Remember when Oxfam took on Winston Churchill, apartheid, the Labour government, Big Pharma and the pesticides industry?

As Oxfam celebrates its 70th anniversary, head of advocacy Max Lawson discovers its radical roots, and urges it not to lose its edgemax lawson January 1942. The second World War was at its height.  The Axis Powers had occupied almost all of Europe. In Greece, people were dying of starvation at a rate of 2000 a day.  Winston Churchill completely opposed any lifting of the naval blockade to allow food in, as he claimed this would prop up the Nazis. In Oxford, a small group of activists came together to form the Oxford Committee for Famine Relief, and together with other famine relief committees across the UK campaign for Churchill to lift the blockade.  Under considerable domestic pressure, which won support from Canada and the US, the Churchill government did eventually let some food through, but not until 200,000 people had died of starvation. Taking on the most powerful people. Saying what has to be said. Campaigning for what is right. Born in a spirit of proud quaker radicalism, Oxfam had arrived. Seventy years later we brought together figures from Oxfam’s past last week to discuss our radical roots, and it was truly inspiring. Oxfam campaigning built rapid momentum throughout the sixties. Oxfam, the new kid on the block, a brazen arriviste compared to its far older and more established peers like Save the Children, pioneered many now-familiar methods – harrowing newspaper adverts, celebrity vigils in Trafalgar square (with backing from both the Beatles and the Stones), tens of thousands lobbying their MP. In 1979 in Cambodia, millions faced starvation following the insane Communist dictatorship of Pol Pot. He had been overthrown by the Vietnamese army who had invaded Cambodia to stop the genocide.  Western governments refused to help the new Vietnamese-supported government, scandalously agreeing that the Khmer Rouge should maintain their seat at the UN despite categorical evidence of mass murder in the killing fields.  Ignoring the opposition of the UK Labour government, Oxfam organised the first shipment of food to Cambodia, turning the tragedy into global front page news, and forcing action by international agencies to support the new government in Phnom Penh. From the early eighties Oxfam began taking on the excesses of the private sector, whether it was the pharmaceutical giants marketing steroids or nestle pushing baby milk in poor countries. Internally there were huge debates and a fear of risk and litigation.  A report accusing the pesticide industry poisoning farmers was suppressed by management, only to have their decision overturned by the board. Throughout we stayed true to our radical roots, taking those risks, taking on the powerful – and winning. After a year of detailed planning, Oxfam announced in 1985 that it was going to stop using Barclays Bank because of their support to apartheid South Africa. Oxfam’s break with Barclays was followed by student organisations across Britain and many others, and a year later Barclays pulled out of South Africa – a major victory as they were present on every high street in South Africa and it was a significant market for the company. This active support of sanctions led to Oxfam being censured by the UK charity commission for being too political. barclays boycottIn the 1990’s we took on the World Bank and IMF, challenging their structural adjustment strictures, handing out packets of pills at their annual meetings saying ‘wrong diagnosis, wrong medicine’.  These should now be dusted off and translated into Greek or Spanish.  We fought hard with many others for debt cancellation. Again we were angrily dismissed by ‘experts’ for being wildly unrealistic and naive.  Ten years later and $100 billion of debt was cancelled. One of our proudest moments was siding with others such as the Treatment Action Campaign, to face down the pharmaceutical companies on the issue of allowing generic medicines to treat HIV/AIDS- a huge victory which has led directly to 8 million people being alive today on free treatment.  Taking on big pharma was no mean feat.  And we won. Taking on the powerful. Saying what has to be said. Saying the uncomfortable.  Expecting to be dismissed out of hand. Staying true to our radical roots and moral vision.  A common thread since the beginning.  What does this mean for us today? Huge shoes to fill for a start. Have things changed? Is the world not less black and white?  I don’t think so- it was as complex then as it is now, just different.  The risks were at least as great.  It is true some of those we have targeted have improved their actions.  Many more have improved the way they present themselves. We must beware the wolf in our clothing.  The fights are now as much in developing countries themselves as they are about north and south. These days we should be shaming the 60+ Indian billionaires for accepting that 450 million of their fellow citizens exist on less than a dollar a day as much as we challenge the UK to back a Robin Hood Tax. The issues have changed and evolved but not the fundamental principle. We are entering an age of scarcity, insecurity and grotesque inequalities.  The importance of our responsibility to stay true to the radical heritage of Oxfam, to campaigning against the powerful – is greater than ever.]]>

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8 Responses to “Remember when Oxfam took on Winston Churchill, apartheid, the Labour government, Big Pharma and the pesticides industry?”
  1. pushpanath

    Thanks for this recall of the hoary History.Oxfam was as much the product of the British,Europe History as much as its outcome in the context of the British society.
    Oxfam has been a very strong liberal rooted organization and therefore strongly reformist more than anything.At times perhaps radical reformist having inherited the quaker sprit of sticking to the moral-truth.
    Over the period everytime Oxfam took a strong moral stand on a global issue, it seemed to capture the imagination of the Oxfam supporting public esp- the middle class in UK that too the mostly liberal in its political outlook.It is so deep in that in a review of the Movie The Devil wears Prada -the Observor coloumnist Nigel French commented-“If the Devil wears Prada,where does God shop-Oxfam?”talk about its moral roots.
    Oxfam`s root though in Europe it become more rooted by its attention and affiliation to the post war nationalist movement in countries in the global south and continuing its relationship in those newly independent countries(Asia, Africa in particular) with a strong National roots and therefore some levels of legitimacy and credibility it acquired.
    The resulting profile and recoqnition that Oxfam received in the newly independent post-colonial Nations and the communication of the stories gave the moral story greater weightage as illustrated in your story above.After all we argued Poverty is immoral.
    The development of a global vision and strategy and global programme, for all its benefits, made the organization loose connectedness to nation state in the global South and at the same time Oxfam become more corporate. Centralized governance and Central planning with some tokenism to participation was heralded(For some good but with much and many challenges too).
    The begining of Make Trade Fair campaign(Surpise you do not make any mention of the landmark campaign with historic mobilization)made Oxfam clearly recoqnized as a global reformist(front runner as a campaign organization)Liberal organization( many of the so called radical organizations and observers attacked Oxfam for even betraying a more radical and structural struggle in which it had wily-nilly participated before, in its National alignment period pre-2000)
    I could argue that global positioning was a well thought through and somewhat inevitable at that millenium juncture.
    From the above we can say that in the globalization process Oxfam lost some of its earlier sharp moral positioning whilst having to make do many pragmatic choices in addition to its massive funding dependency with official donors that has made the campaigning more pruduent and even less sharply moralistic than before.
    Hence the question of being radical is not only inappropriate description but it could also be misleading and in accurate, historically speaking.
    Hope we can discuss this more in the current ambiguity of Oxfam positioning between national and global-an issue that is making the organization look not only less radical but somewhat more confusing too.hope this helps with the debate-if there is one!.

  2. Tanks Pushpanath for highlighting some inconsistencies in the ‘radicalism’ of modern Oxfam. I’m now going to add a few of my own:
    I seem to remember Oxfam came into being with the intention of making itself redundant. That ehtos seems to have disappeared and it appears to many that perpetuation, growth and market share are now big (immoral) considerations.
    Where is the work on SAPs now? Duncan’s posts on the World Bank website are clear evidence of collusion with the big structures that once Oxfam confronted – I feel Oxfam is now firmly part of the status quo.
    No mention of Oxfam’s involvement in the Biafra conflict or of the obvious dependency culture that Oxfam has helped to foster?
    Radicalism appears only evident as a marketing tool – Kate Raworth seems to employ it to attract University freshers, but there is no mention of ‘outrage’ in Oxfam’s work in schools – on the contrary, Oxfam promotes (for pramatic reasons of market share etc) the belief in kids that change through the status quo is the way forward.
    No mention that much of the majority world (Africa especially) has faired so baddly since Oxfam began? – suggesting it’s irrelevance more than anything – or is that all the fault of the “60+ indian billionaires”? (Looks like you’re searching for scapegoats with that one).
    Oxfam has done great work, but must be more self critical and address what is an institutional moral crisis of denial – as individuals, Oxfam staff should insist on greater reflection on the faults of the coorporation!

  3. Pauine Martin

    Congratulations Oxfam for the 70 years and Max’s reminder of radical and liberal roots. Oxfams identity is also proudly owned and carried by the citizens of 17 countries and I am missing a reflection on their contribution to the organisation’s heritage and indeed to its future.

  4. Nicholas

    Radical, liberal and religious origins (and there were Anglicans as well as Quakers in the original mix)…
    But that said, I wonder whether it is the very professionalism of the ‘development community’ in ‘North’ and ‘South’ that has blunted the radical edge? Our partners in the South tend to be selected because they look like ‘us’ – polite, professional and moderately good at accountancy – namely ‘civil society organizations’ (never have they been better labelled) rather than social movements, or trade unions or other political actors (who tend not to be polite, are a bit messy and keep lousy accounts).
    Perhaps, as Push suggests, we rethink who we connect with and tolerate greater levels of risk (as well as radicalism)?

  5. Great point Nicholas – how about linking with the messy social movements in the north as well, eg Occupy. More and more people are viewing Oxfam and similar organisations as part of the staus quo and part of the problem. If Oxfam doesn’t listen to that perpective it risks being discredited by those who are intent on meaningful structural change.

  6. Jose

    Thanks Max! very refreshing. Of course feeling proud to be part of this story. The fight now is more interesting: this is not any more about poor and rich Countries, this is about poor vs rich people in North, Emerging and South; Oxfam has strong presence in the three, so in a great position to fight.
    We are not the radicals. The radicals are the ones who are confortable with 1 billion people going hungry every day, the conservative governments that ensure rich people/companies do not pay taxes, the ones who bomb countries for very dark reasons, those are the radicals.
    Let’s proudly wear those big shoes call Oxfam!

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