Some whacky ideas for a future Oxfam – draft paper for your comments

July 20, 2018 23 By Duncan Green

Milton Friedman once said “Only a crisis – actual or perceived – produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around. That, I believe, is our basic function: to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes the politically inevitable.”

Well I seem to be in the middle of a potential Milton Friedman moment. As part of Oxfam GB’s internal discussion on its future path, my outgoing boss Mark Goldring asked me to write a paper with some crazy ideas (‘the whackier, the better’) to jolt people out of the immediate preoccupations of safeguarding and job cuts, and into broader thinking about the future roles of large international NGOs like ours.

Being told to be whacky is a bit like being ordered to be funny, but I gave it a go, putting together my 2015 paper, Fit for the Future?, some of the bonkers-and-vaguely-relevant ideas aired on this blog over the years, and adding a few new ones. Here’s the 6 page paper that is now being sent round: Fit-for-the-Future-2-for-comment-July-2018. It covers two kinds of ‘hows’ and one ‘why’. And just to be crystal clear, this is a paper written for Oxfam GB, not Oxfam International, and has no official status whatsoever!

Walls and Boundaries

When you work inside Oxfam it can feel like a fortress, surrounded by thick walls. People are either Oxfam, Exfam,

Old Oxfam?

or ‘other’. That prevents ideas and influences flowing into and out of the organization and is anathema to ‘dancing with the system’. Some ways to weaken or tear down those walls include

Open Access: every ‘product’ from evaluation data to draft papers to internal training materials should go online. Default for any written piece of work should be to publish, or else have to explain why that is a bad idea.

‘Disintermediation’, aka Oxfam getting out of the way, for example through

  • GiveDirectly: a button on the website lets you give money directly to people living in poverty

    New Oxfam?

  • HearDirectly: click here to hear from families, activists, local leaders
  • Sponsor an Activist: forget goats or toilets, help your mum sponsor a women’s rights activist for Christmas!

Start-ups and spin offs: Time to implement the move from ‘supertanker’ to ‘flotilla’: Seed the ecosystem by spinning off 10 promising projects a year as independent start-ups, with a bit of capital and support; relinquish top-down control of advocacy by supporting ‘grey panthers’ groups to work on areas such as finance, tax or extractives.

Positive Deviance: PD shows respect for the system’s ability to solve problems, and a move away from the arrogance and hubris of the white saviour aid complex. Let’s make it standard practice, and see if it could potentially replace the project as our default way of working.

Who is Oxfam?

Women-Only Humanitarian Response Team: Creating an explicitly women-only humanitarian team would provide an explicit break with the past. It could be permanent, or a temporary measure, with the incorporation of feminist men down the line, once the required culture shift has been achieved.

Democratizing Oxfam’s Governance: One third of trustees to be elected by supporters; one third by long term partners; one third by Oxfam (eg the chair, CEO and existing trustees)? Or we could have staff representatives on the board, as in the German model?

Getting Serious on Localization: A localization commitment device: we pledge that X% (100%?) of our spend will go through genuinely local CSOs by 2022. If we fall short, we will pass the shortfall to a 3rd party organization such as Civicus, for use as a local CSO trust fund until meet our target. Oh, and we also set up and support a Fundraisers without Borders network

Is this about poverty or power?

Beyond the Project: The hivemind of aid and activism is trapped in the straitjacket of the project – linear, clunky and poorly suited to navigating reality’s rapids. In practice, we often find and support inspirational leaders, but can only do so by obliging them to come up with a project. Why not skip that bit and back individuals directly with scholarships, mentoring, exchanges etc?

A change of Why: From Poverty to Power

According to Oxfam’s website ‘Our vision is a just world without poverty. We want a world where people are valued and treated equally, enjoy their rights as full citizens, and can influence decisions affecting their lives.’

What if we made power (not just ‘empowerment’) more central? Power is the underlying force field of social change, Oxfam turns its role into leading the way in understanding, measuring and influencing the nature and distribution of power. Takes a new look at its 3 core activities: humanitarian, long term development and influencing, through a power lens. Some pluses:

  • Power is post-development – universal, eternal and central
  • Power is already what we are good at (sometimes) – see our new work on measuring women’s empowerment

So that’s the best I could manage – please add, and whackify – this is supposed to be the start, not the end, of a conversation.

Initial discussions with Oxfam colleagues have been both interesting and surprising: disintermediation and ‘from poverty to power’ have attracted the most animated discussions (Mark suggested I trademark the latter, just in case). Women-only humanitarian looks like being a marmite issue (you love it or hate it). But the best news is that people are definitely up for disruption in response to the current crisis. I hate to admit it, but it looks like Milton Friedman was onto something.

Over to you.