Guarding An Ideal
issue 228 - February 1992
JENNY MATTHEWS / OXFAM
Guarding an ideal
The international Oxfams all have different ways of working. The biggest (Oxfam UK)
is the most hierarchical and one of the smallest (Oxfam Belgium) is the most egalitarian. And just
at the point where it has to decide which way to go is Oxfam Canada, as Stephen Dale reports.
It's an age-old question that, sooner or later, any successful charity will have to ask. Does getting bigger mean we have to switch to a more conventional way of operating?
It would be difficult to find an organization that has worked harder to apply its principles to its own internal workings than Oxfam Canada has over the years. Back in the mid-1970s, taking their inspiration from Third World liberation movements and a wave of solidarity and feminist collectives sprouting all over Canada, Oxfam brought in an unusually egalitarian system. There would be no bosses in Oxfam offices, decisions would be made collectively, everyone would be paid the same and there would be no support staff. Jobs would be rotated to accentuate the idea of equality.
Some of these principles have been sacrificed over the years. Job rotation was dropped when jobs got too complex to be casually shuffled among staff. And the equal pay structure has suffered a dent with the appointment of a national secretary who is being paid over the flat rate - although below what he was being paid in his previous job.
But by and large Oxfam has remained true to its collectivist vision - and many people are still very happy with it. 'Oxfam is stronger because it involves people,' says Bill Hynd, the staffer in Newfoundland and Labrador. 'You don't work for Oxfam, you work with Oxfam for social change.' He readily agrees that the flat management model consumes resources and staff time that might otherwise be used in the Third World. 'Canada is awfully big,' he says, 'so when you try to involve as many people as possible, it can be costly and time-consuming.' But he believes that the expense of phone calls, faxes, and flying staff to meetings is more than justified.
Others wonder if the process is still worth it, given the challenges of a rapidly changing world. Has Oxfam Canada become too big for democratic decision-making to be workable? Are today's issues too complex? Is collective working a luxury that the charity can no longer afford?
'We're in a new context,' says John Foster, Oxfam Canada's national secretary, who advocates recruiting a new core of senior managers. Foster thinks Oxfam's way of working arose logically out of its work with liberation movements and popular organizations in the South, who were themselves developing new, inclusive forms of democracy. But some of those liberation movements are now governments, and the priorities of many Third World peoples have changed.
Foster believes that whether you look at the popular organizations or at the new governments in Ethiopia and Eritrea, what matters to them now is the financial support of their people. 'In the current atmosphere,' he says, 'the pressures tend to be much more along the lines of pragmatism and professionalism. What's effective? What works in a world of relatively scarce resources?'
It is Oxfam's huge growth which has brought its egalitarian structure into doubt. Since 1978, its staff numbers have increased from 14 to 50, while its budget has ballooned from $600,000 annually to over $10 million, largely due to the 'donor bulge' that followed the Ethiopian famine. 'It used to be the small world of Oxfam,' says Michael Murphy, the western region co-ordinator, where information flowed freely and you could keep on top of what was happening. Now it's difficult to do that.'
Meyer Brownstone, Oxfam Canada's chairperson and a volunteer since 1968, adds that staff are not the same cohesive unit they once were. 'There's a tremendous difference between the fundraising staff and the field officers.' Brownstone believes that to handle new complexities in its work the organization should be broken up into parts. Rather than have a large collective body decide each issue, smaller groups could make educated judgements on areas of speciality. This way, the smaller groups would carry on the collective, democratic practices, while Oxfam Canada overall would become more efficient. The only missing element, says Brownstone, is a 'management team' to co-ordinate the decentralized committees and ensure that 'Oxfam is able to face the world with one face.'
That last point is where some Oxfam veterans balk. The 'management team' concept smacks of an old-style hierarchy to many, especially since the new central managers would be non-unionized employees outside 'flat' salary structure.
For Margaret Hancock, education co-ordinator for Africa at the Toronto office, the question of special status for managers is part of a larger cultural malaise affecting Northern charities in the 1990s. As development workers start thinking of themselves as 'professionals', they risk losing contact with the meaning of their work and with the larger realities of the world. Hancock says fundraisers are particularly vulnerable to the mentality of 'professionalism'.
'In the last five years,' says Hancock, 'they've gotten into corporate fundraising and there's a lot of baggage that goes along with working with wealthy people, big foundations and big money. Fundraisers have an increasing sense that they deserve a market rate of pay. There's talk about how "I would be earning X if I were working for the hospital; I need support staff, and I shouldn't be sharing collective duties".'
Hancock believes Oxfam should stick by its egalitarian principles, 'for reasons of class and status and the sense of who we are.' Oxfam, she says, has the opportunity to make a powerful statement defying the current economic order: 'Our idea has been that nobody's worth any more or less than anybody else. One shouldn't be compensated according to a market sense of value, but by what's a fair living wage. I think there's value in having our organizational structure reveal to the world what our values are.'
But national secretary John Foster cautions against preserving idealism at the expense of performance. 'We probably pay a third below market rates for fundraisers,' he says. 'Can we survive doing that? Can we continue to support the work and the organization? This is the real world out there, whether we like it or not, having an effect on our communal values.'
Foster believes that Oxfam's current policy of only adjusting salaries according to how many dependants an employee has doesn't mesh with the feelings of many employees. 'We have a significant number of single people, and some gay and lesbian people. They recognize that no matter how expert they are, no matter how long they work for Oxfam, their salaries will never change. A number of them have left, and that's a problem.'
It is not clear which view will win the day: a representative group of board members and staff has started meeting to hammer out the issues. But there's a lot of optimism that Oxfam Canada will be able to reconcile its collective tradition with its dynamic growth. Whichever way things go, no-one can imagine an Oxfam Canada that is as hierarchical as Oxfam UK.
Stephen Dale is a journalist from Ottawa.
Rich and poor within Oxfam
Everywhere but Belgium the top salary is paid to only one person. Oxfam UK has a particularly big gap between the pay of the Director end that of the lowest-paid workers, packers in a warehouse. This is despite a personnel policy which states 'Salary scales should not result in unacceptably large differentials between higher and lower-paid staff in each employment context.'
Oxfam Belgium's extraordinarily tow salaries (which can double through length of service) show that there is a tense of mission and voluntarism in many aid agencies which runs entirety counter to normal 'market' thinking. At CAA's National Staff Conference in 1990, for example, the top three salary bands opposed the pay rise offered them because it would have widened the gap between the organization's top and bottom. Some felt so strongly that they said they would be prepared to strike against their own pay increase.
Community Aid Abroad 156 George St, Fitzroy, Vic 3065. Tel: (03) 419 7111.
Help us produce more like this
Patreon is a platform that enables us to offer more to our readership. With a new podcast, eBooks, tote bags and magazine subscriptions on offer, as well as early access to video and articles, we’re very excited about our Patreon! If you’re not on board yet then check it out here.