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6 June 2005

Oxfam bites back

Last week the NS accused the aid agency of failing Africa by diluting the Make Poverty Hist

By Barbara Stocking

On 26 May, my colleagues in Darfur awoke to begin again the daily task of supporting 700,000 people who rely on Oxfam to survive. In Europe, staff reflected on the promised doubling of EU aid budgets – the fruit of years of campaigning by Oxfam and many others. Unusually I was in Washington, preparing to tackle Paul Wolfowitz, the new president of the World Bank.

I took an early call from back home. The New Statesman‘s latest issue – cover story: “Why Oxfam is failing Africa” – had just come out. My staff were shocked at the injustice of the headline and worried by the impact on the Make Poverty History campaign, which we support along with 450 other organisations.

In what sense is Oxfam “failing Africa”? This extraordinarily serious allegation not only insults hundreds of our staff and partners, who work incredibly hard each day to help overcome poverty, it is also an affront to hundreds of African organisations that have helped shape the political demands of our campaigns as well as the direction of our humanitarian and development programmes.

Beyond the headline, the article itself made a somewhat different charge – not that we are failing Africa but failing to be sufficiently critical of the British government. True? Ask Margaret Beckett what she thinks of Oxfam’s condemnation of the lily-livered reform of the Common Agricultural Policy in 2003. Ask government aides who remember their embarrassment when we described the outcome of the Canadian G8 summit as “recycled peanuts”, as the UK tried to talk up the deal. We were a leading member of the coalition that pressed Tony Blair and Gordon Brown to commit to the target of spending 0.7 per cent of national income on aid with the call for them to “Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is”. Hardly the chant of a cheerleader for govern-ment. We have criticised governments over Iraq, Afghanistan, asylum vouchers and the arms trade. Where they have done the right thing, we have recognised that, too. We don’t oppose for the sake of it. We praise when decision-makers do what our 600,000 supporters ask them to do and criticise toughly when they do not.

Perhaps most importantly, we recog-nise that, for progress to be made, change cannot come from the UK alone. We need action from other governments and international institutions. Oxfam International is a confederation with partners in more than 100 countries and the Make Poverty History campaign in Britain is part of a global call to action against poverty. We expect the British government to use its political capital and move others because, when the UK does take a lead, it helps our colleagues in Germany, China and America to push the more recalcitrant governments into following suit.

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Oxfam takes what it learns from people in poverty and delivers those messages either through lobby meetings or research reports. But ultimately, for change to last, it must be supported in the hearts and minds of people. That’s why we launched initiatives such as the Big Noise petition to Make Trade Fair, which has been signed by six million people worldwide. A major campaigning organisation cannot choose between direct lobbying on the “inside” and activism “outside”; each is essential.

We are proud to be part of a huge, diverse coalition. Together we are making a significant impact – something last week’s story glossed over. Europe’s promise to double aid by 2010 is at least partly the coalition’s doing, and the story did in fact quote a Whitehall source as saying “without Make Poverty History . . . Africa would not be on the G8 summit at all”. Pressure from the Trade Justice Movement, of which Oxfam is a founder member, recently forced a shift in the UK’s policy that is causing consternation in Brussels. Progress on debt cancellation is slow, but there is now the chance of a deal, something not on the horizon a year ago.

The NS‘s front page last week was a punch in the stomach for campaigners impatient for a breakthrough at the G8 summit. It did no credit to a progressive, pro-development political magazine. But we are confident it will not distract the 100,000 heading for Edinburgh on 2 July to deliver their message to the G8, or the many more who will join this call at the Live 8 concerts. They will stay focused on the real fight – to make poverty history.

Barbara Stocking is director of Oxfam.

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