Opening Oxfam’s African Union liaison office

Last month I joined the pan-African Oxfam team and partners for the first half of the African Union Summit held in Addis Ababa and took advantage of being there to open the Oxfam International Liaison Office with the African Union (AU).

The AU Liaison Office is the only one of its kind so far (with any non-governmental organization and the AU), and one of our challenges is to help open up access to other NGOs, particularly African organizations. So it was great to work in a team, which was a majority of partners and civil society organizations leading the lobbying, with Oxfam staff providing strategic support.

We had a particularly strong contingent from the Solidarity for African Women Rights Coalition (SOAWR), a women's rights network who were lobbying to get more states to sign onto the African Women’s Protocol, on the eve of the Decade for African Women. Others included the Fair Play movement who are working on AU States meeting their commitments to essential services and NGOs working on peace and security including around Sudan.

We lobbied Ambassadors and Ministers in the week ahead of the African Heads of State meeting. The liaison office will follow the meetings closely. Although there is normally no direct access to Heads of State for civil society, we did however have a meeting with Prime Minister Meles Zenawi of Ethiopia. We raised a number of issues: climate change, where he leads for the Africa Group; and the various peace and security issues the AU is working on in a number of countries. We also raised our concerns about the restrictive NGO laws being introduced in Ethiopia and were pleased that Prime Minister Zenawi is willing for his office to continue dialogue on the issue.  

Key to opening our AU liaison office is the opportunity for civil society to help the African Union hold its member states accountable to their promises in ways that the AU bureaucracy cannot, because of diplomatic niceties. Non-state actors can say things that Ambassodors may not be able to. Many Embassies welcome input from Oxfam and our partners, because it helps them put pressure on their colleagues to honor promises, whether on peace and security issues such as Darfur, or on funding for specific programs. It also means they receive a different perspective and information that cannot get from their bureaucrats.

As we met the President of the Commission, Jean Ping, and a number of Commissioners and Ambassadors, it was very clear how much Oxfam's liaison role was valued, particularly because of the way we are assisting access and engagement of African NGOs in the AU. This partner-led approach is an exciting direction for Oxfam’s campaigns and advocacy.

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