Global Policy Forum

Why Oxfam is Failing Africa


By Katharine Quarmby

New Statesman
May 30, 2005

Inside the Make Poverty History movement, there is a growing fear that its aims are being diluted and taken over by the government. Fingers are being pointed at Oxfam.

In just over a month's time, up to 200,000 people will converge on the G8 summit in Scotland for a rally organised by Make Poverty History. This will be one of the high points of the 2005 campaign to draw attention to the plight of Africa and to redraft the political agenda of the wealthy nations. Make Poverty History, a coalition of roughly 450 non-governmental organisations, has on one level been spectacularly successful, drawing in celebrities as diverse as Nelson Mandela, Claudia Schiffer and Dawn French. But inside the movement there is discontent. Fears are growing that MPH has been co-opted by new Labour. The finger is being pointed at Oxfam, the UK's biggest development organisation, for allowing the movement's demands to be diluted and the message to become virtually indistinguishable from that of the government.

One senior NGO official familiar with the negotiations of the past few months describes the relationship as "far too cosy". He says: "They have incredible access, and what that has meant is that Oxfam are the ones who are always asked to speak for the whole development movement. And they differ on policy from other groups. They have decided that, in the longer term, their lot is best served by being in with Labour and they go out on a limb to endorse the government."

The dilemma is acute: to what extent should NGOs not just co-operate with Whitehall but be seen to be integral to a government campaign? This question is all the more difficult to answer given the mixed motives of the government. It may be the case that any shift in the positions of the rich countries, such as the deal doubling the European Union's aid budget by 2010, will produce a better outcome for poorer nations. But to what extent is the Prime Minister's renewed enthusiasm for the development cause dictated by his desperate attempt to salvage something for his foreign policy, after Iraq? Oxfam was one of the first charities to welcome the EU announcement. Other development groups were more cautious, fearing that it would deflect attention yet again from the thornier issues of debt and trade. Christian Aid's Jonathan Glennie says: "If Gordon Brown thinks doubling aid will end poverty he has been reading the wrong literature."

Both Blair and Brown have been keen to be associated with Make Poverty History, using political events as a forum. When Bono spoke at last year's Labour party conference, he congratulated the PM and Chancellor on their work for the campaign, dubbing them the "Lennon and McCartney" of poverty reduction. Some groups involved in MPH were horrified. John Hilary, director of campaigns and policy at War on Want, was in the audience. "When Bono said that, many NGO leaders who were there put their heads in their hands and groaned," he recalls. "It's just not useful, that kind of celebrity endorsement. In fact, it's a killer blow for us. To see the smiles on the faces of Gordon Brown and Tony Blair! This is exactly what they want - they want people to believe that this is their crusade, without actually changing their policy." Oxfam's Adrian Lovett admits: "It was a bit cheesy, but there were tough passages in the speech as well. You have to capture people's imaginations."

Part of the closeness is in the exchange of personnel. This is not new. Frank Judd, a former director of Oxfam, became a Labour peer and spoke for the party on international development in the Lords in the 1990s. But the links have become more intimate under this government. Shriti Vadera, who advises Brown on international development, is an Oxfam trustee. Justin Forsyth was director of policy and campaigns at Oxfam before joining the Downing Street Policy Unit to advise Blair on the issue. When Oxfam recently advertised for Forsyth's successor, two of the four candidates called for vetting were either current or former special advisers. Vadera was on the interview panel. This process worries the likes of Mike Sansom, co-ordinator of the social justice organisation African Initiatives: "NGOs have been rightly critical of the revolving door between business and government, but the same has now become true of NGOs and government."

Links are similarly friendly on policy. On issues such as trade, Oxfam's position is much closer to the government's than other groups. When it published a report three years ago that advocated liberalisation of markets in wealthy nations and identified market access as a key mechanism for eradicating poverty, the line was strikingly similar to Gordon Brown's. Many NGOs were appalled, particularly as this was in the run-up to the crucial World Trade Organisation meeting in Cancun in 2003. Martin Drewery, head of campaigns at Christian Aid, explains: "The reason Oxfam got a bad press in the NGO world was not because anyone disagreed that northern markets should be opened, but it was not the most important thing - and in practice the richest countries would not grant that access unilaterally and poor countries would pay a massive price for it."

Leading international campaigners such as Professor Walden Bello, who runs the highly respected NGO Focus on the Global South, based in Bangkok, publicly attacked Oxfam's line. He now says: "We felt that derailing the ministerial meeting was the key objective owing to the minimal possibilities of getting viable reforms." On that occasion, Oxfam lost. The talks were derailed. Negotiators reached no agreement on trade liberalisation at Cancun.

When, in January 2003, Brown launched his proposal for the International Finance Facility, a way of front-loading aid payments in the short term, again Oxfam came out in favour. Many other development organisations took a different view, expressing concerns about the threat the IFF poses to aid levels in future. One senior development official says: "Most groups in Make Poverty History have strong reservations about this, and wanted to hold out for changes in the way the finance facility was organised. But Oxfam came straight out and said they supported it, end of story . . . We have spent so much time hammering out agreed lines between the organisations, and then Oxfam just departs from the hymn sheets. Once you have drawn up agreed position papers you need to stick to the line - you cannot opt in or out. But Oxfam does, and we have had to discipline it on trade justice several times."

The UK government has finally committed itself to reaching the UN target of spending 0.7 per cent of national income on aid and development, but only by 2013. Many in the Labour Party and in the NGO movement wonder why it has taken so long, but again, Oxfam was a signatory to an open letter congratulating the government on taking the action. While other Oxfam employees accept that it raised hackles among partner NGOs, Adrian Lovett defends the letter. "You can't mount a big campaign, and try and get politicians supportive, and then not recognise their support when they do what you want them to do," he argues.

Lovett calls it the "inside/outside strategy" and insists that it yields concrete results. A debate is raging in the development movement in general, however, about both Oxfam's strategy and the power the organisation wields. One protagonist compares it to "Tesco negotiating with a local grocery". Christian Aid's Drewery says: "Oxfam has clearly invested more in that insider-track lobbying approach, and that brings both pros and cons. It might be the case that, because Oxfam has more direct lobbying contact, it might have to be less critical less frequently - but when it is critical, it stings more. But I would have to say that a number of organisations wish Oxfam would be more radical and critical of the government, although it brings other things to the movement." Tony Juniper, director of Friends of the Earth, says that the twin-track approach can work, but he points to the potential for trouble: "If you just work on the inside you can be really weakened as an NGO." The construction of such a broad church in Make Poverty History has, he believes, led to the demands becoming too general. "Everybody can agree with it, and nothing much actually changes at a specific level of policy. The danger is that ministers have signed up to the demands but are not actually doing anything."

Access in Whitehall has certainly not been a problem. It is a measure of the influence the Make Poverty History coalition has that when it recently demanded a meeting with all the main ministerial advisers on the issue, diaries were cleared. To what effect, though? Some of the most intriguing criticism of the softly-softly approach has come from within the government itself. One senior government source suggests that Oxfam has failed to learn one of the essential techniques of negotiation - if you agree on the basics too early you forfeit real influence. As a result, demands on aid, trade and debt may have weakened. There are poignant parallels with Blair signing up to war in Iraq a year early, and gaining nothing in return. "The Make Poverty History group made one big strategic mistake," says the ministerial source. "They made no domestic demands of note on the UK government."

One view from within Whitehall is that, without MPH, there would not have been such an emphasis on development, and that Africa would not be on the agenda for the G8 summit at all. A bigger problem is lack of support from other governments, particularly in relation to trade. Andy Atkins of Tearfund, a leading development charity, points to the compromises that the UK has made on economic partnership agreements, softening its pro-liberalisation stance to protect the emerging markets in poor countries. The UK has even been criticised by other EU countries for this shift, and the European Commission's director general of trade, Peter Carl, has said that Britain's approach is influenced by "celebrities and NGOs who are now pressing for action". It was striking how Oxfam leapt to the government's defence, saying in a statement: "This is an example of the EC gagging pro-development member states. Tony Blair is trying to do something to help the world's poor and is being hampered by the self-interest of Europe as a trading bloc." Other NGOs such as War on Want are more sceptical about the government's adherence to trade justice. John Hilary says that British officials at the World Trade Organisation told him: "You have to get real. The development agenda does not go very far. We have to be pro-business and pro-trade."

Has Oxfam become a kind of meta-NGO, believing that it should have a place at the top table with politicians, speaking on behalf of the movement as a whole? The organisation has let others in the movement know privately that it does not want to be seen challenging the government this year, and that others should follow suit. Some refuse to fall into line. Peter Hardstaff, head of policy for the World Development Movement, says: "We need to emphasise the differences between us and the government. Up to now, the focus of MPH has been profile-raising. Now there is a real need for us collectively to explain where the UK government is doing good things and where there are real differences."

The dilemma is summed up by one senior source close to Oxfam: "Do you piss in the tent, or do you crap in the woods?" He says: "I personally was concerned about the close relation-ship between the organisation and Blair and Brown. The trouble about politics is that you take a gamble and you only know when you get the result whether you have gambled your repu-tation too far. Oxfam has positioned itself as a constructive organisation that can work with people and get things done, but the price you pay is that some people will think that Oxfam has got too close to Labour." And he asks: "Have we become involved in the Blair/Brown battle, as each man looks to his legacy, wanting to be the saviour of Africa?"

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