Not inspired by me...

Not inspired by me...

It seems as if John le Carré almost joined the Soviet Unionback in the old days when he was still a spy and before he started writing. It reminded me of the time I almost “met” John le Carré when I was still working at Oxfamand he was working on a little movie he was making – The Constant Gardener. If only I wasn’t asleep at the wheel…

Things got crazy at Oxfam. We were always running from one place to another. From one issue to another. From one campaign to another. I hardly had time to come up for air. Just too many campaigns to juggle. I was heading up the Coffee Campaign, representing Oxfam at Publish What You Pay dealing with the extractive industry, negotiating with the European Commission on corporate responsibility and getting my soul drained by the bureaucrats over there, and I still had to try and keep the ship running on Access To Medicine. And I was continuing my fight against Oxfam for my salary! Too much to handle for a lazy guy from Africa who only joined Oxfam a year earlier – and saw his new boss leave two weeks after he joined. So I really didn’t have time to hang out with anyone to do interviews for an upcoming movie.

So I was really pissed when I was told that I had to do this interview with some guy doing “research” for a movie he is involved in. Like I had time to hang out with movie researchers. But I didn’t have a choice. It was apparently pretty important that I speak to him. The Big Boss said so – and I must obey. What bloody movie was this in any case?

It was a movie that was going to be based on a story written by John le Carré – The Constant Gardener. Now really, I read The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, The Little Drummer Girl, A Perfect Spy and The Tailor Of Panama. Good stories even though I wasn’t really into spy novels. But I liked his spy writing more than others. So why couldn’t they send him over? At least I could get him to sign one of my books or something. I knew that I still had one of his books somewhere in the basement or in a box in the garage. Why did they have to send some lackey in his place? And why the hell do I have to talk to this lackey in any case?

But well, the movie was about HIV/Aids in Africa and corruption by Big Pharma and I was heading up the “private sector” angle of the Access To Medicine campaign. So I guess it made sense for me to be interviewed. But still. It was going to waste my time. Who was going to watch it in any case? People hardly cared. Right?

“Mr Cornwell is here to see you.” I wish I was in Cornwall. Then I would meet the “real deal” John le Carré and not some lacky doing the dirty work for John Le Carré. But I was friendly. Picked the guy up at the front desk and was surprised that they send such an old dude. He must have been in his 60’s or 70’s. Maybe he is an old varsity professor that retired and does some research and consulting on the side. You know, to keep the mind ticking over and wallet from drying. I got us a good cup of Fairtrade coffee each and jumped into one of the meeting rooms.

(Actually, the coffee was pretty crap at Oxfam. We were committed to Fairtrade not because of their great coffee, but more because of their commitment to the social cause we supported.)

David had an hour booked with me. He asked so many questions. Probing this way and that way. I gave him all the answers he wanted. Didn’t hold back on anything. Gave him my view unfiltered- as always. But I was a bit short with him. Didn’t want to waste time. Gave him the standard smile. I might even have been a little bit full of myself while I spoke to him. Educating the guy. Him learning from the “master”. But I peeked at my watch every now and again. Just making sure that I didn’t give him more than the allocated hour. Had loads to do. Had to move on to the next thing. Really.

David was very pleasant though. A very nice old man. I liked him. He spoke with a soft voice. Took slow notes. Thought of his questions. Probed to get more detail. Didn’t really give any of his own opinions. Just nodded his head and took in all the info. But then. He was just the researcher and it wasn’t his job to have an opinion in any case.

But in all honesty, I could hardly remember what we spoke about. I knew I gave him all the info he wanted but never really took any notice of the old man. Couldn’t even remember what he looked like. Grey hair and… hum… old. My mind was everywhere else during that interview. Planning what I needed to do for the rest of the day and week. Checked my watch and ended the conversation when the hour was up. I remember he was friendly and never waivered or seemed rattled with my behaviour. I wasn’t rude or anything, but just didn’t really give him the attention he deserved. But he was obviously pleased and happy that I gave him some time in my busy schedule.

Time to go. I walked him to the front door, shook his hand, gave him a warm smile and a nod, and waved good bye. A “Thank you Mr Cornwell and have a nice day” was the last words he heard from me. Turned around and walked back to my office. Ready to face the rest of the day and get some real work done.

I got to the office and a colleague asked me all excitedly, “So, how was it to meet John le Carré?” I laughed at her and said, “John le Carré? I wish! I met some lackey called David Cornwell. I don’t think John le Carré would hang out with me!” My colleague stopped and stared at me. “Are you being serious?” she asked. “Of course! You really think he would come over for an interview with me? In any case, John le Carré lives in Cornwall somewhere. No way he would come all the way to Oxford just for an hour long interview with me.”

Her reply…

“You know that John le Carré isn’t his real name. Right? You know that John le Carré is the pseudonym of David Cornwell, right? You DO know that David Cornwell IS John le Carré?”

I am an ass.

John le Carré... I mean... David Cornwell at his home in Cornwall

John le Carré... I mean... David Cornwell at his home in Cornwall

___________________________________

I learnt a big lesson that day. Never assume you know anything of the other person. Find out as much as what you can about them. Always be nicer than what you really have to be. You never know when you might want their autograph. And, you don’t get a personal thank you in the movie if you treat famous people like a lackey or like sh*t. And I learnt that David Cornwell used the name John leCarré to publish his books whilehe was still a real spy. I guess the book he wrote after our little meeting was not inspired by me – Absolute Friends. Thank God I never told him to say hi to John or that I liked John le Carré’s books. Or rather, that I am not big into spy novels! Yeah. I am an ass.

 

Me... Back at my desk...

Me... Back at my desk...

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I have been loyal all my life. Always. It was what made us special. The two of us. Together. Together through the good times and the bad times. The two of us. Now I won’t be able to look at her in the same way again. Never again. Because she will know. She knows. Even if I don’t tell her. She’ll know.

Well okay, I was loyal at least since I met her – my little special one. Before that I played around. I was young. I tried everything. I was reckless. But I have never cheated since I made my commitment to her. My special one. She was all I needed. Oh, I noticed the others. But I never did anything. I looked, but I never touched. I never wanted. I just looked and admired. And shook my head when I saw other men playing the game. Having one on the side. But I fell too. I couldn’t help it. I am just a man. A weak, weak man. A man with needs. Basic needs.

I promised her she was the one for me. And she still is. It is was a one-off. I promise you. It is a one-off. Never again. Never again. I knew that she was always there for me when I needed I her. And I need her now. I want her to be mine again. The way she was. The way she was before. Before I cheated.

Maybe we just got used to each other. Maybe the same thing that attracted me in the first place became the same old thing. The same thing every day. We forgot how it was back in the days when we just started. The first time. Familiarity breeds contempt. So true. So, so true.

She was the first things my lips touched in the morning. And the last thing at night. I can smell her when I wake up. That sweet, sweet smell. I can still taste her on my lips. But I can also taste the other one. The one I cheated with. And I can’t get the taste and smell off me. I can smell her on my clothes.

I saw her on the street. I was on the street. Just walking. And then I saw her. Through a window. She looked good. Oh so good. I stopped dead in my tracks. It was like a train hit me. I could feel my heart skip a beat. My palms sweating. The blood rushing. I knew I wanted her the instant I saw her. She reminded me of when I was young. And innocent. She seduced me like no other. And she didn’t even know it. She was just sitting there at the window. Just looking at me but not seeing me. Playing games with me. But she wanted me. And she stood out. As if her name was written in the sky. And I stared. Stared at her sitting at the window – with her seductive ways. That’s when I made my move…

Okay, maybe more like on the window. And she wasn’t really sitting. More like stuck on the window. The big letters wasn’t quite written in the sky. Just on the window. But it spoke to me. It said “Espresso Royale Cafe”. What a name. It sounded all European. All Italian. And I wanted one. I wanted her. A little Espresso. Right there and then. In Newbury Street. And I couldn’t care less who saw me.

<blink>

<gulp>

I know. It is a shocker. Me, Mr Starbucks Triple Grande Latte, was going to let a non-Starbucks coffee touch his lips. Hold on people. It gets way worse. Way worse… I… I… I actually did it! Yes I did. I just couldn’t help myself. I just had to have one. To hell with the consequences. I wanted an little Italian Espresso. And I wanted it now. It brought back memories of my first coffee fling. My little Italian girl. So I just walked right in and had one. Straight up. And it felt good. Real good.

The barista didn’t know my name. And she didn’t ask. So she never got it wrong either. It happens. And the sugar came in little packets instead of the “easy to operate, tilt and let it run” sugar containers of Starbucks. I need the large container you see. It holds almost enough sugar for my standard coffee order. But I didn’t care. I liked it for that moment. Even if I was stabbing my Starbucks barista in the back. Because I still love my Starbucks Triple Grande Latte.

I know those who know me will be shocked. Mr I-Was-Born-With-A-Cup-Of-Starbucks-In-My-Hand. I always have a Starbucks in my hand. I get up at 6 am and I have coffee. In my travel mug. And I have more coffee. And more coffee. It is a running joke. If someone mentions Starbucks everyone looks at me. And if someone wants my advice for free – they know to just invite me for coffee at Starbucks. I am easy that way.

Yes. I love Starbucks. And not only because of the taste of Ethiopian Sidamo. I love Starbucks because, as an ex-Oxfam campaigner who headed up the Coffee Campaign, I know they are pretty good at working with the coffee farmers and they pay a pretty damn good price for their coffee. More than Fairtrade. Yep, you heard it here baby. They pay more than Fairtrade for their coffee. We looked at targeting them when I was at Oxfam, but we didn’t. Because we very quickly realized that they are pretty damn good. Not perfect – no one is. But pretty damn good. And they make a damn good cuppa joe.

You think I care for the mom-and-pop shop? Not much. Three rules for me. Pay a decent price for your coffee so the farmer can benefit, look after those who work for you and make a damn good cup of coffee. What you do with the rest is just white noise to me. It would be nice if it was a mom-and-pop shop. But that is just wallpaper. Pretty pictures. Not substance. Nice to have, not a must have. Starbucks tick the three main boxes so I am pretty happy.

But I also like them because I am a newbie to coffee. I grew up in South Africa people. We are known for our outstanding crap coffee. Come on. Ricoffy, Frisco and Koffiehuis aren’t real coffee. Read my lips. Chicory is not a coffee. It’s a weed. A herb at best. Moer koffie. Ha. Look at the English translation. Beat up coffee. Or to be more specific on how South Africans use the word moer… hum… well… fucked.. hum… to assault. It is an open assault on what we call coffee when South Africans make coffee. Moer koffie. Ha! Tell me another one.

I fell in love with coffee in Brussels. Back in 1999. On my birthday. We were about to catch the train back to Luxembourg where we were visiting our very, very good friends when we saw it. A little coffee shop right on the corner opposite the Bruxelles-Central. Can’t remember the name. But we went in for a quick cup of coffee. We had 30 minutes before our train left. We walked out the café more than 2 hours later. On a buzz after about five cups of bloody strong Segafredo. It was the first time I met the Italian lady. And she got me hooked.

So my little fling in Newbury was nothing but a fleeting moment of weakness. Just a reminder of yesterday. Good memories. But she wasn’t really Italian. Just a good imitation. Like Vegas. But it was still good. I felt young again. Pure again. Good memories. Segafredo. She’ll always be my little Italian lady. And she’s the only little “on the side” I’ll ever have. She ticks all my boxes.

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I have mentioned Oxfam before. How I struggled to get a job there, the issues I have with the campaigns, and my beef with Oxfam. Now I want to tell you about another Oxfam experience that have clouded my views. I know I am bias. But these experiences have influenced my thinking. Read My beef with Oxfam to see what I think of Oxfam and especially the people at Oxfam. I respect them and the work they do. But the world doesn’t always work the way we expect it to work. Sometimes mistakes are made. And sometimes it is made by the best out there.

___________________________________

 

Working for Oxfam was one of the worst working experiences I ever had – if not the worst. And I say this with a heavy heart because I was so looking forward to joining Oxfam. My wife, daughter and me were celebrating into the late hours of the night when we got the news that I got the job. We worked hard for it. We had disappointment after disappointment trying to land that bloody Oxfam job. One rejection after the other. Months and months went by – and all we got was bad news. So when we got the call to tell us we got the job we went wild. This was what I wanted. To work for an organisation like Oxfam. A deeply committed organisation that makes a difference each and every day. And I was going to be part of that. Man, this was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. Making a difference by working for an organisation who had both the people who were deeply committed and the resources to make a real impact in this world.

 

But even the best of plans don’t always work out. And it started off very badly.

 

We knew that I had to start off a few notches below my level of experience in South Africa. That’s just how the world works. Or as we say, “That’s how the cookie crumbles”. And the French would say, “C’est la vie”. People don’t think that an African has experience that is relevant to fighting poverty and campaigning at a global level. They believe that we are too stuck in Africa and have less of a global view and experience than them. I don’t agree – but that was the hand that was dealt to me. How living on a mud-patch in the middle of the ocean gives you more experience and wisdom than people living in and amongst poverty I don’t know. But that’s England for you – letting the world know that it will help them, as long as it is the English way or no way. Tsk, tsk. Do I smell colonialism alive and well in the heart buried so deep they don’t even know it?

 

So I accepted the job at Oxfam knowing that it will be tight in the beginning. Especially with a kid and all (we didn’t know it yet, but my wife fell pregnant in those few days before we left South Africa or just as we got to England – the jury is still out on that one). And the move destroyed any “reserves” we had in the financial department as well. It is expensive to move from one country to another. I mean really. Can’t we just get a standard electrical system so I don’t have to replace everything each time? And with communications nowadays – can’t banks talk to each other? Nope, sorry sir, we don’t talk to other banks. Here’s the catch. Even if you bank with say Barclay’s in Zambia, it won’t help you if you try to bank with Barclay’s in England – they don’t talk to each other. (Rolling my eyes right now.) Yes, each time I moved I lost all credit history. And man, it is better to have a bad credit history than none.

 

Oxfam covered loads, but not all. We even had to take out a loan to cover some of the expenses. So we knew that the salary would be lower in England, but we were committed to this cause and knew that although it will be tight we will make it. Just make it. No room to breathe.

 

When I was made the offer to join Oxfam they told me that I will get an allowance to help pay for accommodation. And that it would be paid for four years. That was great news and I even got it in writing as I needed this to rent a place and open a bank account. It also meant that although it would be very tight, my wife could take a few months to help settle in and look after our daughter while she started her new school. We picked a nice area to stay in and everything was set for us to start our new life in Oxford. Oxfam here I come!

 

We landed in cold November. Hell it was cold. Never been in such cold weather in all my life. We moved into a guesthouse for a few days before we could move into our nice little home in Woodstock just outside Oxford. It used to be a glove factory before they changed it into four small houses. We were the first to move into our little place. Rented, but a roof over our heads. But first I had to go and sign a few documents at Oxfam and just generally get the paperwork done. So off I went to the Oxfam offices to sign some documents. I never felt so excited to just sign a few documents! I was going to meet my new colleagues at last! This smiling paw-paw from Africa they’ll tell themselves when I leave. I was smiling ear to ear.

 

But that visit turned sour very, very quickly. I got to Oxfam and they immediately sat me down and told me that they made a mistake. That I wasn’t meant to get the accommodation allowance. I was stunned. Absolutely stunned. I got it in writing! Confirmed it twice! And now this? I already signed the rental agreement and got my kid into school! You can’t do this! Not on my first day. But they did…

 

I was in an extremely vulnerable position. I wasn’t sure of all my rights under the UK law. I might have been a trade unionist in South Africa, but this was way, way foreign. And Maggie pretty much killed the unions back in the 80’s in any case. But I had a bigger problem. I brought my family to the UK and could not just return to South Africa as we made a huge financial commitment to move over to the UK. I resigned my job in South Africa. Sold my house. Took out a loan to cover some moving expenses. But most of all – I promised my wife and daughter that everything will be great in the UK. More than anything – I was just stunned that this great organisation that fight injustice globally could even do this. It just didn’t seem right. Or just.

 

I tried to discuss it with Oxfam. But I felt vulnerable. There was no union to protect me and I couldn’t play hardball in this foreign country with little money and no other prospects. Oxfam argued that it was a mistake by them and that legally they didn’t have to do anything. Since when did legal arguments stop Oxfam from doing the right thing? I mean really? They fight unjust trade laws, human rights, and pharmaceutical laws each and every day. Now they were hiding behind these same reasons that their campaign targets gave them! That’s double standard. Right?

 

They made me an offer to pay for a few months, but that was it. They made it clear. No way were they going to pay according to the original agreement – not even close. I had to lump it or leave it. Take it or go back where I came from.

 

I folded. I accepted. Not that I wanted to accept. But I felt I had no choice. I mean really. I just started working at Oxfam, and moving to a new country and having to set up a new home was stressful enough for me not to have to try and worry about losing my job even before I started. We discussed our options, but knew we had little choice but to except. I thought that we would be able to maybe sort something out and move to a small place and my wife could work as well – not knowing that my wife was pregnant.

 

When the offer was made I also thought it wise to accept it as I did not want to ‘rock-the-boat’ within the first few days that I was here. How would Oxfam react if I demanded that they paid me what they agreed to pay? I did not want to start in a new job having to fight that same organisation I just committed to – an organisation I wanted to be proud of working for. Maybe I should have. But I didn’t.

 

Now remember that we are not talking about a small amount here. We are talking about $1,500 per month! A huge amount for the UK especially where everything is so much more expensive than anywhere I have ever lived in. This had a huge impact on our lives. More than we expected even in the worse case scenario.

 

What annoys me is that the people from the UK did not realise that we could not bring over any of our financial history to the UK. This made it very difficult to get any favourable or even comparable financial terms in the UK (or the US). I was a homeowner and banked with the same bank for almost 20 years in South Africa – but in the UK this meant nothing. I was treated like a 16-year old drunk driver with a drug problem – that’s done some time in jail for theft and bankruptcy.

 

Oxfam might argue that it did act within the rules or organisational limitations. But what would Oxfam do if this was a company acting like this? Promising someone a certain wage and then when the person start tell them they made a mistake and that they are getting a substantial amount less than before? The point is not what the rules say (rigged rules) – the point is whether Oxfam believed this was the right action to take. Does it seem just and right to you? (Oh, rigged rules is a specific reference to an Oxfam campaign slogan and publication on trade called… Rigged Rules and Double Standards!)

 

But it wasn’t just me. I realized soon that many people from Africa and other developing countries joining Oxfam suffered this way. I asked for a meeting with Human Resources to help solve these issues. Not my issues – the broader issue of discrimination so other don’t have to face the same as me and my African colleagues. And got no answer. I tried every second week for almost two years. I am still waiting for my meeting…

 

Oxfam seemed a cold place for us from Africa. Colder than the weather outside in November.

 

I wonder how Oxfam treated the Brits? Those from the mighty United Kingdom? Very, very different. And the rules are rigged in their favour. British expats taking up a position in Africa get a lot more help from Oxfam than those coming to Oxford. Whatever the reason – it does not make sense from an African perspective and no one understands the reasoning. Why should someone get more financial support when moving to Johannesburg if they are British, but an African moving to Oxford does not get the same. I know the Oxfam rules states that – but then it is just rigged rules.

 

I lost that battle. And it eventually drove me away from Oxfam. I knew it was time to leave when my pregnant wife had to go and work in a pub at night. At night because then I was at home to look after our daughter. Remember, we had no family to help us out. My wife. My proud, proud wife who never complained. Well, okay – she never complained much. Rigged rule, Oxfam. Rigged rules and no human(e) rights and no justice. It just wasn’t fair trade was it? Just not cricket. Rigged Rules and Double Standards…

 

Fairtrade has the perfect brand name – it tells people that this brand is about being fair and implies that anything else is unfair. And Fairtrade is a great certification system. Yes, I know, they don’t like to be called a certification system. But they are. And an excellent one. Maybe even the best global certification system dealing with poverty. I can’t think of a single other certification system that tries to deal with poverty more effectively than Fairtrade. And they have, by far, the most recognizeable logo amongst ethical certification systems.

But, unfortunately, that doesn’t mean much in a world of such low standards. Bloody hell, everyone raves about ISO 14001 and all that ‘guarantees’ is that you do have an environmental management system. Mmm, not what your environmental impact is or whether it is good or bad. I like Fairtrade and always buy their brands when I can (affordability and availability rules apply), but I think they can do so much better.

I have 5 issues. Five issues they should focus on to truly make Fairtrade fair. Just 5 little things that really annoy me beyond what is good for me.

Firstly, Fairtrade focuses almost exclusively on small farmers who are organized in cooperatives and associations. Unfortunately, this excludes small framers who are not organized in this way. Most small farmers are not organized in this way – at least not where I come from – Africa. And the problem is that the poorest of the poor farmers are not organized in cooperatives. So, Fairtrade actually doesn’t work with the poorest of the poor – more like the “middle class” of the poor. To really affect change for the poorest of the poor, Fairtrade does not have a choice but to include ALL farmers in their system. Including those not organized in cooperatives. I know that it makes it more expensive, but it also makes it more fair.

Secondly, Fairtrade really needs to jack up on their environmental criteria. They have always had a half hearted attempt at sustainability. But what it came down to was poverty – but not a systematic way of addressing this. Only paying the price and not looking into making it better for the farmer in a sustainable way. Fairtrade needs to strengthen on the environmental side of sustainability – but also strengthen the labor rights aspect. This will ensure that Fairtrade is truly fair for everyone involved – farmer, environment, worker, Oxfam and consumer. I know that they have strengtened these areas, but there are huge gaps that still needs to be filled. They do work with the farmers to make them more sustainable, but they lag behind say a Rainforest Alliance when it comes to this.

Thirdly, Fairtrade should be a bit more clear about what the farmer actually gets paid and stop false advertising. They don’t need to do this as they are already better than almost all other systems. No need to lie or hide the truth – it will only come back to bite you. Really, the farmer does NOT get $1.25 per pound of coffee. Not even close. It varies from cooperative to cooperative – and what the cooperative decides the farmer should get. In some cases the farmer will receive as little as 70 cents/pound. The rest is distributed to other parts of the cooperative. Nothing wrong with that. But don’t try to spin it to make it sound as if the farmer receives $1.25/pound. They don’t – and never have.

Fourthly, if you really want more companies to take up Fairtrade then say so, be consistent and ensure your business model can handle it. Not everyone within Fairtrade agrees that large businesses should become part of Fairtrade. But don’t tell them your system is the best if you don’t want them to join. A classic example was when Oxfam asked Nestle (and others) to start buying Fairtrade. And when Nestle agreed? Well, certain Fairtrade bodies refused to sell to Nestle. Lesson? Be careful what you ask for, you might get it.

Finally, stop charging farmers such a ridiculous amount of money to qualify for certification. In many cases the yearly fee is way more than what the average income in the poorest of the poor countries – and well over $1 a day. The financial commitment that cooperatives must make to become Fairtrade suppliers is ridiculous. Not everyone believes that suppliers should carry the burden of compliance or certification – neither Starbucks or Nestle charges their suppliers – and they shouldn’t, and neither should you. And Oxfam and others generally ask for the company to pay in any case for any certification – just ask Nike or Levi’s – so way is Fairtrade different? All Fairtrade suppliers pay to become certified. The financial commitment by producers to be certified can vary from over $5,000.00 dollars for initial certification – and that does not guarantee certification, only assessment. Annual fees are over $500, and then another few cents per pound certified as well. I wonder how much the farmer actually gets in the end of the day? I know they benefit from Fairtrade, but they could benefit more if they didn’t have to pay Fairtrade for certification.

Another extra one thrown in. Remember that it is only the commodity that is certified Fairtrade. The coffee bean. Not the making, grinding, roasting, container, wages in manufacturing or anything else that is certified. Only the raw material – the coffee bean. Same with cotton. Not the manufacturing – only the cotton. One can make a general assumption that buyers of the Fairtrade commodity will also be good employers and manufacturers, but these parts are not certified – only implied and assumed.

Okay, I have one more problem. Not every country has a Fairtrade organization. Even when a Fairtrade organization is present, a purveyor of Fairtrade goods will have to negotiate with each Fairtrade organization in each country to be able to sell in that specific country alone. There are 19 national Fairtrade organizations – covering mostly Europe and North America. If someone wants to sell in each country – they have to negotiate with 19 different organizations to enable them to sell in each of those countries. And no guarentee that they will allow you to sell in each country – just ask Nestle. Yes for the UK, no for Italy. Furthermore, what if you want to sell in every part of the world – and in most cases there isn’t any Fairtrade presence at all. This makes it extremely problematic to sell a Fairtrade certified product in countries where there are no Fairtrade offices to negotiate with. Supporting Fairtrade would be much easier if there was a single co-ordinating body through which each buyer, or any other large multinational for that matter, could drive all its Fairtrade needs. Hum, something like a cooperative…

But the aim was not to slam Fairtrade. I worked with them and in support of them for many years. It is not a perfect system. And I don’t expect it to be perfect. But imagine if we get it to push on a bit and work at 80% of potential – not 50% of potential. Now that would be closer to being fair to all those who need it most – the farmer in Africa and elsewhere. Come on Fairtrade, try to be a bit more fair.

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I got an email from a good friend at Oxfam. They were not happy about my blog about Oxfam – Oxfam suffers from Attention Deficit Disorder. They felt it was unfair and hurtful. But let me explain a bit about my feelings towards Oxfam – before you get yourself all worked up about the email I got.

I worked for Oxfam for about two years. And I worked with them for many more years than that. Yes, I have issues with them that relates to my time there. I will go through all of those in future blogs. But not today. Today I want to tell you what is my beef with Oxfam. It’s important to me because I care about the organisation and the people there. And I care about the fact that someone I respect and seek counsel from is upset about what I wrote. Oxfam is a great organisation and that’s where my problem starts.

I joined Oxfam because they are by far the most influential development non-profit out there. They are a monster in the Great Britain. Everyone catches cold if they sneeze. And they have the money to back it up. Around $600 million for Oxfam Great Britain alone – the original, most influential and biggest of all the Oxfam’s. Oxfam is the place to go to if you want to have an impact on poverty. They can out campaign anyone and everyone if they want to. They have the programs on the ground to back that up as well. They have millions of supporters globally and partners in over 100 countries. And that’s why I joined them. To make a difference.

The main reason I joined Oxfam is also the thing I like the most about Oxfam – their reason for existing. Their mandate to fight poverty is a noble cause and an important one. Oxfam is all about fighting poverty. Every single decision they make is based on whether it fights poverty. It’s in their constitution. It’s what they are all about. But it is not only this mandate that is important, but also that they provide an alternative voice for the poor through their actions and campaigns. The people who work for Oxfam believes in the mission. No one questions the reason for Oxfam’s existence. Giving the poor a voice is something I continue to admire.

I don’t blame them for having so many campaigns. I don’t agree with it, but I can understand it. Poverty is complex. And poverty comes from many angles – war, disaster, politics, trade rules, aid, health, environment, climate change and more. All of these create poverty and make poverty worse. The Oxfam mandate is to fight poverty – so which one do you choose? You can’t. Plain and simple. Oxfam can’t choose because they have to fight poverty at every place and in every corner of the world. But they don’t mind. They know that they can’t solve poverty, but they can fight it and campaign on it to try and influence those who can change and affect poverty.

That’s one of the problems that Oxfam will always face. They have to continue to fight and fight and fight. And hope the world changes little by little. And companies will get frustrated because Oxfam will never tell them that they did a great job. That’s not what Oxfam is about. They need to keep on pushing and pushing. Hoping that companies will take one step and then another – and each time with Oxfam pushing little by little. Don’t expect Oxfam to applaud what you do. That’s not their job. Their job is to move you a little bit and then a little more and then a little more. So you will always get a ‘step in the right direction’ answer from them. You want them to applaud you? Then solve poverty. Nothing will be good enough until Oxfam sees the back of poverty.

And the people working at Oxfam? Man, I don’t know where to start with them. They are committed. Deeply committed and passionate about changing this world. Imagine having to face just bad news every day and you still go back to the office. That’s what they are about. They go back to the office knowing that it is going to be a bad day at the office. Somewhere a child is dying and somewhere a disaster has struck. Poverty is still there in all its glory. It takes a certain strength to face this every single day. Day in and day out. And knowing that it won’t end in their lifetime. These people are made of lots of humanity and a little flesh.

But don’t think they are just some somber intellectuals. No. They have fun and can party. And they can be funny as hell. Phil Bloomer is one of the funniest guys I have ever met. They love their work and they love each other. And they know that they needs each other to be like this or else they will never get through the day. Push, Constantino, Sumi and Liam – just a few people I met during my time that I will never forget. Not their work – that’s one thing. No, I will always remember them for the people they are. Heroes. Heroes every single day. And they don’t even know it or care for it.

Oxfam is typical of good developmental non-profits. They are working towards making themselves obsolete. They are trying to work themselves out of a job. Because they know that if that ever happens it will also be the end of poverty. So they work hard to get themselves unemployed.

So what’s my beef? Very simple. I want them to try even harder. I don’t question their commitment. And I will never question the people working there. But after working for them I got to know their weakness. They are the best in the world when it comes to fighting poverty. From programs to campaigns – no one can touch them. But I saw them from the inside and know that they can do better. I know that they are working at 50% of their potential. Many reasons for this – and I will go into that in future blogs, but not today. I saw what they achieve each day – more than anyone else in the world. But I also saw what they could achieve. So much more. One more life can be saved by doing a few small things differently. Some of these things are internal and some of them external. But I saw them and realized they have so much more to offer than what they are offering at the moment. Imagine if they work at 70% of their potential? How much better will the world be if they are already this good?

I want them to work on improving day in and day out. With the same urgency that they put into their campaigns and their emergency relief. They are an undisputed champion already. No one gets even close to what they are doing. But they must not be happy with being the best. They should strive to be the best they can be. I will attack them from every angle I can get to get them to improve one step at a time. I will use their tactics against them. I will push and push to get them to take that one extra step. And then I’ll say that it is a step in the right direction. Never happy. Never happy. I owe it to them, but more importantly, I owe it to my people in Africa. Remember, Africa is what drives me to do the work I do. They are my conscious. And Oxfam is the vehicle of change.

I do it because I love them. I do it because I care for them. I do it because I saw their potential and want them to be that person I saw. I do it because I want to see the back of them. I want to Make Poverty History.

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(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?

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Erm… Hum, that’s a lie. I tell you, joining Oxfam was one of the most stressful times in my life. No, let me rephrase that. Trying to get a job at Oxfam was the most stressful time of my life. Bloody hell, it was difficult. And took forever. Well, it all started back in 1999.

We started looking at Oxfam as a serious option shortly after I got back from the WTO Battle of Seattle. They were (and remains) pretty much the Exxon of non-profits – the biggest amongst giants, and polluting everything and everyone along the way. (Sorry, more detailed Oxfam bashing will come in future blogs).

All I had to do was send off my artificially enhanced resume and they’ll throw jobs at me. It was going to be easy. Hey, who wouldn’t want to hire me? We were so sure that by 2000 we would be sipping Gin and Tonic on our estate in Oxfordshire. I just had to find the right job to match my experience and skills.

Step 1: Find the job… somewhere… anywhere… just find the bloody thing.

But finding the job wasn’t as easy as what we thought. Where the hell do we start? Hey, their website of course. Uh, no. It was still early days on the Internet. Oxfam tend to forget that for most people in Africa the Internet doesn’t exist. And those few who had it was (is) still using bog standard landlines to connect. Trying to access the Oxfam website was like trying to read War and Peace – you knew it was possible, but it wasn’t going to happen in a day. Nope. Just click on the Oxfam website and go out to play a game of footie outside. Follow this up with dinner and a trip to the bar and you might be fortunate enough to have opened the front page. Never mind the job search section. And we would have had a blackout by this stage in any case. Or the line would have been disconnected. Meaning that we have to start the process all over again. If you haven’t been to the bar yet – start going, because you will need the drink to stay calm.

Oxfam, and almost every other bloody website in the world, forgets that the more complex and colourful your site, the more likely it would mean more time needed to upload. Not a problem if you have broadband (or DSL in those days), but a huge problem if you still used landlines. The site might look pretty, but my reactions weren’t.

So off to the papers and magazines, right? That should be easy. But where do you start? Oxfam hardly published their jobs in our local paper Eikestadnuus. The Economist? Hardly – only the really senior positions that no African will be asked to fill. I needed something a little lower down the ranks. But I was in luck, The Guardian (Oxfam’s favourite daily) had a deal with my weekly newspaper – The Mail & Guardian. And some of those Oxfam jobs actually slipped through cracks and made it into the newspaper. And then I hit another snag. Most of the jobs was already closed off for applications by the time it was advertised in the M&G. Back to square one – the damned web.

We eventually narrowed our searches down to about ten different places – a handful of newspapers (local and global) and a few (African) user friendly websites that posted the Oxfam jobs on their sites. Now we were ready to rock and roll. Oxfam here I come.

Step 2: Apply… and apply… and apply… don’t stop for anything.

Which job should we apply for? There are so many. Do I want to be a researcher or a campaigner or a field worker or a policy adviser? And do I want to research or advise on debt or coffee or disasters or multilateral trade or what? And do I want to work for Oxfam International or Oxfam Great Britain or Novib (Oxfam Netherlands) or Oxfam Canada 1 or 2 (typical of the Canadians, they had to have two – a French one and an English one). I can’t even decide which socks to wear or whether the socks should be matching or whether to wear socks at all, how am I going to pick one from this smörgåsbord of options? (Like the spelling? I checked it up on Wikipedia). This needed some serious thinking and consultations.

Well, after careful consideration by the Get-The-Damn-Job Committee, weeks of meticulous planning and re-planning by the Just-Make-A-Bloody-Decision Task Team, and independent advice by a group of even more independent consultants headed up by McKinsey & Company, we came up with a plan. We decided to take the shotgun approach.

This carefully worked out strategy is based on the principle of beggars can’t be choosers. Instead of aiming at a specific target, this Einsteinish theory argues that either you are good enough for all the available jobs or that you might find one sucker at Oxfam that will be dazzled by your amazingly crafted resume. And who wouldn’t see the stretched truths and value added pieces of fiction that litters your resume. The shotgun approach reasons that at least one of the pellets will hit a target. No one said that it needed to be the right target. Remember, Oxfam is the target and it doesn’t matter which targeted Oxfam it hits. It just needs to hit something.

So we carefully crafted applications ranging from CEO of Oxfam to shop assistant in Mable Hall. Something had to give. Sorry Jack, a target will be hit.

Step 3: Aim low… remember where you come from.

It did became very apparent that I wasn’t going to be employed as CEO. Or in any senior position that matched my South African position in any way. I am not trying to brag, but I got to a very senior position in South Africa in a very, very short period of time. So I initially expected the job at Oxfam to be on more or less the same level. But no. They weren’t going to employ someone from Africa into a senior position. I mean really. What do we know of the world? The fact that we work and live in the places that they are meant to work for didn’t matter to them. No. The colonialist blood ran thick. They employ their own people at the top and might throw a few of us in there to show their diversity. But they were pretty English and white at the top. And remains so.

But it didn’t bug me too much. I was a Director in South Africa and I wouldn’t employ any of them at a senior position in South Africa. So I guess it was just more than fair that they play the same game in their backyard. I just swallowed hard and went for a few positions below what I wanted. But this was about getting the opportunity to prove myself. Getting that break. And once I get it I will work my butt off to prove my worth to them. The revolution will start once I get in. The job I get was going to be a Trojan horse.

But, of course, I had a family to feed. It took some hard decisions and harder words from my wife, but she decided that it was something she wanted all of us to do. So tighten the belts a bit and stop thinking of the estate in Oxfordshire. Maybe the counsel estate will have to do.

So we focused a bit more on the lower end of the scale. And got cracking on those applications again. And enjoyed it while we could. Once we accepted the lower end job we wouldn’t be able to enjoy the luxury of licking stamps. And we prepared for the move. I was sure that it was going to happen any day soon.

Step 4: Hang in there… this might take a while… just don’t stop.

What is taking them so long? This is like watching a kettle boil or asking an Englishman for directions. It takes for bloody ever. Now remember, I started applying for Oxfam jobs back in 1999. I expected it to be all done and dusted within a few weeks. A few months at most if we include the visa applications. But really. Months went by without as much as a word from Oxfam.

I was sure that it had something to do with the telephone system. So we checked and double checked our connections. Checked if our emails are being delivered and Oxfam wasn’t on a overly sensitive anti-spam system of our service provider. But not a peep from them. Nothing. Nada. Zilch. Zero. Fuck all.

That’s when I read the fine print. Apparently they don’t send you a note to either confirm that they got your application or if you were unsuccessful. Obviously the last one couldn’t be relevant to me. Why would they not want to hire me? It must be the postal system. I am sure our government got a sniff that I might be leaving and would do all in their power to stop the brain drain. That was the only logical explanation. And the few rejection letter that came my way was delicately planted by government agents working on keeping me in South Africa.

So I just kept on applying for more jobs at Oxfam. Sometimes ten at a time. Week in and week out. And I smiled every single time I got a rejection or no reply. I knew that every time they rejected me or ignored me I was getting closer and closer to that one job. This was just the law of averages. You have to go through so many disappointments before you could get to that one job that was just right. So I knew I was getting closer to the one. I forgot that I learnt in science that no matter how many times you test the law of gravity – the result will remain the same. (okay, just in case the geeks are trawling this blog – the law of gravity doesn’t work 100% in quantum physics). But you get what I mean – repeated failure doesn’t always get you closer to success. But I had to believe.

Step 5: Get the interview… not the job.

And then I got the call. All the way from Phil Twyford, Advocacy Director for Oxfam International. He wanted me to come up to Brussels for an interview for a position as lobbyist at the European Commission. Man was I exited. I prepared like hell. read everything that I could. Studied like I’ve never studied before. Flew over to Brussels and completely froze at my first interview. I was way over prepared and when they stuffed up my schedule I didn’t react the way I should have – I panicked and just plainly had a bad interview. Okay, it wasn’t that bad. But I did feel that I wasn’t on top of my game. I was not focused enough. I wanted the job a little too much. But it was a lesson learnt. Don’t go for the job. Go for the interview. That’s why they invited you in the first place. So we were back at square on after almost 2 years of failed applications and one interview. Man did I feel shit and almost gave up. But we started sending off those new applications the next day.

This time we didn’t have to wait too long though. Nope. The next one came a few months later. This time by another Phil. Phil Bloomer who was then the Head of Advocacy at Oxfam Great Britain. He wanted me to come and speak to them about the position at the WTO. This time it went like a dream. I nailed everything and then some. They loved me. I knew more about the WTO than all of them put together. And, as a previous WTO negotiator, I had a trunk full of contacts. But I still didn’t get the job. They loved me but they needed someone to start immediately and although I knew more than anyone else, they just couldn’t wait the few months that it was going to require to get me my visa. For some or other reason the WTO wasn’t willing to postpone their Ministerial meeting for a few months either.

My last words to Phil was to say thanks for the opportunity, but, make no mistake, I will be working for you guys very soon. And it was just a few months later that I got another call from Phil. He wanted me to come over and talk to them about a job as Policy Adviser, Private Sector. And that was the one we were waiting for.

The law of averages worked. It’s a numbers game. I had to apply for about 500 jobs to get 3 interviews to land one job. Did it get me down? Yes. Did I felt like giving up at times? Yes! Did I feel shit when I didn’t get the job? Absolutely. Would I do it all over again? Without a doubt. It was as easy as pie.

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