Does India Need Its Own Oxfam?
issue 228 - February 1992
Does India need its own Oxfam?
Charities are our main link with the Third World. But they have remained rich world organizations - setting up there and not in poor countries. There is a World Vision in Australia but not in Angola; there is a Save the Children Fund
in Canada but not in Cambodia; there is an Oxfam in Belgium but not in Brazil. Last October, however, Oxfam's national directors met in Delhi and discussed whether there should be an independent Oxfam India
raising its own funds from Indian donors. The issue has evoked strong feelings.
Here are six arguments for and against. Which way would you jump?
THE ANTI-RACIST: How can Oxfam call itself a Third World charity when all its national directors are white men from rich countries? It always talks about learning from the people it's trying to help - well, it needs the Third World perspective at this level too.
THE FUTURIST: More and more Third World countries are developing their own comfortable, sophisticated middle class whose generosity is not tapped like that of its counterpart in the North; fundraising for development from this group is the shape of things to come.
THE POLITICAL: An autonomous Oxfam India would have more freedom to campaign on development issues at home and persuade the Indian government and establishment to take notice. At the moment Oxfam campaigns in the West on issues like the Narmada Dam (lobbying the World Bank, for example) but has no channels through which to approach the Indian government.
THE ANTI-COLONIAL: As long as Oxfam's work in India is funded from outside its staff will not be able to think independently; they will retain negative, passive casts of mind that date from the time of the Raj.
THE NATIONALIST: Indians understand their own country far better than foreigners sitting in Melbourne or Boston or expats in Delhi. How can they use that knowledge properly if they are forever having to refer back to committees overseas?
THE BLESSING: If independence and autonomy are what the Indian people want then let them have it - who are we to refuse?
THE ANTI-VENTRILOQUIST: Oxfam India would be just a pseudo-Indian agency; it would still have a Northern slant. Why not just continue to support all the existing campaigns and organizations that are genuinely indigenous?
THE PESSIMIST: You'll never be able to raise funds for long-term development from the Indian middle class. You could do it for the ten per cent of the funds that go on straight welfare but what about the work with scheduled castes and the landless? How could you raise funds for this from the higher castes and landowners?
THE CONSERVATIVE: God knows what Oxfam India would come up with in terms of campaigning material, we all know how radical they are out there! Some of the mud will stick to the other international Oxfams.
THE SUSPICIOUS: It's megalomaniacal to think Oxfam has a unique idea worthy of export to developing countries - it should just get on with fronting up the guilt-salving cash and stop indulging in a new form of imperialism.
THE LOGICAL: If the point is to have a national organization which can speak out and campaign more freely, why call it Oxfam at all? Wouldn't it be better still to have its own independent name and identity to avoid the suspicion of foreign string-pulling?
THE IRON FIST IN THE VELVET GLOVE: If independence and autonomy are what the Indian people want then let them have it. But of course they will then have to raise all their own funds and Oxfam organizations overseas will be released from all responsibility.
In the end the international meeting gave its support to the goal of an autonomous Oxfam India - and asked the staff of Oxfam UK, Oxfam America and Community Aid Abroad to continue working on how a genuinely indigenous organization could be most effectively created. This has to be an initiative taken from within India and not a seed sown by the Northern Oxfams. The next step is for some exhaustive market research to be done to establish just how much money might be raised from the Indian middle class and for what kind of projects.
There are precedents: HelpAge India, for example, is an independent partner of HelpAge International which has entirely Indian staff and raises 60 per cent of its money from within the country. But the practicalities of independence for Oxfam India are still a long way down the line.