(Please read My beef with Oxfam before you read this blog. It will provide you with context on why I tackle Oxfam even though I respect them.)
Oxfam has such a short attention span. Really, they are like my 4-year old daughter. She jumps from building Lego to coloring in to building puzzles to playing with her dolls. Okay, so she is playing, but can’t stick with any one thing for too long. But she is 4 and I expect her to try different things as she grows up. But Oxfam is a senior citizen at 60 and I expect them to behave with a little bit more focus at this golden age. Maybe it is just ADD.
See, they jump from one campaign to another. If it’s not Make Trade Fair then it’s Access to Medicine or aid or labor or MDG’s or agriculture or supply chains. They can’t even stick to a commodity – coffee, rice, cotton. You take your pick. Never staying long enough at one thing to see it through. Like a guy in his early 20’s jumping from one fleeting relationship to another. Never willing to commit to a serious relationship. Maybe he just never found real love yet. And maybe Oxfam hasn’t either. That one issue that really gets their heart racing. Okay, they do have a love – fighting poverty. The problem? Too many different faces of poverty out there. Coffee, trade, aid, medicine, labor, agriculture – all faces of poverty. Difficult to pick your one ‘love’ isn’t it?
I know, the world is full of problems and Oxfam needs to address a wide range of issues of injustice – aid and trade being just two of the key issues. But really, can’t they at least see one of them through? Look at coffee. They started off with a bang in 2002 and within a year they dropped it for something else. Same with Access to Medicine. Yes, they had an amazing campaign in highlighting the issues on a global scale. But they didn’t achieve any change. We’re still stuck with the problems of before – dying people not getting the medicine they need. Aren’t they supposed to ensure that there is actual change before they move on to the next thing? Coffee hasn’t changed, neither has the WTO or agriculture or rice for that matter. They just jump from one thing to another.
And like a spoilt teenager they want to have their bread buttered on both sides. They won’t work on these issues anymore, but still want to be invited to the parties and get-togethers. Access to Medicine – they haven’t worked on this since Sophia Tickell left. They have a small team working on this but that is not good enough. Mohga is good, really good – and so is the people working on that team. But they have little support. No campaign support apart from a new document highlighting failures every now and again. And then nothing until they have something to write about again. But no campaigning anymore. And what do they achieve? Nada, nothing, zilch, zero. Okay, maye that is an overstatement. They brought the issue to the attention of everyone in the world and we have seen changes – medicine donation is higher than before with every pharmaceutical company now having a program in Africa and other developing countries, and trade rules are better than before (not perfect, just better). But our people continue to struggle each and every day. The battle is far from won. We are not even close – just closer.
Okay, if they want to highlight important issues and then step aside for a partner to take over – fine. They can do the team sport approach where everyone has a role and they play just the first few minutes before being substituted. But then they should invest in building partnerships. But they aren’t that good at that either. They push too hard to have it their way and not enough on working in partnership where both parties have an equal say. And the world is a bit too complex for that. You think they have partners? Think again. Most NGO’s really dislike them – in Africa and the UK. I worked both sides of the fence and know how strong the anti-Oxfam feelings are in both worlds. And this undermines the good work Oxfam is doing. Other organisations don’t see the Oxfam I see – the good and commited. They just see someone who wants it their way. Come on Oxfam, spend more time on partnerships – this is your legacy as they will continue your (joint) fight while you focus on the next anti-poverty fight. But you can’t be the captain of the team and be substituted in the first half. Get it?
They remind me a bit of the companies they like to tackle so often. Always looking at what is the hot new issue that fits into their brand identity. Today it is climate change. And yes, Oxfam that knew nothing of the environment is now all of a sudden a treehugger. I know there is a clear link between climate change and poverty, but just how important do you think the environment is in Africa right now? More important that HIV/Aids, TB, Malaria, civil war, clean water, food or a roof over your head? Don’t think so.
Oxfam get back to what’s killing people now. Not what might kill them in a few years time. We don’t have that kind of luxury. If they want to have a voice on climate change then go partner with someone who has a history in this field – Friends of the Earth, Sierra Club, NRDC or Greenpeace. And try to partner with them more effectively. You play the supporting role and give them some more visibility.
So come on Oxfam, sharpen the focus or sharpen the partnerships. I know you can. But you’re not. Don’t be like my 4-year old. She plays with something new every five minutes, but I also know she is growing up. Are you? Okay, maybe you don’t suffer from ADD but Sensory Overload – too many poverty issues to focus on. But I got your attention didn’t I?