“We need to keep the wellbeing of individuals we are serving at the forefront of our thinking.”
Oxfam International has recently signed a deal to move its headquarter to Nairobi, Kenya. As one of the most recognisable and renowned development organisations in the world, the relocation is a clear statement of the need to strengthen Southern voices. This also means that Oxfam Great Britain (Oxfam GB), which to many people is the spiritual home of Oxfam, will undergo quite a change in its role and strategy. It is symbolic in an era where more attention is placed on thinking about development through the people.
Say for Development had a conversation with Mark Goldring*, CEO of Oxfam GB. From commencing his career as a volunteer teacher to heading one of the largest charities in the world, Mark talks about his journey in international development, the relocation of Oxfam International, and the importance of love and compassion in development.
Say for Development: You started as a volunteer and now you are the CEO of one of the leading global development agencies in the world. How has your journey been in international development? What have been the major lessons?
Mark: I started with an interest in doing something practical. Working as a volunteer where you have not got a lot of resources and power is a wonderful apprenticeship because you learn to work with people and build on what they want and they have got. As a volunteer, you understand very fast that if you are bringing in ‘new and better ways’ of doing things, people might ignore you quite fast. But, if you are building on what they need and want, then you are working together with people – I think of this as a ‘power of joint endeavour’. I think this gets to the spirit of what your work (Say for Development) is also about – it is about what you can do to make to the world a better place, rather than the technical answers that are already fixed – like tax, income and service provision. If the problems we are facing were to do with technical issues, then we would have fixed them a long time ago. Rather, they are personal issues and being a volunteer is a great start to understand these issues.
The other lesson that I have learnt is that the more senior you get, bigger the decisions that you will be making, but you need to have same moral compass and think constantly about the poorest people that you have came in contact with, and what your decisions would do for them. Whether you are making a decision about the practical distribution of assistance, or a big campaign that might change global tax structures, you have got to keep seeing it through the people, especially the poorest and the most vulnerable people, which could be a displaced person, or a widow in a rural area. That is what I have learnt the most – keep your eye on the people and think about the human implications. Otherwise, you would just be thinking that you are grand and important, and making a lot of big decisions but you are actually divorced from the reality of what you are trying to achieve.
Say for Development: Oxfam was established during the Second World War. What are the main areas of interventions that Oxfam have focused on over the years and how have they changed overtime?
Mark: Oxfam started in a way that is very important to who we are today. It began with the aim to respond to the needs of starving civilians in Greece during the Second World War. Greece was occupied by Germany, but was also being blockaded by the Western Allies. The supporters who created Oxfam were church people, politicians, students, and citizens from around Oxford. They thought it was not right and wanted to do something about the suffering of the people. It wasn’t about whether Hitler or the Allies were right – it was simply about tackling the suffering of people. This is central to Oxfam’s ethos in terms of getting immediate support to people, and it is also about having to negotiate and challenge the people who are causing starvation. It was very hard to talk to even the Allies from your own country about getting food to civilians who were being occupied by the enemies – but they did. Since then this has influenced Oxfam’s work – a combination of humanitarian assistance, development assistance and always the advocacy work. We would challenge say, the apartheid in South Africa, and advocate that it was keeping people poor, so what was the use of an agricultural development programme if people were being discriminated? We also challenged the first Iraq War and the appropriateness of bombing, etc.
Say for Development: Global security is one of the biggest concerns now. Low-income countries in Asia and Africa are suffering from state fragility, conflicts and terrorism. How do you think the concerns around global insecurity have shaped the focus of Oxfam in recent times?
Mark: In the present day, we have more conflict and more people displaced as a result of conflict. Humanitarian assistance is much better than previous decades but it is still inadequate to deal with current needs. Much more people get help, but the gap feels much bigger than ever – this is even more prominent in war zones in Yemen, South Sudan and Syria. What Oxfam is trying to do is to bring humanitarian assistance, work on development assistance and also challenge the governments, the companies, and the individuals whose work are contributing to keeping people poor. There is also inequality – there is less inequality between countries but more inequality within countries, which is a recipe for more conflict. One of our current agenda is tackling inequality and its social dimension – gender, caste, ethnicity, these issues, as well as an overall national level of income and progress.
Say for Development: Oxfam International has recently decided to relocate its headquarter to Nairobi. We believe that it is a landmark event, shifting the perspective of global development from the West to the Global South. How do you evaluate this decision?
Mark: I lead Oxfam GB, which generates about half the resources of the Oxfam international confederation. The confederation will soon have 20 members. The most recent members will be formerly elected – Oxfam South Africa and Oxfam Brazil will be joining as full members in October hopefully. Developing an international confederation is part of the way we work, and Yes the Oxfam International headquarter will shift to Nairobi. There have long been Oxfams in many richer countries, but there have not been independent Oxfams in Southern countries – which is what we are developing and we want our headquarters to reflect that. This is a clear statement of our stance as a global federation rather than a British organisation. We will still work through local partners, but now it is more about there being national Oxfams, so for example it is Oxfam India talking to the Government of India, not the Oxfam in Oxford.
We will continue to invest in the development of local Oxfams, and we are now considering which are the next ones. They also have to develop their own governance, and fundraising and their own relations with the rest of the confederation.
Say for Development: Oxfam takes on a rights-based approach to development, but perhaps the viewpoint of what is a ‘right’ differs between the North and the South. Have you encountered difficulties in using the rights-based approach to development?
Mark: The rights-based approach is central to Oxfam’s ethos – we believe that human rights are universal. But of course we have to make choices as to which rights we work on, and challenging the power structure is a fundamental part of this. With freer media, the space for civil society to challenge governments has increased, but we are now seeing many situations in which this space is being closed down. NGOs are being de-registered, and lobbying has been restricted in many countries including in the UK. It is also very easy to say to an NGO that they are no longer welcome and restrict their activities – this has happened in Russia, and we have seen the closing of Oxfam programmes in many countries. We have to work with the broad range of Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) not just registered NGOs, such as political parties. We have to work with legal systems and support local organisations to challenge. This issue of helping people to secure their voice is a fundamental part of our work. We try to link up people on global platforms on issues like tax justice, trade, and migration. We are doing that internationally and nationally with CSOs.
Say for Development: In countries where the states are wary of the so-called ‘Western influence’ and the rights-based approach, how do organisations like Oxfam maintain flexibility and sensitivity to achieve its goals within restricted environments?
Mark: The rights-based approach can be unpopular in some countries. In restricted environments, creativity is key. We have to respect the laws of every country, which means finding legal ways of working, sometimes through global messaging or local messages, and sometimes it is through building enough momentum with local civil society to support their work.
I can give you two examples. One was taking the space in a trade conference in China to get people to talk about growing inequality and what that meant within China. We could do it within a global conference being held in China but could not expect to be able to lobby directly to the Ministry of Trade. A very different example is working with women’s groups in Syria to make sure that they had a place at the table when peace talks were going on. We could not do that within Syria but when peace talks were going on outside the country, the international community can create a space for them to be there and share the voices of ordinary people rather than just political factions.
Say for Development: Say for Development is dedicated to spreading love and empathy among the development thinkers and practitioners. Oxfam is notable for its immense charitable work. However, it has become difficult for large organisations to give the love and personal touch that grassroot organisations often give. In your opinion, in what ways can Oxfam as a charity connect people and share love, relationship and emotions among the global community?
Mark: We need to keep the well being of individuals we are serving at the forefront of our thinking. Last week in the Oxfam headquarter we invited a Syrian refugee to share his journey with us and he basically held the whole room in his hand as he was telling his story. I speak to politicians about civilians being displaced, and the effects of war but actually I realised I need to give the space to someone like him to tell the story, which is much more convincing. So I try hard to communicate to staff by using personal stories like having this man come in to share his story with us. When I tell the staff about statistics about displaced people, it probably won’t inspire them as much, because it is through personal stories that can really touch people.
I sometimes get very angry at the way major donors often treat Oxfam, as though they would only give you the funds when they are ready on their terms and timing. Oxfam has to be very careful that we are not treating our partners in the same way, because the further you are from away from thinking about the people we are trying to support, the less you can actually help them. A person I always have in my head is a young woman named Caro, a displaced girl who has been raped and had a child and living in a camp in Congo, and she was probably the most vulnerable person that one can picture. If we do not keep people like Caro at the front of our minds, we get obsessed with financial management, log frames, donor requirement, reporting and we end up losing that sense of difference that it makes for the individuals. We can become arrogant and dangerous, because we control money but we are not thinking about individuals. We don’t always succeed, but this is what I do to keep myself grounded when having to make tough decisions.
* Mark Goldring is the CEO of Oxfam GB. He has had decades of experience within international development, serving as the Chief Executive of Mencap and Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO).
Say for Development is thankful to Mark Goldring for sharing his insights as well as the work of Oxfam. This conversation was prepared and conducted by Sarabe Chan and Mahmudul Hoque Moni.
Feature Photograph: Google Images (https://www.oxfam.org/en/work)