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Is Oxfam finally growing up? Report back from the frontline (sort of)

September 13, 2012
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This may sound unlikely, but I’ve just spent three days at an internal Oxfam meeting and I’m really enthused. The occasion was the first ever gathering of our ‘country directors’ following a big (and painful) internal overhaul, akin to swallowing a giraffe (in the memorable words of one director), which has seen all the different independent affiliates of Oxfam International (17 at the last count) pool their resources in each country in something known as the ‘Single Management Structure’ (SMS).

Most big international NGOs have been through similar restructurings in recent years, often opting for a tight federation that is in practice dominated by the larger members. Oxfam has opted for a looser ‘confederation’ that maintains the voice of smaller affiliates. The closest parallel is probably the EU, (OK not very encouraging right now, but pretty good over the longer term). Still awake?

The reason this matters is that it marks an essential step in improving our work in each country, and the country directors are increasingly being recognized as Oxfam’s key players, running new, expanded teams, doing a lot of high level advocacy with governments as we shift ourNorthampton CDs focus more towards national level change (and relatively less on often-fruitless global summitry), and hopefully being more assertive in telling people in headquarters (like me) what to do.  

And they’re an amazing, diverse and politically sharp group of people (see pic). The week has resembled a marathon of wonky speed dating, with ten minutes of expert insider buzz from Rwanda, Yemen, Tajikistan and Bolivia, and that’s just over dinner. I’ve got guest bloggers and case studies coming out of my ears. Beyond all these individual conversations, the overarching question of the meeting was ‘What do we want to be when we grow up?’ i.e. what comes after SMS? Here are some thoughts.

Once we’ve got the country programmes sorted out, the next phase should include identifying some cross-country initiatives, for example piloting new approaches, or doing comparative research (as we are already doing on the impact of food prices). We’re going to have to construct some kind of clearing house system/dating agency to allow country programmes to rapidly identify common issues and start work.

The country focus puts a premium on finding and keeping staff who are constantly monitoring and responding to their evolving political and social contexts. We need more of these ‘antennae’, and fewer heads-down project administrators grinding through the plan, whatever happens in the world outside.

It also means being aware that the constantly changing buzzwords of head office may not permeate to people in the field. If we want to be country-led, we need to stop bamboozling staff with new jargon. With the exception of ‘theories of change’ of course…… Lots of interest in how to do power analysis and improve our grasp of change processes, which bodes well for my next big project (a book on power and change).

In both advocacy and programming, we kept coming back to implementation gaps as the place where an NGO can have the most impact -situations were governments have passed laws, or created institutions, but nothing is happening. That often provides ideal bases for advocacy (after all, the government’s already halfway there) – research the gap, identify the blockers and get stuck in, or set up pilots to show how it can be done. Women’s rights and government decentralization processes provide particularly juicy targets.

Oxfam.101Oxfam also wants to build a ‘worldwide influencing network’, but I don’t think we’ve fully incorporated an understanding of of complex systems into our thinking, which seems to be predicated on us knowing what needs to be done and getting out there and advocating for it – cue those shopping lists of recommendations at the end of every NGO report. That was always a bit dubious (are NGOs really best placed to reform global finance or carbon emissions?) but is even less convincing in complex systems where both the future and the impact of any given intervention is shrouded in uncertainty. So how can we do influencing when we don’t know what the response to an issue should be? Examples include highlighting the problems poor people face (going back to a more basic role of bearing witness/helping people communicate what is happening to them) or convening different groups of players to find solutions together, where we act more as a catalyst/match-maker than a policy maker. Any other suggestions?

The conversations were dotted with striking human stories: the Pakistani CD whose home village threw out the Taliban, and has been getting suicide bomb reprisals ever since; the humanitarian/emergency guru who went to the Nairobi slum of Mukuru and couldn’t believe his eyes – ‘worse than any refugee situation I’ve ever seen’, leading him to ask how the word ‘humanitarian’ somehow came to apply only to emergencies, not to alleviating permanent suffering; the engineer in Tajikistan who set up a ground-breaking forum to bring water to thousands of people, but then got made country director. When asked about his promotion, he replied wistfully ‘Honestly? I like water….’.

Don’t get me wrong, there was still plenty of coma-inducing NGO-speak (‘standing for sustainable transformative development will be very contested going forwards’ – a direct quote) but overall, this feels v exciting. Feels great to be talking more about ‘Oxfam’ rather than ‘Oxfam GB, Oxfam America, Oxfam India etc’. And for all those INGO watchers who want a real picture of what we’re up to (rather than academic parodies) here’s an excellent internal warts-and-all analysis of the most recent set of national ‘Joint Country Analysis and Strategy’ documents drawn up by each newly SMS-d country. It’s written for an internal audience, so a bit jargony, but I would argue all the more valuable for not being packaged for public consumption.


  1. I remember being asked at the Exec Directors meeting that approved SMS whether the networked approach was the right thing to be doing given everyone else was going for tight federation. To which my answer was that it would be a lot more difficult to make happen (yes it was painful) but that if we could make it work then the result would be far more diverse, innovative and adaptive.

    Oxfam should be very proud that it managed to pull this change off and it is great to see the Country Directors beginning to enjoy what the new model makes possible for them.

  2. Can I flag up that you need “antennae” about the political and social context in donor countries too. What sort of projects are likely to get funding ? and what difference does it make if your funding comes from Dubai and Delhi and not London or Washington ?

  3. Two response that shows what a YAWN-it is to most people within and outsideOxfam- something to think about.

    So where are you getting the excitement from Mr Green(Reminds me- you changed the colour of your site too-how wonderfully obedient and corporate!)

    Be that as it may- most of the country excitment and some of the reasons and examples bears good even in the past when we, the bortherhood of Oxfam was flying fiercely independent flags.

    The real change in our conceptualisation came about by federating as International and the overall conceptual frame work that became global.Indeed until the begining of say 2000 there was always independent country analysis based on the specific political economy which therefore meant that we followed local to National history and the responses.Not to mean they were all perfect and glory and all that but atleast it tried to respond to the National needs and in a lighter vien-the eccentricity of the country director and team!.Which is one of the main reason that we atrated to think Global.And:
    For the first time in its Herstory-Oxfam became prescriptive, with the global analysis came global strategy.the time ,effort, resources, the specialist and recentrlaization is all the product of this tumultuous change informed by the Fundemental Stratergic Review(I wonder how many in that group in the photo you have know about this- a straw poll would be good).I know there was a watered down version of a review of this most crucial and historical document and change which,in my view, was a very substantial and far reaching one.Honest review of the post life of this document in action should be so revealing .that will also include the whole notion of regionalisation- and its cost and impact(There were five indicators mentioned to measure this in the process-if my memmory serves me right)
    Global always means less local and vice-versa(even I understand this).Oxfam GB and others have done well with this approach.Campaign, communication and work on change become more prominent and added to the profile.I am not saying this lightly-that post 90s India, Oxfam was known more mostly because of our global campaign(I know this from my personal experience as both a National staff who worked from the bottom rung to being a global campaigner).

    So, this business of cross country themes and all that HQ bashing and quick scurrying to safety is a product of muddled thinking to put it lightly and If I may, a lack of leadership.

    The whole concept of SMS- and the time/resources it has taken and still takes would not be accepted in any business-mind you, the most significant fact that led to this protracted change was and is about Money!(I am not saying that is wrong but being factual).A great Oxfam supporter and donor asked me-“would you take so much time if it was your money”-something to reflect about.

    You are a global organization that works in-country-will be informed by various country analysis-PERIOD.All other discussion about the centre vs periphery is reduntant.If we are serious and real(Honest) than we should use our global anlysis to inform each country programme so that it will be a better country programme than the one country-led programmes we had before the turn of the century.So why have a global strategy?

    Sorry for this long response for what it is worth- here is my two paise worth-if anyone reads that is.

  4. Thanks for the report on this meeting. The “SMS” system of independent Oxfam affiliates pooling resources in each country seems to make sense. I imagine developing country governments and partners may well agree – and are perhaps relieved that the days of dealing and interacting with multiple different Oxfams may be over.

    But: I think Oxfam still has a lot more growing up to do. I can think of three main areas:

    First, there’s Oxfam’s size. With a global budget of over $1.25 billion and over 6,000 staff, Oxfam is a huge global institution. It dwarfs most Southern development organisations. Like other similarly very large INGOs, Oxfam often crowds out other smaller, Southern actors, both at the in-country level, and in global policy discussions. Oxfam needs to do a lot more thinking about the implications of its growing size and presence – both within developing countries and at the global level.

    Second: despite the SMS process, and the emergence of Oxfam India and Mexico, Oxfam remains essentially a Northern governed and run confederation. The big, most powerful Oxfams are in the North; it is their staff who control policy and programming decisions. Despite its genuine attempts at solidarity with the South, Oxfam remains driven by Northern-inspired development perspectives and thinking. In the long run, and for Oxfam to really grow up, this needs to change: in terms of Oxfam’s governance, programming and policy.

    And the third area is the question of how Oxfam actually does its work in developing countries. Within the confederation there has always been the full spectrum of programming approaches: from staff-intensive, direct operational approaches, to minimalist approaches working through intermediaries and partners. Oxfam has traditionally justified this spectrum on the basis of maintaining diversity in its programming (which is really code for: “we can’t agree on a preferred approach”). In the long term, Oxfam needs to ditch the approaches that don’t work, get its thinking straightened out on how it can best work in developing countries, and then develop its expertise behind that model.

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