issue 228 - February 1992
Charity is not what it used to be. Chris Brazier takes a close
look at Oxfam - 50 years old this year - to make the point.
'You want me to what?!' says Ky. 'To pick up the pig - it could make a brilliant photo.' Ky looks at me like I'm daft: my Western education has obviously been sadly lacking in the finer points of pig behaviour, which do not stretch to posing quiescently for the camera. In my enthusiasm I have clearly overstepped the mark: how dignified would I feel if a photographer came to my house and made me pick up my word processor for a picture that summed up what I do? Ky consents instead to squat down beside her pig, which continues studiously to ignore us (see above).
We are in Ky Long, a village in the poorest part of Vietnam and I am visiting an Oxfam project. Actually the very phrase 'an Oxfam project' is misleading - it is rather a project organized by the local branch of the Vietnamese Women's Union and part-funded by Oxfam UK. Women like Thieu Thi Ky are given financial help to set themselves up as small-scale pig farmers; and they pass on two piglets from each litter to other women wishing to start their own 'income-generating activity'.
This is not a project which will be trumpeted in the course of Oxfam's anniversary year; but it is a suitably down-to-earth place to start looking at the Oxfam idea and the voluntary-aid movement of which it is part. And for Ky, who has four children but whose soldier husband has been absent for all but three weeks of each year since 1970, it makes all the difference.
Oxfam may have been founded 50 years ago but that doesn't mean it was concerning itself with pig farming in South-East Asia that long ago. Far from it. Oxfam began in October 1942 in an attempt to get aid to people starving in Greece as a result of the Allied blockade (see article). And in its first two decades, true to its original name - the Oxford Committee for Famine Relief - it was strictly concerned with emergency relief, with famines and floods, epidemics and earthquakes. The idea that we should take responsibility for the disaster-stricken in far-away lands was still relatively new - this kind of charity had previously been the exclusive property of religion and missionaries.
Birth of the 'Third World'
It comes as quite a shock to realize that the whole idea of aid for long-term development - giving people tools and seeds instead of food and blankets - only arose as recently as the 1960s. Towards the end of the 1950s, people began to realize for the first time that, if you applied Western criteria, almost the entire population of what was to become known as the 'Third World' lived in poverty.
The beginning of the 1960s was a time of idealism in the West: the War and economic austerity were in the past; John F Kennedy was in his Camelot and all was right with the world; volunteering yourself to better the people of faraway lands became a secular vocation as well as a religious one; governments started forming Overseas Aid departments; and Oxfam became Britain's biggest Third World charity - a position it still retains. Inspired by the original, other Oxfams were later to spring up elsewhere - in Boston and Brussels, in Melbourne and Montreal, in Ottawa, Auckland and Kowloon.
The 1960s was supposed to be 'the Development Decade', when the newly independent countries of the Third World would be kick-started onward and upward. Instead it was the start of a learning process in which the voluntary agencies were by far the keenest students. By the mid-1970s, the way they saw themselves and their work had changed completely. Here is a parable written in 1974 by Dom Thomas Cullinan about what happened to a symbolic Oxfam volunteer called Sebastian.
In 1963 he began to see that giving people things was only a stop-gap answer. Indeed, in some ways it made things worse. What was needed was concern for development, to help people to feed themselves, not food, clothing and money, but fertilizers, tools and schools.
In 1966 he was quite shaken when he realized that the people who harvested the coffee he drank every day lived at starvation level... Sebastian stopped talking about charity and started talking about justice.
In 1969 he came to see that (it) is the very economic and social structures that we operate which work profound injustice against the destitute and that we are all involved in such structures...
In 1972 he began to see that the most profound form of underdevelopment and of oppression is the moral state of men who have sapped out of them any desire to shape their own history.. (It) could only be met by what the Latin American thinkers and theologians mean by liberation.
In 1974 Sebastian came to see that he was very much ahead of his own time. That whatever he might give of his money or his time or his understanding, the place where his first and fundamental response must be, was within himself.
The first thing that strikes me about this is that it is entirely male-centred - that at least has changed in the intervening years. But the second is how far Sebastian and the movement he represented had travelled by 1974. The new insights gained in the years since would not seem so marked or meaningful if you laid them out in the same way.
You could even chart the past decade as a kind of journey backwards rather than forwards. To continue the parable: in 1980 Sebastian came to realize that it was going to be a much longer haul than he had thought, as New Right and monetarist governments took power in the West. In 1985, as TV images of the Ethiopian famine sent charities' income through the roof, he realized the donor public was still back where he'd started, giving emergency-relief to the helpless far away but not being prepared to look deeper. In 1990, he realized that some of his own journey had been to the wrong destinations, that the free market wasn't quite the ogre it had once seemed and that the word 'justice' should not be used in public in case it offended people.
The last of these points is flippant - though it does seem ironic that Sebastian should have started talking about 'justice' as early as 1966 when his counterparts in the Oxfam UK of 1992 go into a flurry if they see that word used in any of their own literature for fear that it will suggest they are 'too political'.
But that is perhaps indicative of a major change since Thomas Cullinan was writing: people in voluntary-aid agencies can no longer feel that they're at the centre of things. In the old days they had the sense that they were part of a movement whose time had come; and that was also certainly the feeling of the founders of the NI back in the early 1970s. Yet it has become ever clearer that their influence on foreign policy (and especially on the operations of the global economy) is marginal.
In one sense, though, they were right that voluntary aid was where the future lay. The amount given in voluntary aid in Western countries grew from $860 million in 1970 to $3,340 million in 1986 and the growth of most agencies has been phenomenal. How much bigger can they get? Back in the early 1970s Oxfam UK's then Director, Leslie Kirkley, forecast that the charity would become excessively bureaucratic and spark off a hostile reaction in the donor public when its income reached £9 million; its 1991 income stood at over £69 million ($124 million).
Even if the hostile reaction in the public hasn't come, agencies still need constantly to ask themselves the key question 'is bigger better?'. Community Aid Abroad (CAA), the Australian Oxfam, has been doing this as for several years it has contemplated - and finally agreed - a merger with Freedom From Hunger, one of the few other non-religious development agencies in the country. The merged charity is expected to relaunch itself as Oxfam Australia in the next few years.
The main benefit of this may not be economies of scale but rather that the new charity has a chance to re-evaluate the way it operates from scratch, taking the best from each operation. It's a lot easier than restructuring yourself as you go along, as both Oxfam Canada (see article) and Oxfam UK are currently trying to do in the search for greater efficiency.
One main argument given in favour of growth is that a bigger charity is bound to have more influence; it will be able to lobby governments and other key decision-makers like the World Bank with more success. This is true - to a degree. But the influence of any one agency is actually minimal in these circles.
The danger of megalomania
There is always a danger of megalomania - of seeing your own organization as much more important in the global scheme of things than it actually is. Not every country needs its own Oxfam, for instance - and there have certainly been people asking themselves whether Aotearoa/New Zealand needed one. Oxfam NZ was launched last year amid great acrimony. Its arrival was, according to one local development activist, 'organized like a foreign take-over bid with virtually no consultation with established New Zealand agencies.'
The main problem was that Aotearoa's existing secular agency, Corso - founded around the same time as Oxfam UK - was just recovering from financial crisis and could have been tipped over the brink by the competition. Oxfam NZ has now smoothed many of the feathers it ruffled at the time of its launch. It is clear that it can reach donors that Corso has not reached for a long time; hopefully there will be room for both. But there is no doubt that its launch was tactlessly managed. This is ironic considering the pride the Oxfams take in being sensitive to the needs and feelings of a local community when working in the Third World.
The ultimate test of a good aid agency lies in this sensitivity to the people and communities it works with. Being prepared to listen and learn is one of the most significant lessons learned by aid agencies in the past three decades. Aid workers of the 1960s saw themselves as experts bringing wealth and knowledge to backward peoples - a hang-over from colonial days. Today aid workers know that if you impose things from outside you will make ghastly mistakes. It is much more difficult to try and understand the complex nuances of a local situation than just to impose a notion dreamed up in front of a computer back home - but it is also infinitely more valuable.
The best voluntary agencies are taking this process a step further by appointing far more Third World people to key jobs. The average overseas office would always have employed, local drivers or office workers but would have had a white expatriate at its head. That is changing fast. All CAA's country representatives, for instance, are from the Third World rather than Australia. While one-third of Oxfam UK's country representatives and one half of its deputy country reps are now from the developing world. More important still, there is a South-South transfer built into this policy, with Brazilians and Indians working in Africa, and Africans from one region of the continent working in another.
This is a sign that aid agencies are beginning to live up to their own rhetoric about 'partnership'. More and more of Oxfam's work in the Third World is not about the traditional kind of aid that donors still expect - a well here, a health clinic there - but rather about training local organizations to demand and deliver those things themselves, giving them more control over their own destiny. It is true that most donors do not generally have in mind projects like the Brazilian human-rights centre profiled here when they send off their cash. But this is often the most essential kind of work for the Oxfams to undertake.
But the more seriously they take their role as conduits for the views of their Third World partners, the more likely they are to get into political hot water back home. The hottest water of all at present is in the UK, where Oxfam has been rapped over the knuckles by the Charity Commissioners (a government watchdog) for overstepping the mark in its campaigning over South Africa and Cambodia.
This conflict between British voluntary agencies and the Charity Commissioners is by no means a new phenomenon. Back in the 1960s, when agencies first started moving into supporting long-term development projects rather than simply supplying emergency relief, the Commissioners objected. They argued that funding of, say, agricultural schemes on the Andean altiplano were the responsibility of the Bolivian tax-payer rather than the British.
This is so far from our way of thinking today as to seem farcical. But it shows that development charities have always had to push back the boundaries of their own role as they respond to a fast-changing world.
The need for politics
All charities have to be political. On the simplest level, a charity concerned with, say, single parents, has to be able to speak out against a government that reduced the welfare payments of those people. And any agency concerned with development in the Third World has no alternative but to raise its eyes from the ground and express a view on the forces that bear down on its people's chances of a decent life. How can you understand the problems of the urban poor in Accra without looking at the impact of IMF adjustment policies? How can you help small businesses in Vietnam without being aware of the Western embargo on trade and aid?
It is unquestionably true that Oxfam UK took a clear political stand over Nicaragua (anti-Contra), Cambodia (anti-Khmer Rouge) and South Africa (pro-sanctions). But there was nothing covert about these positions. People who objected were of course free to withhold their future donations in disgust and channel them towards charities who keep their heads down. It is rather odd that the charge against the 'political' activities of both Oxfam and Christian Aid in the UK has been led by far-right enthusiasts of the free market (see article). There is a free market in aid too.
The point is, of course, that if Oxfam does not speak out against the status quo in certain situations it will be endorsing it. In Cambodia it was deemed to be in the strategic interest of the West for the Khmer Rouge to occupy the country's seat at the UN despite the genocide which they unleashed while they were in power. If Oxfam hears from the people it works with that their greatest fear is the return of the Khmer Rouge, it would be derelict in its duty if it failed to use whatever influence it has in the West to get that message across.
But such political campaigning will only be justified if it is rooted in the experience of the poor. At the moment voluntary agencies have the best record at getting help through to the people who need it most. Their success has been recognized by governments who channel more money through them, acknowledging that their own aid departments cannot cope with emergencies so well - and still less with, local communities and village-level projects.
Development charities may have elements of self-promotion and razzamatazz about them at home but out on the ground they are much quieter - and essentially small scale. If you visited an aid agency's office overseas, you would be struck by two slightly paradoxical things. First, the tiny scale of it, when measured against the immense problems of the country. Second, the incalculable value of what is done when measured in terms of the quality of life of individual people and small communities.
Out there you become all the more conscious that small is beautiful. And if voluntary agencies in general - and the Oxfams in particular - are going to keep in touch with what they do best, with the roots and guts of what has made them such a valuable part of global society, they need to retain that small-is-beautiful quality. Retain it despite the booming budgets, the big management restructuring, the increasing access to governments. The view from the village - from the pig breeders, if you like - is what counts.
This special report appeared in the changing charity - 50 years of oxfam issue of New Internationalist. You can buy this magazine or, to get stories like this one through your door every month, subscribe.