Oxfam’s Transformation and the Future of International NGOs: A Conversation with Danny Sriskandarajah

Last week I sat down with Danny Sriskandarajah, who is leading Oxfam GB through its current upheaval. Here are some extracts, but do please listen to the full 25 minutes if you can.

So Danny, you’re a year and a half into the job. People will have been watching with interest as you came in as a surprise choice – before joining you were known for bashing large INGOs. We’ll come back to that, but first can you talk us through the dramatic changes going on at Oxfam?

These changes are, I hope, part of our ambition to rethink the size and shape of our network and how Oxfam shows up across the world. One important part of that change is that we will phase out in about 18 countries, over the next two years. That includes middle income or lower-middle income countries where our programmes at the moment are relatively small, such as Tanzania, Rwanda, Sri Lanka, plus some really big operations like Afghanistan.

The phase-out will be difficult – not just because there will be almost 1,500 Oxfam employees who’ll be directly affected, but really because of the people that we work with, the partners we support in those countries – and we’ll do that as responsibly as possible. The reason we are doing this is so at the other end of our operations, in another 18 countries, we can increase our investment. Those places will be more of the fragile and conflict affected contexts, the Yemens, the DRCs, the Syrias. Part of this is recognising that to do quality work in a place like Yemen you have to invest more, especially if you want to do it in a safe, feminist way as we aspire to.

Another element of this transformation is our aspiration to have more southern ‘affiliates’ – independent, locally registered organisations that are credible parts of civil society in their own countries. In places like Indonesia, Kenya, Senegal, the Philippines, we hope that in the next few years these offices will become stand-alone affiliates in our global network in much the same way that India, Brazil, Mexico, South Africa have in recent years become Oxfams in their own right. It’s a really big transformation.

In the UK we’re dealing with some financial pressures. Five years ago, about 30% of people said they gave to an international development charity; that figure fell to 19% last year, and we expect it’s fallen further as people are more worried about Covid impacts here.

And of course coronavirus disruption has had a profound impact. We’ve had to close our shops and that’s meant we’re losing about £5 million a month. A lot of our fundraising activities – the London marathon, the big festivals – have been cancelled or postponed. We are having to take £16 million out of our core operations, and that unfortunately will mean we have to reduce the number of jobs in Oxfam GB by around 200.

At an Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) Camp in Bunia, Democratic Republic of Congo. Credit: John Wessels/ Oxfam

So fairly hard times for Oxfam and for you personally, but you’re trying to do things that are not just about reduction but talking about ‘transformative programming’. Could you give me an example of what that means?

For me, ‘transformative programming’ is that holistic, joined up view of trying to make a serious impact on poverty and injustice [in a place like Yemen]. But to do so needs greater investment, so our teams aren’t just delivering humanitarian relief, but also thinking about strengthening local civil society capacity, about working with women’s rights groups in a more meaningful way, improving how we work as well as what we do. And also doing incredibly important influencing and advocacy work. For example, we’re taking the UK government to court about its sale of arms to Saudi Arabia and taking Yemeni activists to international conferences, including donor pledging conferences.

So you came in as a disrupter, a critic of sclerotic INGOs that don’t get things done and hoover up all the money and power. Do you now think it was the right decision, and what’s it like trying to reform one of these big beasts from the inside?

I do think it was the right decision, big can be beautiful in civil society. We need strong, global, influential, high-functioning civil society formations to speak truth to power and to be in those spaces, challenging governments and businesses. The question for me is can you be clear about the value-add of bigger organisations like ours? For the last 18 months I’ve been thinking with colleagues about where can we help not hinder, where can we facilitate and strengthen the people and partners we work with without grabbing control of power and resources. It’s been much harder than I expected.

Give me your best and worst moments!

The worst moments are when I encounter layers of bureaucracy and complexity that I couldn’t have even imagined, having never worked in a large organisation before. Part of my mission is to simplify, become more efficient, more empowering. One of the value-adds of large organisations is that we can move resources from northern donors to southern partners and communities who might not otherwise be able to access them – I’ve spent a lot of my 18 months here looking at the business processes involved and always asking the question, are we being as empowering as possible in how we work?

Open again from this week

One high point that sticks out was the UN Global Refugee Forum in December 2019, with lots of heads of state and INGO representatives. It was fantastic to see how Oxfam showed up there. Colleagues had worked with local refugee organisations from different parts of the world, brought refugee advocates to Geneva, and consciously given up some of our speaking slots to them, organised side events and lobby meetings with them, challenged governments. In a refugee forum that had tiny numbers of refugees as actual participants, it was really gratifying to see Oxfam using its resources and networks, and the fact it has a seat at these tables, in a very clever way to push an agenda that we care deeply about.

I want to broaden out to talk about the sector as a whole, and a recent piece by Mike Edwards in Open Democracy. To summarise, he argues that INGOs are too removed from the people they’re supposed to serve, that there are structural issues that preserve the status quo despite warm words about sharing power and resources. Too little money goes to smaller players. It’s all too much talk, not enough action. Do you recognise that?

I think Mike and others are very much onto something. For me, civil society needs to be at the cutting edge of institutional reform. We need to take participation far more seriously, we need to take accountability more seriously and we need to open up.

The critique has been that big organisations have become part of the problem, obsessed with their own brands, hogging power and profile. From what I’ve seen, Oxfam colleagues are very conscious of those critiques and are trying to address them, and I see my job as enabling and pushing them along.

I want Oxfam to be known as an organisation that really takes the shifting of power and resources seriously. When they look at our accounts in five years’ time, I want people to say, ‘Wow, they really have taken seriously this challenge to move money to local partners and build long term partnerships’.

That all sounds great, but power follows money and that principally comes from the north. Isn’t there something fundamental about upwards accountability to donors that is always going to undermine your attempt to be downwardly accountable to communities?

There is a tension, it’s true. And as long as we have an imbalance where huge amounts of wealth sit in the global north, I think we do need mechanisms like the INGO sector or the aid system to be able to transfer some of those resources to fight poverty and injustice, that’s really important.

The question is how can you change this architecture from within? Is it even possible? Plenty of people argue that change has to come from without, that the ‘aid industrial complex’ will not reform itself and it’s really just a matter of seeing out its last few years or decades.

Oxfam was founded long before aid was defined as a term. We were founded on the basis of solidarity

But I think there’s something more interesting here. Oxfam was founded long before aid was defined as a term. We were founded on the basis of solidarity – in this case to fight famine in Greece – not just by delivering life-saving assistance but by speaking truth to power – lobbying the British government to change its policy on the blockade of Nazi-held Europe.

That approach I think is timeless. We’ve got to work within the aid system, to make sure that we shift power and resources as best we can. But also, I hope that we are here long after aid is no longer needed, because there’s another need, which is to have strong, vibrant, internationalist civil society formations, global networks, that bring people together, that build from below and beyond borders, on what look increasingly like universal struggles against poverty, inequality and injustice.

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