Winnie Byanyima

1 September, 2015

Transforming Oxfam

Transforming Oxfam by Winnie Byanyima. Credit: Oxfam International

Do organisations have to wait for the crisis to be serious before they can conduct transformative change? I think this depends very much on who defines what “the crisis” looks like. Is it the gradual drying up of donations from cash strapped governments and publics in rich countries? Is it the closing of civil society space, in both the North and South; or is it a humanitarian system stretched to breaking point? These are very real and practical threats to an INGO model we’ve had for the last fifty years or so. They are getting more and more serious and we will need to adapt and respond to them.

But when I became the first African woman to lead a major International NGO, I knew I was coming to an organisation that understood that a more fundamental crisis was already here, and already serious: a growing crisis of INGO legitimacy. It was recognised within Oxfam that we need to do more to represent a changing world where economic power was moving to China, to Brazil, to India; and where multilateral decision-making is becoming harder as it becomes more truly democratic. We know that we must be increasingly concerned with inequality within countries rather than just between them; and that we lose legitimacy if we do not take every opportunity – such as more communications technology – to be accountable to communities.

Some innovation is already in place. A team from Oxfam offices in emerging economies are working together to coordinate work and influence within these “BRICSAMIT” countries* and our Worldwide Influencing Network is dedicated to increasing activism and influence in the Global South. But it is not enough, and over the past two years I have driven a vision to further transform Oxfam by 2020. Our headquarters will be moving to Nairobi in the coming years and we will continue the trend of supporting new Oxfam affiliates such as Oxfam India, South Africa, Brazil and Mexico. We must further empower our country teams to set one strategy that reflects local needs and local change agendas rather than the overlapping country plans of various affiliates. And we need to do more to work together as a global organisation to share knowledge, research, and experience to increase our influence.

I do often reflect, as I look around the English city of Oxford that I now call home, on the revolutionary spirit of those first activists who saw beyond the hardship and patriotism of Britain in 1942, and who lobbied to defy government policy or wartime blockades and get relief to people starving in Greece and Belgium. To continue to challenge power and be ready to transform the organisation to meet new needs is to work with this spirit, not against it.

Such transformational change will never happen without disruption, disagreement or delay. And we will continuously have to challenge ourselves to remain true to the spirit and culture of what we are trying to do, rather than simply focus on the mechanism of the process. Communication, accountability to staff, a true desire to shift power as well as resources, a relentless focus on being accountable to poor people – not just a wider number of donors or the political priorities of developing country governments. These are the principles that must guide to 2020 and beyond.

*Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa, Mexico, Indonesia, Turkey

Photo credit: Oxfam International

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