Jake's View

Keeping Oxfam out of the NGO rabble

Traditional projects do more to help alleviate poverty and create a better society than all the seminars, symposiums and motions can accomplish

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 01 November, 2012, 2:30am
UPDATED : Thursday, 01 November, 2012, 4:48am

"We continue to try and ensure that we influence policy on the causes of poverty, not just drip-feed aid to the symptoms."

Oxfam administrator

I shall identify this man only as "John" as I have a good deal of respect for him. I do not, however, support his idea of Oxfam's objectives as contained in a  note he recently sent me.

Allow me my general doubts about non-governmental organisations. Even where they don't represent overly rich people trying to redeem their souls, most NGOs take care of themselves long before they take care of others. 

A friend of mine who spent time in Africa defines NGO as a white painted, closed-window Toyota land cruiser trailing a choking dust cloud as it speeds to a restaurant in the nearest town in pursuit of the betterment of mankind.

A documentary I once saw on a government-funded Canadian "NGO" started with an expatriate woman diving into a swimming pool at an exclusive residence in sub-Saharan Africa. The narrator  intoned: "When Canadians go abroad to do good, they do very well indeed."

Yes, keep me away. The reason I have always considered Oxfam something special is that it doesn't do this. It is privately funded and engages in projects in which it knows from experience that it can make a difference. Oxfam is get-on-your-knees-and-dirty-your-hands work at the micro level.

So, just what has become wrong, John, with what you now call drip-feeding aid to the symptoms?

I would be happy to see a change  if it could "influence policy on the causes of poverty". Once again, however, allow me my doubts. Can government policy really alleviate poverty rather than just produce a storm of talk? Does policy really tell us how poverty arises? Does policy really offer workable solutions across the world?

There was a time when I might have answered all these questions with a firm "Yes".  But I now think such socialist analyses much too shallow to fit the subtle dynamics of human society.

Tax the rich to feed the poor, for instance, is not a policy. It's a cop-out. It misunderstands how wealth is created and how income disparity widens. It has demonstrably never worked. Yet, I have never seen a policy remedy that advocated much more than this. The advocates are also invariably content that they have done all they need and can now spend money they have not yet raised.

It is my belief that all the seminars, conferences, symposiums, forums and roundtables that Oxfam staffers have attended in pursuit of influencing policy; all the resolutions, declarations and motions passed at these gatherings; all the airfares  and the hotel bills,  all of these things put together have done less to alleviate poverty than a single drip-feed village aid project.

These classic Oxfam drip-feed projects, however, have real achievement to their credit. They give individual people the means to lift themselves out of poverty. This alone is a notable success but there is more. Growing prosperity brings these people social awareness and, little by little, society then changes for the better.

It's a slow process but it is  certain. If you want policy to change, start from the bottom up. Going from the top down just gives you talk, talk, more talk and donors' money wasted.

I fully recognise, John, how frustrating it must be for Oxfam to see dire poverty that it knows is the result of maladministration, corruption and grossly unfair social arrangements. But these, and not what you call drip-feed aid, are the real symptoms of the malady.

To address the underlying causes of the malady, go back to the individual in need, deal with the poverty directly as Oxfam has traditionally done, the drip-feed way, and so give that individual the scope to help his or her own society on its way up. It's the ultimate gesture of trust and it works. It deals with poverty at poverty's roots.

Oxfam has always stood out from the NGO rabble. Let's keep it that way.