Opinion DT 1 / 2017
Oxfam: how to fix a broken NGO system
Oxfam is moving its headquarters from Oxford to Nairobi. The Executive Director of Oxfam Winnie Byanyima, the first African woman to lead an international civil society organisation, responds to Degan Ali’s critique of Western humanitarian NGOs.
“Accepting that the system is broken commits Oxfam to doing our part to fix it,” she writes.
Winnie Byanyima, Executive Director of Oxfam International
I know I am not alone in observing carefully the evolution of international civil society organizations (ICSOs).
I am on balance optimistic. I am on balance, too, impatient! Long before I became the first African woman to lead an ICSO, my own tutelage was in the activism of Southern women’s rights organizations. In that light, I am heartened to see that many from global civil society are trying to root their work in the heart of people’s struggles.
The Oxfam I entered was primed to change in a changing world. Our world has woken up to the fact that poverty and inequality are inextricably linked. This colors all of Oxfam’s work: leading us to take less of a ‘charitable’ frame of development, and instead aiming to influence the public and corporate policies that reinforce poverty and powerlessness.
We recognize that the geography of poverty is shifting – such that the majority of people in poverty are now concentrated in middle-income countries such as India and Nigeria – and that power in the world is shifting South and East. At the same time, new, ambitious development paradigms are emerging, with greater ‘South-South’ cooperation and reliance on developing countries raising their own domestic resources.
Therefore – at the macro-level – we’re becoming a more globally balanced organisation, with leadership in the South just as much as the North. One component of this overall change is that later this year we will move the headquarters of Oxfam International from Oxford to Nairobi.
More fundamentally, we understand that we must address poverty, inequality and crises from a place of integrity – alongside national organizations rather than as “foreign CSOs”. Decision-making power is transferred to where it should be: in the hands of people leading change.
Change is, of course, a process of trial and error, as each ICSO tries to get the model right for its own kind of work. Whilst I do enjoy the positive welcome that Oxfam’s shift often receives from people I meet, donors and partners alike, I still think we require more interrogation and more accountability – most of all from Southern civil society leaders.
Degan Ali, in an interview in these pages, explores the manner in which funding reaches local humanitarian organizations. (See DT 14/16) She discusses how international CSOs like Oxfam may compete with local organizations and even risk shrinking the funding available for them.
I worry about this too. Southern-based CSOs are often unable to access resources that are geared towards larger, predominantly Northern CSOs. When international CSOs get the model wrong they risk “deep-freezing existing power imbalances”, as Danny Sriskandarajah of CIVICUS describes. But they don’t need to.
To disrupt that power imbalance, we must clarify what kind of citizen we want to be in civil society. We need to know what strengths and weaknesses we each bring in every context, so we’re better able to complement each other’s work locally. It is far more than “capacity-development”, as key as that is.
AMPLIFY NATIONAL VOICES
At Oxfam we recognize the value of our ‘globalism’ and our influence; we set out in recent years to share the knowledge we’ve built up around the world, and link up people and organizations across countries and regions. Our offer is to amplify the voices of our partners globally into policy forums, be it at food security clusters or global summits, and play an active role as a convening force. We have experience already with some 3,700 partners across our humanitarian, influencing and long-term programs.
So our work in supporting humanitarian leadership is built around identifying and maximizing complementarities with local and national actors. Ideally, humanitarian responses are led by local and national organizations, and are reinforced by Oxfam where needed. We believe this approach advances the humanitarian sector’s ability to impact more lives, and our ability to support people to uphold their rights.
The shift to local humanitarian leadership has changed our ways of working: our staff, rather than “managing” and “getting things done”, are expected to “facilitate” and “broker”, and thus assist local organisations in their own organizational development. This extends into our program and influencing work. In countries like Honduras, for example, we have joined a coalition of social movements to support the struggle for land rights and indigenous people’s rights.
We know too that responsible citizens are financially accountable.
To help drive internal change Oxfam proudly signed up to the Charter for Change across our global confederation. Its eight commitments are geared to reform in the humanitarian system by enabling the localization of humanitarian response. One component of the Charter commits us to pass 20 per cent of humanitarian funding to national CSOs. But we know we could and should do more (at the time of pledging we were averaging 24 per cent) –so we have set our own target at 30 per cent.
Through the Charter we’ve also committed to introduce our partners directly to our donors, so they can build their own long-term relationships and receive direct funding. Outside of humanitarian response, in Morocco, Mauritania and elsewhere, we have supported local partners to directly apply for EU and international funding.
I believe a serious transformation to local leadership must be about shifting the distribution of power in the humanitarian system as well as resources. Our partners expect this from us; they expect us also to use our influence to voice concern about shrinking civil society space around the world, and to challenge donor funding trends that entrench the power of northern INGOs.
Accepting that the system is broken commits Oxfam to doing our part to fix it.
Development Today has for 25 years reported critically and independently on Nordic and multilateral aid. To maintain our editorial independence we do not accept grants from donors or NGOs.
We have opened this article by the Executive Director of Oxfam International Winnie Byanyima for non-subscribers because it raises important issues relevant to civil society organisations globally. We would like to facilitate this important debate about the division of labour between Western NGOs and actors in developing countries.
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