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Why am I leaving one of the best jobs in international development?

Author: Ricardo Fuentes-Nieva (@rivefuentes)

I have some news. I will be leaving the post of Head of Research at Oxfam Great Britain. It’s been three years since I joined Oxfam and it’s been quite a ride to say the least. But more on that later.

I am leaving, but not leaving. I will be moving back to Mexico where I’ll be taking up the role of Executive Director for Oxfam Mexico (for those who don’t know, Oxfam is a confederation of “like-minded affiliates”, Oxfam Mexico and Oxfam Great Britain are two of them). I’m quite excited, especially after so many years living abroad. I first left Mexico in 1997 and since then have been back (not counting holidays) twice for a total of two years. Last time I worked and lived there was in 2003, a few years after the election of the first opposition President in more than 70 years. I will soon know what it means to be a particular version of a returned migrant.

Mexico is facing many challenges – including a semi-stagnant economy, stubbornly high poverty rates and massive social and economic inequalities (as highlighted in the excellent report from Gerardo Esquivel for Oxfam Mexico). Electoral democracy was not the silver bullet expected by many. The rule of law is weak and politicians of all sorts (all parties and all levels) escape the existing accountability mechanisms. And then there’s the violence driven by the war on drugs and the drug cartels – and the inability to keep the most dangerous cartel leaders in prison. In its darkest days, Mexico experiences acts of pure, unadulterated evil.

At the same time, something quite exciting is happening. Those who have visited Mexico City lately can attest the vibrancy, energy and innovation in everyday life. The city is experiencing a renaissance that’s attracting young people from around the world. Among the Mexican youth there have also been bright outbursts of civil action, aptly described by the novelist Francisco Goldman in a series of articles in the New Yorker and his new book The Interior Circuit. During the mass protest following the disappearance of 43 rural students late last year, Goldman wrote,

“[S]ometimes a march makes concrete a moment of collective cultural expression that can be harder to put into words. This march was an expression of Mexico City—of a way its residents like to think of themselves—in full flower. But it was also a manifestation of a discernible change that seems to be taking place throughout Mexico. When a friend said that he “could feel Mexico on the move” at the march, he didn’t seem, to me, to be exaggerating.”

This movement isn’t only happening in Mexico City. In the recent elections, a number of public offices around the country went to independent political candidates for the first time, including the governorship of the northern state of Nuevo Leon, the richest in the country. That’s very exciting.

I’m going back because I want to be part of that broader Mexican movement. I want to be part of a stronger, more strategic Mexican civil society.  I’m convinced Oxfam Mexico can contribute to this movement for a better society and improved interactions between institutions, the government and citizens – and confirmed by the enormous media coverage of the Oxfam Mexico report on inequality mentioned above. I’m convinced that I can help the organisation on this journey.

It will also be exciting to continue to work on global issues from a new perspective. People everywhere talk about “the rise of the global south” or different variations of that concept.  Mexico is a large, integrated economy and one of the behemoths in Latin America. It has usually punched below its weight in global affairs (if you discount the delusional attempts by one of our presidents to mediate in the Arab-Israeli conflict in the 1970s) but this seems to be changing. There is now a Mexican Agency for International Development Cooperation and, in recent years, Mexico has led in some of the most noticeable climate change issues. There are countless opportunities for Oxfam Mexico to help advance this transformation.

I feel rather lucky. The Head of Research at Oxfam Great Britain is a wonderful gig. I’m very proud of my team and our work across campaigns and programmes. We accomplished a lot of important things during my time here. Our research on inequality includes the two most successful papers in Oxfam’s 70-plus years of history. The stat “the 85 richest people control as much wealth as the bottom half of the population” became a global message that highlighted the extent of wealth concentration. We did more than that: we used data from our programmes to learn what made a project successful; we explored the links between natural resources and social justice; we consolidated the research resources across the different Oxfams. More than anything, I am proud of the approach that I brought (or at least pushed) to Oxfam’s work: the systematic use of evidence, including the thorough use of statistics, to identify and fight poverty and injustice. As Thomas Piketty wrote in the last page in Capital in the 21st CenturyRefusing to deal with numbers rarely serves the interests of the least well-off.” I hope that legacy remains. There is still a lot to be done.

The search for my replacement is open. Here’s the link. Please share.