Blog post by Winnie Byanyima, Oxfam International, Executive Director
When I became Executive Director of Oxfam International in May 2013 I was very proud and very excited. Oxfam is one of the world’s most recognizable and renowned social justice INGOs, a group of organizations united in the fight against poverty. The chance to help shape its future was a terrific opportunity. Every day since, my pride and excitement in our work has only grown.
But I also remember at the time being uneasy. In my head and my heart, I felt the “center” of Oxfam was not where it needed to be and that voices within Oxfam were not balanced globally. I talked with many more experienced Oxfam colleagues and I was relieved. No-one disagreed. I was arguing with nobody. Oxfam needed to shift its center of leadership and to strengthen Southern voices within its decision-making.
When imagining a future, it’s important to understand the past. Oxfam was founded by Quakers, activists and academics in Oxford, UK in 1942. They campaigned against the Allied blockade of German-occupied Greece to stop the starvation of civilians. Successful, our founders expanded Oxfam’s work into Asia and Africa, concentrating in the main on tackling hunger and poverty. Truly, Oxfam has stood on the shoulders of these giants. Oxfam GB remains Oxfam’s biggest affiliate – genuinely loved by the British public – and a powerhouse of Oxfam’s international confederation.
Gradually, social justice organizations from other countries gravitated toward Oxfam – sometimes joining up loosely, via a strand of work, sometimes more closely bonded by a shared mission. They brought their own rich histories, development programs and alliances to the table, and their own supporters and funding relationships. By 1995 this loose confederation of Oxfams - who had begun to take the Oxfam name, too – established an international Secretariat to coordinate their work, and eventually brought it under a shared single global strategic plan. For convenience, the Secretariat was located in Oxford, where the first Oxfam had been founded.
As of today we have 18 Oxfam affiliate members and two observers, with plans to welcome more, with a combined spend of about $1b. We run development programs and have more than 3,000 partner organizations in more than 90 countries, along with a single humanitarian emergency response team that is expert on water, sanitation and protection issues. We campaign together against inequality, for the protection of people’s rights in times of crisis, and for sustainable development and a fairer global food system. Each affiliate member retains its independence and its sovereign rights, responsible for its relationships with its own government, supporters, partners and donors.
From 2017, the Oxfam International Secretariat will begin its move to Nairobi in Kenya. We have signed a Memorandum of Understanding and a Host Country Agreement with the President and the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Kenya. I must give my personal thanks to President Uhuru Kenyatta for being such an enthusiastic champion to help realize our plans.
It will take two years to complete the move. We will begin first to relocate senior directors and other key Secretariat staff. Thereafter, the new location will help us to recruit locally more easily. As is the case now, our Secretariat will remain a multi-locational organization, with advocacy offices in DC, NY, Brussels and Addis Ababa, a Global Humanitarian Team, and other staff accommodated in our affiliate HQs and country teams, too.
This move does not affect Oxfam’s affiliate members. Affiliates’ domestic and overseas operations and their own relationships with their publics, donors and governments will not change. The British public is not losing its famous Oxfam! Oxfam GB will remain as strong and as vibrant as ever. Instead, the British public (and publics in other countries) will continue supporting an Oxfam that is part of a movement led from an African location – not a European one.
This move is far deeper than a symbolic one (although I believe that the symbolism is important too). The fact is the world is changing and I believe it is necessary for NGOs like Oxfam to change. Southern countries are growing ever more influential on international stages. Important decisions affecting millions of people are being made in cities that are entirely different from the centres of power of 50, 20, or even 10 years ago. Many poor countries are growing economically and becoming middle income but poverty and misery persists, worsened by climate change and resource scarcity. Rising inequality in almost every country is undermining all our efforts to eradicate poverty.
Our work is more now about supporting ordinary people – everywhere – to hold political decision-makers and corporates to account, so they can exercise their rights to a fair share of the benefits of economic, political and social development. It’s about linking ordinary people’s struggles and experiences, everywhere. We need to work more closely with citizens to overcome economic and political exclusion, which is the root cause of poverty
For Oxfam therefore, to be more “globally balanced”, with stronger roots and deeper representation in the South is critical. And that is why Oxfam has decided that its global Secretariat should sit nearer to the people that we're working with to fight the injustice of poverty.