Oxfam 2020 - Why the International Secretariat must move south

Blog post by Winnie Byanyima

Oxfam International, Executive Director
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Earlier this month - on Sunday evening, April 6 to be exact - Nigeria suddenly became Africa’s largest economy. Using new data, Nigeria recalculated its GDP and overnight its wealth shot up by 90% to $509 billion, in the process leap-frogging South Africa’s. At the stroke of a pen, a Nigerian’s average income went from $1500 to $2688 a year. Nigeria’s movie industry alone became worth more than $7 billion a year, its oil industry ten times that. What didn’t change was the fact that most of its 170 million people still live below the poverty line.

Geopolitical and economic power is shifting

This development illustrates that geopolitical and economic power is shifting. Fast. Poverty is shifting too, and so is our capacity to fight it. Today, most poor people live in middle-income countries. At Oxfam, we are focusing more on the worsening gap between the rich “haves” at the top and the billion “have-nots” at the bottom. This is not just about who has more cash in their pocket. Inequality is all about access to political power, good jobs, justice, security, food, land and other valuable resources, to health and education, to life opportunities. For me, “inequality” is an interesting lens through which to re-analyze the misuse of power and its implications for global security and development. Aid, too, is no longer about North-to-South giving; new actors and new technology are re-writing all the rules.

I believe our world revolves ever more tightly around a triangle of powerful relationships between political leaders, ordinary people – including organized civil society – and the private sector. Each one needs to check and balance the other for the common good. Governments and donors are now looking more toward the private sector to fund business opportunities in poor countries. In the past four years, for instance, the World Bank has lent nearly twice as much to the private sector ($36 billion) than for health ($22 billion) and three times more than on education ($12 billion). This is a terribly risky strategy. The private sector has a key role to play in global development and there are many examples of genuinely progressive and mutually beneficial behavior. But unless properly regulated and policed, the private sector can be an incredibly destructive competitor. Smart NGOs need to be constantly reevaluating their relationships with the private sector, as we do with political decision-makers.

We must change to remain relevant

NGOs that don’t read these signs of transformation and that keep operating in the way they always have will become less relevant and have less impact. At Oxfam we cherish our 70 years of history. We bring a lot of knowledge and experience to the table – and we’ll continue to. We don’t change because it’s fashionable; we change because the global dynamics of power and poverty are now so different than before. Oxfam has made a strategic decision to use its work in fighting poverty to concentrate on one over-riding priority: to strengthen our ability to influence the political and corporate dynamics that keep people poor. By influencing the systems of power and decision-making, Oxfam can help more poor people than we could simply by providing them with more services. 

This realization means a new-look Oxfam, changes to how we organize our international family. We are going to have more Oxfam affiliates in southern countries that can raise their own funds, run their own programs, make their own alliances with local people’s movements, and lobby their own governments and businesses. These new Oxfams will have access to all the “central” knowledge we’ve built up over the years about development work, policy analysis, humanitarian delivery and campaigning. Eventually we’ll share resources and services such as HR and technology too.

Transforming into a genuinely international organization 

I think NGOs need to do more than simply “adapt” to changing global dynamics. We need to transform ourselves into genuinely international organizations, that share power more democratically and that are more accountable to poor communities because we’re closer to them. We need to be smarter about how (and where) we influence the political and political systems that carry the most power, and in forging innovative new partnerships and collaborations. None of this means we have to abandon all that went before. On the contrary, we need to understand from our histories about how ordinary people have successfully struggled to uphold their rights and improve their lot, and how NGOs can help them to do that today too. 

I want Oxfam to be part of a stronger, global movement for a values-driven society that treats people more equally and preserves the planet. In our own way, within the Oxfam world, that will mean devolving power to the south.

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