In the early 1980s when I was a schoolboy, my father, Brian Hartley, worked for Oxfam during a famine in Uganda’s Kara-moja. Like Dad, the other Oxfam people I remember in East Africa were earnest agriculturalists or engineers who had been overseas most of their lives. Some of them were religious or socialist, but they all had the technical skills to help local farmers rebuild their lives after wars or droughts.
The focus was on development. Like my dad, most were sandal-clad volunteers who worked for the charity for free. They helped farmers cultivate better crops or breed improved livestock to stop soil erosion, vaccinate cattle, plant trees and dig boreholes.
Since Quakers founded Oxfam in the 1940s to help civilians in Greece, it has saved and improved countless lives. I admired the charity so much that while at university I would secretly (because I feared my fellow undergraduates might laugh at me) visit its headquarters in north Oxford to do odd jobs.
As a correspondent for Reuters in the 1990s, I came across Oxfam in Somalia, Central Africa and Ethiopia. Africa’s humanitarian crises were now known as ‘complex emergencies’ or, in the case of South Sudan, the ‘permanent emergency’: war, famine, pestilence and death on a vast scale. Once again I saw Oxfam technicians doing impressive, hands-on work for civilians in refugee camps, delivering clean water and food.
Around the turn of the century, during Tony Blair’s government, everything suddenly changed. UK charities like Oxfam had failed to move on from the cycle of emergency to sustainable development, and yet the crises were getting bigger and nastier and the do-gooders had never been in such demand. Budgets exploded. Aid groups got so much money they could hardly keep up with the ‘burn rate’, which is what they call the need to spend funds before the end of a financial year so that donors do not cut the flow of future cash.
From the 1980s-era shabby offices in Oxford and Nairobi, where the staff looked as if they wore the donated clothes sold in their charity shops, Oxfam grew into a slick operation with huge international offices across Africa and other hotspots, populated by young graduates in suits living on good pay. They look like bankers.
During my visits to these offices, I have wondered how often many of these aid workers ever visit what they call ‘the field’. They attend workshops, seminars and even retreats, but they are not the old technicians in dusty sandals we once knew.
Suddenly Oxfam became like a large corporation with 19 global franchises — last year it raised £408 million in donations — and this created its own momentum to raise yet more money. Fundraising by itself gobbled up £26 million of Oxfam annual revenue, and the media became a key tool for mobilising more cash.
Meanwhile, there was a gradual shift of emphasis from development work in the field towards ‘advocacy’ and what Oxfam calls ‘influencing’. The year before last, Oxfam says it spent an incredible €67 million on ‘a worldwide influencing network’ to ‘support progressive movements at all levels’.
These terms describe campaigns to focus on ‘social justice’ in the third world to mobilise what the charity calls ‘The Power of People Against Poverty’. Instead of delivering clean water and food to poor people, Oxfam’s literature promises to help locals ‘exercise their right to have clean water’.
Some of this ‘social justice’ work involves what Oxfam calls ‘holding governments and businesses accountable’ in third world countries. Talk to people in Africa and many will say this involves harassing private investors and bypassing local elected rulers. Oxfam says this is about building a fair and just world without poverty, but this huge shift in its focus seems to be aimed at exonerating the poor from responsibility, inciting their resentment against private capital and blaming the West, stoking guilt and making Africa into a utopian playground for socialists from Sussex University.
Land rights, tax havens, forgiving third world debt: you might agree with the intentions behind these campaigns that Oxfam has pursued, but they are a far cry from providing a hand pump for villagers in Congo, or vaccinating cattle in Sudan against rinderpest. Oxfam claims that last year more than £300 million was spent on its core activities of development and humanitarian aid, but these included projects such as the one in Zambia called ‘I Care About Her’, which aims to ‘mobilise men and increase their role in condemning and stopping violence against women and girls’.
Is all this leftist agitprop really what the good people of Britain signed up for when they made out their direct debits, or when they bought second-hand dinner jackets from Oxfam shops? Surely donors want Oxfam to help the poor with real things: food, clean water and the tools to get back on their feet and rebuild lives after conflicts or natural disasters. Oxfam claims that it monitors the effectiveness of its own projects so that it can successfully help people in ‘resilient development’.
It was with sadness that I read in the charity’s report for last year that it is carrying out a great deal of work in Kenya’s Turkana region, where, it notes, 95 per cent of people live in absolute poverty. This is exactly where my father helped start a number of projects for Oxfam in the early 1980s. In those days, I recall that people lived simple lives, but few lived in the dire poverty of the sort we see now. The real discussion people should be having about Oxfam and other UK charities working in places such as Turkana should be: after all that money, what went wrong, why, and what next?
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