Rwandese Patriotic Front), and took part in the genocide of 1994 against the Tutsi minority. Insecurity prevails in the region. Jointly with MSF, CARE, MDM, PSF and the IRC, the Oxford Committee signs a petition to inform against the physical threats of Hutu militiamen who control the camps of Goma and Bukavu. However, Oxfam-UK decides to stay, even if it means supplying those who committed a genocide and who try to attack the RPF. Published in 1994, Guy Vassall-Adams’s small book is revealing: it denounces the international community’s failure to act and lists recommendations for the neighbouring countries, but says nothing about the role of aid to reinforce refugees who are responsible for a crime against humanity. Likewise, Shona MacKenzie and Renée de la Haye write in 1996 a technical assessment of Oxfam-UK sanitary programmes, the biggest ones in its history, but do not clarify the political context. In 1996, the organization still requests funds to ECHO (European Commission Humanitarian Office) to help Rwandan refugees in Congo-Kinshasa and prepare their repatriation. It is only in 1997 that Edmund Cairns eventually admits that Oxfam-UK rescued former killers “without” knowing it. In the Chicago Tribune of 30th December 1996, the head of Oxfam-International in Washington, Justin Forsyth, acknowledges that « the delivery of aid in this situation undoubtedly helped fuel the conflict ». After the collapse of the regime of Mobutu Sese Seko and the murder of President Joseph Kabila in Kinshasa, the Oxford Committee then resumes its activities as war goes on in Eastern Congo. This time, it assists internally displaced people, especially in Ituri where Rwandan and Ugandan occupying troops exacerbated the ethnic tensions between the Hema and Lendu local militias. In 1999, Oxfam sends expatriates from Kivu to open an office in Bunia, the main city of Ituri, two years after the Swiss NGO Medair and the Belgian section of the Caritas. The organization has to hire local people because of the pressures of the natives and the departure of many foreigners when six volunteers of the ICRC (International Committee of the Red Cross) are murdered near Bunia in April 2001. According to Johan Pottier, Oxfam tries to balance its programmes and jobs between the Hema and the Lendu: it counts as many as 90 employees equally shared out among the two main ethnic groups of the region. In June 2001, for instance, the organization starts a programme in Lipri, a Lendu village, so as not to give the impression of favouring the Hema areas, which are easier to get in. From October 2003, again, it works at the same time in Medhu, a Lendu place in the South of Bunia, and in Muhito, a Hema stronghold in the North. Such an approach allows Oxfam to extend its activities towards Fataky and Rethy, two villages in Djugu district. Yet insecurity still prevails. In December 2001, Oxfam must leave both Lipri and Mandro, two Lendu and Hema villages. The organization also has to evacuate its expatriates during the fighting in Bunia before Operation Artemis, when the French troops are deployed in June 2003 to restore peace under the aegis of the European Union. In January 2004, again, Oxfam must suspend its operations in Medhu because of attacks from a guerrilla group, the Union des patriotes congolais.
-From 1995, Liberia: Oxfam-UK starts relief programmes in a country torn by civil war since 1989. In April 1996, it has to withdraw for a while because of the looting of Monrovia. Jointly with twelve other humanitarian organizations, including the ICRC, the Oxford Committee then decides to keep a low profile and to give up big operations. At the International Peace Academy Conference in Vienna, Austria, on the 23rd of July 1996, the Director of Oxfam, David Byers, explains that “the Liberian warlords had looted more than four hundred aid vehicles and millions of dollars of equipment and relief goods, and those thefts had directly supported the war, and caused civilian deaths and suffering. The vehicles and radio equipment had been used for military purposes, and sold, along with diamond and gold deposits which the different factions control, to purchase arms […]. In this case, I do think that more lives are likely to be saved by preventing such looting than by providing humanitarian aid […] protection from violence is more vital than humanitarian aid […]. What I don’t accept is that such abuse of aid necessarily means that the net impact of that aid helps civilians fulfil their rights to material necessities and protection from violence. In Liberia and, looking back, in Somalia, I think the answer is on one side. In Bosnia and in Zaire, I think it is on the other, and that we have been right to stay.” In September 1996, Oxfam-UK comes back to Liberia however. It does not give dry rations, so that they are not resold on the black market, and prefers to buy food locally, so that international aid is not diverted in the Freeport of Monrovia. Yet insecurity still prevails after the election of President Charles Taylor in 1997. In April, June and August 2003, humanitarian equipments are looted again in Monrovia, where the rebels of the LURD (Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy) eventually depose President Charles Taylor… and return to Oxfam one stolen vehicle out of two…
-1996-2004, Burundi: Oxfam-UK has to interrupt its programmes in rural areas outside the capital city. Indeed, the Tutsi-led army uses humanitarian aid to lock into camps and control internally displaced people, fearing they would join the Hutu rebellion. After the signature of peace agreements in August 2000, the Oxford Committee eventually decides to close down its offices in Bujumbura in January 2004. Projects managed by local partners are handed over to Oxfam-Quebec and NOVIB, while CARE continues the programme in the region of Gitega.
-1997, Eritrea: Oxfam-UK, which opened an office in Asmara in January 1993, is expelled with other western NGOs when a conflict starts with Ethiopia in May 1997. The authorities want to control all development programmes.
-1998, North Korea: Oxfam-UK withdraws from one of the last Stalinist dictatorships on earth, for lack of free access to the victims of famine. Yet in 2003, OHK sends relief jointly with the Caritas of Hong Kong despite the risk of food diversion by the Communist regime.
-From 1999, Great Britain: following a report of Global Witness in December 1999 on the misappropriation of oil money in Angola, Oxfam-UK launches a campaign entitled “Publish What You Pay” in June 2002, jointly with the CAFOD, SCF, Transparency International and the Open Society Institute. The objective is to compel trans-national corporations to detail their financial transfers to corrupt regimes in developing countries. At the Earth Summit in Johannesburg in September 2002, the British Prime Minister Tony Blair relays the idea and sets up the EITI (Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative).