Oxfam is a non-governmental organization (NGO) that was founded in Britain in 1942. It began as purely an emergency relief agency but soon added the implementation of long-term development programmes in vulnerable communities to its range of activities. As part of a global civil society movement, Oxfam today also campaigns against the causes of poverty, demanding economic equality and better health and education services for all. It strives for a fairer and more sustainable global food system, for the rights of people living in conflicts and disasters, and fights against climate change.
By 1995, the NGO had grown into a confederation of eleven members - Oxfam UK and Ireland were joined by eight other relief and development agencies based in Australia, Belgium, Canada, Hong Kong, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Quebec, and the United States - to form Oxfam International. Since then, Oxfam has welcomed seven new affiliates: France, Germany, India, Italy, Japan, Mexico and Spain, further adapting to a changing international environment and enhancing the effectiveness and representativeness of its action and influence.
In 2012, Oxfam adopted its 2020 agenda, a plan that took into account the major ongoing changes in global dynamics. Oxfam set out its intention to strengthen its efforts to give a voice to the poorest and weakest people, and to lobby and educate leaders and influence policies. This article examines the major reforms in the 2020 agenda and discusses how it will impact on Oxfam's campaigning work and service delivery.
A need to become a truly global network
Oxfam has always taken pride in being globally oriented, with affiliate members and advocacy offices across the world. However, until recently Oxfam had remained a predominantly Northern organization with a composition that did not reflect its global objectives. The Oxfam International Secretariat was established in Oxford, UK, which has remained its base since its creation, while only three of its seventeen affiliates are from the South (Hong Kong, Mexico and India).
Global civil society and its relationships with the public and policymakers have now changed. There is an increasing level of self-awareness and professionalism among Southern NGOs and their networks. While there are substantial differences in the strength of civil society organizations, there are now many countries where national NGOs are recognized by policymakers and are truly part of the public debate. This is also true in international fora. Oxfam's 2020 agenda took this evolution into account and the changes will ensure that the organization maximizes its influence on the national, regional and international stages and that its work remains highly visible. It will become a truly global network that equally represents Northern and Southern concerns and strengthens Southern voices, enabling it to have a genuinely 'home-grown' influence in all regions and places.
Increasing the number of Southern affiliates
One of Oxfam's major reforms is to increase its number of Southern affiliates to at least ten, by 2020. Oxfam has already started inviting organizations to become affiliates: Oxfam South Africa has recently joined as an observer, and Oxfam Brazil plans to do likewise in the near future.
Oxfam is increasing its Southern membership to remain credible, legitimate and influential, not only globally but also regionally. Operating through local affiliates is a more effective way to influence local governments. In many countries international NGOs are seen as foreign actors, and this can generate resistance to their activities. By having more genuinely 'home-grown' affiliates, Oxfam will be able to more effectively negotiate with and influence national governments on a variety of issues in line with Oxfam's objectives.
Oxfam also wants to correct the bias - which many international NGOs suffer from - of powerful Northern affiliates having a bigger say in the organization's strategic plans, with often only informal engagement with Southern actors. As Oxfam's proposals start to take effect, the representation of Southern affiliates will greatly increase in its own decision-making processes. They will bring new perspectives and ideas to the table. For example, independent affiliates from countries such as Indonesia, Turkey or Columbia (countries where Oxfam is currently looking for new members) will be able to provide their own analyses about their distinct problems and the best ways of tackling them. They will often be in a much better position to engage in a more permanent manner with local decision-makers and opinion-leaders.
A credible network with an influence at all levels
By 2020, Oxfam will be a different organization. It will have a new power balance between representatives from the North and South, with Southern affiliates having equal weight at the decision-making table. Consequently, Oxfam will be able to forge stronger links between its national and global campaigning activities.
The interaction between international and local campaigning is vital. For instance, Oxfam's advocacy for free access for people in poor countries to good quality essential services, such as education and health, is a global campaign. However, some affiliates, including Oxfam India, have developed their own agenda inside this global call. Oxfam India, together with local partner organizations, has held conversations with the Indian government, supported by data obtained from Oxfam's policy research unit. It has had much success in pursuing Oxfam's objectives in that country as a result. India's politicians and public have accepted the legitimacy of Oxfam India in a way that would have been impossible for an organization from the UK, the Netherlands or elsewhere.
Another example is Oxfam's recent inequality campaign. It too is a global campaign to which all Oxfam affiliates are committed. However, affiliates can make adjustments to suit their particular national circumstances. Different affiliates have developed national campaigns based on Oxfam's globally available inequality research. For the first time perhaps, some Northern affiliates have used the campaign to discuss the impact of inequality on their own national populations, in the same way that Mexican and Indian affiliates have done. Each country has been able to frame its work to suit its national situation. For example, taking two of the Northern affiliates that have engaged in national campaigns, the financial crisis has had a very different impact on Spain than it has in the Netherlands.
In short, it is important to increase impact, to be effective, and to be a credible actor, in any particular context. As long as the central message is maintained - in this case that inequality should end and that national governments have a key role to play - there should be openness for members to adapt the campaign to local circumstances.
More than programme delivery
Oxfam has made a conscious decision to combine advocacy and campaigning work with its programme delivery, making campaigning an essential component of all of its programmes. For example, in a project to establish a new school, Oxfam would not only concern itself with getting the school built, it would also engage with authorities to prioritize education in their budgets and development policies, and with communities to encourage an understanding of the importance of educating their children. This is a holistic approach, combining action against both the causes and effects of poverty.
Oxfam is acutely aware of what can be achieved by exerting its influence on national governments and it aims to increase this aspect in all of its programmes. However, a 'one size fits all' approach does not suit all countries. The programme delivery and campaigning components of each project will vary from one country to another. For example, in Brazil it is entirely possible to engage with national and state governments. The country has a fully functioning media, radio, TV, Internet, etc., all of which facilitate public advocacy, campaigning and accountability. A country like Somalia on the other hand lacks a legitimate central government, so advocacy work here is an entirely different matter. In these cases Oxfam's influencing work needs to be shaped differently.
The value of symbolic change
Oxfam 2020 will change the headquarters of the confederation's secretariat from its historical location in Oxford to Nairobi by 2017. This was a careful and strategic choice. By moving to Nairobi, Oxfam is not only relocating to the heart of Africa, it is also sending out a strong message to the world that it is serious about the need to give more voice to people in the South. The value of this symbolism should not be underestimated.
There is also a cultural dimension to these reforms: by enlarging its Southern network of affiliates and relocating its headquarters, more African, Asian and Latin American people and organizations will join the ranks of the Oxfam confederation and its secretariat, strengthening the Southern perspectives on national, regional and global issues.
Oxfam 2020 is aiming to adapt to the shifting global dynamics. It seeks to transform itself into a genuinely global organization, which shares its power more democratically and is more accountable to, and more in touch with, the people it represents. In taking these steps, Oxfam stands the best possible chance of remaining a relevant and influential organization for the future, and therefore of continuing its vital work in fighting poverty and injustice.
Oxfam, a network in continual adaptation