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

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.

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24 Responses to “Some whacky ideas for a future Oxfam – draft paper for your comments”
  1. I love “hearDirectly” and “sponsor an activist”. Let’s do those.

    the challenge/opportunity of disintermediation in the aid sector has been something I’ve been interested in for a while. Came across Burkhard Gnärig’s book The Hedgehog and the Beetle recently which takes up the disruptive challenge of disintermediation. I wrote a little bit on it here:

    another idea: what about Oxfam embracing feminist principles as part of the next strategic plan – much in the way we adopted rights-based approach earlier?

    • Mel G.

      what about Oxfam embracing feminist principles as part of the next strategic plan – much in the way we adopted rights-based approach earlier?

      Some affiliates within the Oxfam family have done a lot to embrace feminist principles. It would be a dream to see the organization as a whole do so. I fear, however, that many Oxfamers (and donors and supporters) still fear the f -word.

  2. Diarmid

    The “flotilla” idea could be a way to challenge the proliferation of teams and departments within a large NGO which then end up competing with each other to assert their priorities. It wouldn’t be impossible for an NGO to set up teams which, once they reach a viable size, are then spun off over a period of years into stand-alone bodies, as they gradually acquire their own capacity to plan and fundraise.

    I floated this idea nearly 15 years ago at an NGO I worked for, which was growing very fast and becoming unwieldy, but people simply didn’t absorb it – it was outside the scope of reasonable ideas at that time. And that’s the problem to be overcome – the innate and almost biological desire of any organisation to expand, and to measure success in terms of size. Maybe now’s the time, though.

    You don’t mention recruitment. British NGOs (and I realise you’re talking about Oxfam globally, not just in the UK) tend to recruit similar types of people which can lead to excessive groupthink. I worked for another NGO which tried to get round that with an apprentice scheme that recruited from further education colleges and definitely brought in kinds of people who would not have come by the traditional route (gap year, university arts degree etc). It was a good scheme, though modest in scale, but I don’t know if it still exists. I don’t know how you’d apply it globally but it’s worth thinking about.

  3. Carol Hatchett

    Oh yes, this chimes with many of the frustrations I’ve felt in 20 years in the sector, and with some of the disruptions I’ve also thought about trying to instigate. I love the supertanker-to-flotilla idea, and to be fair, my ex-employer Save the Children UK (which probably has a bad ‘supertanker’ rep) has tried to foster start-ups. The only danger with this strategy is – as with the indie record label scene in the 1980s (where I also used to work) – the ‘major label’ NGOs could pile in and set up fake small NGOs to try and monopolise and control that energetic and entrepreneurial corner of the market. I can’t see the ‘major label’ NGOs really letting a start-up do its own thing for long, without strangling it at birth through over-zealous bureaucracy. We need a stronger culture of courage and collaboration, to overcome everyone’s preoccupation of covering their arse.

    I love the ‘grey panthers’ idea too. I fit that category – certainly in terms of age! And I think you’re right, older people have been there, seen it, done it and have less to lose by upsetting the powers-that-be.

    Individuals/NGOs/groups need to grasp the nettle and DO something radical though. Many of us agree with your ideas, but we sit at our laptops metaphorically wringing our hands and complaining that ‘NGOs’ need to change. People make up NGOs. It can’t be beyond us as individuals to seek allies and collaborators to call out problems, challenge the system and find new ways of working?

  4. Olga Ghazaryan

    Thanks for sharing Duncan. With no disrespect to your work on this , I am wondering whether Oxfam is missing a trick of tapping into the multiple creative brains among the staff, ex staff and some external people that know it well to do a series targeted brainstorming focus groups on this kind of “blue sky” thinking. We did not do it when we radically and directionally transformed OGB moving to OI 2020, and we should have , any lessons from there? Oxfam has some of the best brains in the sector but no purposeful space for debate and dissent on big strategic directional issues.

    My own view is that Oxfam should take a courageous step, liberate itself from the federation straightjacket and focus ruthlessly on what the world needs from it and where its core competency and inimitable resources are. In my view it needs to focus on emergencies /humanitarian work only and be the best in the world – from political campaigning on conflicts to focusing on women in emergencies, from being at the forefront of the Refugees debate to meaningfully investing in the localization of the humanitarian capacity , from technological and digital innovation and partnerships in the humanitarian space to best practice of working in fragile states.

    • Duncan Green

      Thanks Olga, I think you’re right that the move to a big confederation of lots of different Oxfams negotiating changes in priorities inevitably squeezes out the voices of non Oxfamers and exfamers – hence by bit on the fortress on the hill problem.

  5. Chris Roche

    Close down all the Oxfams. Use surplus money to create a Foundation. Use the Foundation to be the international and progressive ‘Chicago School’ of the 21st Century changing hearts and minds on Social Justice and International cooperation.

      • Chris Roche

        So, you tell me. If total Oxfam income is c. 1bn Euro, and assuming some of the money would need to be returned to donors for projects that will not be implemented, and some will be used for redundancies etc then how much would remain including reserves? Keep the shops open (if they are making money…), tipping more into the foundation. Crowd in matching cash from other philanthropists. No fundraising required ever more! You wanted wacky…

        • Sarah

          I think you have a very inflated idea of what our actual income is and how its distributed. The majority of our income is restricted or lightly restricted — all of which would have to be returned were we to stop implementing the current development and humanitarian projects. Once we’d paid out all of the staff redundancies and closing costs we might be lucky to have a couple million left if anything.

  6. Garth Luke

    I think Oxfam should concentrate it’s limited resources in each country to focus on achieving political change on the big issues like equality, sustainable production, human rights, participation. At present campaigning for change is an add-on for Oxfam and the achievements are, as a consequence, quite limited.

  7. Like Gawain, I like the “Give Directly” and “Sponsor an Activist” ideas, although with some caveats. We need to be careful not to sustain an over-simplistic idea that social justice issues can be solved overnight. Perhaps we can encourage people to make connections with organisations and movements around the world, understand their long-term struggles and become clearer on how that relates back to them. I guess Oxfam could play a crucial role in 21st century, social media powered, solidarity – For instance, creating connections with social movement activists via hashtags, and in this way receiving regular, personal, real-time updates from the grassroots. Hearing about their ups and downs, not just the good news stories, could encourage longer-term engagement.

    However, I´m cautious about a focus on individual leaders and activists. I realise the personal connection is key and is inspiring, but behind most individual leaders are collectives, families and organisations. The role of collective empowerment and movement building remains vital I think. There´s been a big focus on individual leadership in international development in recent years, and I´m left wondering how transformative, in the long-run, that really is. Egos, exagerated personal ambition and overplayed claims of being the voices of marginalised groups are all big risks. Change.Org Foundation´s “She Creates Change” programme seems like a very promising model, which supports the collective via particular individuals.

    How about a two-way programme of exchange between Oxfam staff and CSOs around the world (a kind of VSO, Progressio-type exchange programme) so that participants could get to know each other´s working contexts, including the many limitations much more profoundly.

    Finally, how does Oxfam engage more and more with emerging middle classes around the world? Does the UK/European individual supporter model work well (enough)? What other models could we explore? How do we buld long term connections with schools, colleges, universities in the Global South, to help create transformational change in the longer run? Could social-enterises, learning from the experience of Oxfam shops, and tapping into people´s aspirational, dare I say it, materialistic side, as consumers be something to explore much more. There are interesting examples here in Mexico, where buying a new rucksack, houseplant, or even a coffee implies buying into something bigger. I think the authentic, human, emotional connection with social struggles is important, and we need to be much more open to by-passing brand and Oxfam font-set to achieve this.

  8. Jeremy Pack

    Many people (most?) will have little idea about most of your ideas.
    Most people are not working in a NGO with global reach dealing with the organisation issues that arise when one attempts to help or make the world a better place.
    Most of your focus, I suspect because of your skills and experience are around how to deliver better and the shape or type of organisations that could make a difference.
    I one of those “most people” I give a lot of time to Oxfam to help raise the funds that people like yourself use to deliver change.
    My wacky ideas would be:
    1. Don’t just run shops with volunteers, use volunteers throughout the organisation. Use people with skills (not just time) to support and add to projects inside OxfamGB. Use this accredited people repeatedly.
    2. Spin off Oxfam Campaigning. Being seen campaigning for change has hurt our ability to change peoples lives. Create a separate organisation to campaign hard politically and let Oxfam be gentle and run under the radar to deliver programmes and aid.
    3. Communicate with volunteers in the UK directly. Directors/ Management>Volunteer
    Get your supporters engaged
    OxfamGB has no channel (except one where one is continually asked to donate) but a shop manager to communicate with volunteers.

    YES create all female teams to deliver specific aid programmes
    Develop (1st world and 2nd world) women and give them the experience of delivery
    Step change the world of aid by pumping women who have been there and done it into the NGO communities.

  9. On flotillas – a million little Oxfams is not a good idea! Besides the flotilla exists already – there is a vast network of organisations who exist outside of the view/interest? of the international donor community who could do their work more effectively if they were better resourced. Shift the money and the decision making away from INGOs so that they become followers and supporters.
    Focus on power and shifting power relations. Yes!
    Women only response teams… Hmmmmm. What does that say about out trust in humanity? And what makes us think that the power distortions simply disappear because we change the gender of the powerful? Theresa May, Hillary Clinton, Christine Lagarde… Nice pop idea Duncan, but I wouldn’t buy it…
    Open access. Yes! Things like IP don’t belong in the development space…
    I still find that a lot of the thinking is built on a deficit model (it’s subtle, but it’s there) that assumes that ‘we’ have something to give ‘them’.
    My wacky idea: actually develop some politics and put those politics out there, act from principle and an overt ideology and step back out of the ‘spaces of power’ (which slowly co-opt and corrupt) and stand in solidarity with the’masses’.

  10. Dead Duncan,

    I would focus on the flotilla idea. The other aspects are interesting, and should probably be part of it, but the flotilla idea is what would really allow you to walk to complexity talk. If you square it. If not, at least some crew on a few of the rafts and boats will live to tell the tale.

  11. One idea I pitched to Mark a little while back was launching a subscription box product with regular monthly donations baked in – my company does this with other charities and if identified Oxfam as one with a really big opportunity to not only deliver good, Raise regular donations (way more effectively than doorstop campaigns) and also open up a new communication channel to supporters. I’d love to pick up on this now as it very much fits a number of points in your document – who’s best to liaise with?

    • Luke Gibson

      Hi Duncan, I agree with Olga’s suggestion on approach (but not solution): “am wondering whether Oxfam is missing a trick of tapping into the multiple creative brains among the staff, ex staff and some external people that know it well to do a series targeted brainstorming focus groups on this kind of “blue sky” thinking.” While I encourage blue sky thinking, it seems quite an elitist approach for the CEO to ask a senior adviser to ‘come up with some ideas’ on how to fundamentally change the organisation, when there are lots of ideas amongst staff. Recommend you look at the recommendations put forwards by the CPIT staff reference group and the unions for a start, and then facilitate a discussion including staff to come up with some ‘blue sky thinking’. Here’s a few from me that may be entirely unworkable:

      – A flat pay pay structure with cooperative decision making to reduce the hierarchy, excessive pay differentials, and ensure that everyone gets a say in how the organisation is run.
      – A rapid expansion of Oxfam’s paid trainee scheme to try and improve the diversity of the organisation. An organisation on the whole populated my white upper-middle class (often privately or grammar-educated) people overwhelmingly from London and the home counties is going to find it difficult to relate to and communicate with the British public and the people it claims to support.
      – Related to the above point, relocate Oxfam GB’s head office from Oxford to Liverpool, Manchester, Sheffield, Leeds or Newcastle to massively reduce costs, improve employment prospects in regions where there are far fewer similar opportunities, and diversity staff. Relocating to Manchester does not mean that the organisation needs renaming ‘Manfam’. Literally no-one outside of Oxfam knows what the abbreviation stands for anyway.
      – Downsize the organisation and be willing to lose funding if that means taking a more overtly political (but not party political) approach. Poverty is political and there’s no escaping it. INGOs’ quests for expansion is for what purpose? If another organisation can use Oxfam’s former funding to deliver the same results whats the issue? This seemingly has no net impact on the people we aim to support.
      – Only deliver work through coalitions.
      – Work in much fewer countries, and focus resources on supporting national civil society to developing and delivering strong influencing strategies for sustainable change.
      – Stop all service delivery work.
      – Stop private sector influencing as it reinforces power relations whereby private sector voice is seen as more important than that of democratically elected representatives, or the public.

  12. Laura Roper

    I would use a different metaphor than a fortress on a hill and change it to a fortress on a sand bar where your foothold is being eroded daily. While I don’t disagree with any of your fixes (or at least not strongly), I wonder how they would help Oxfam better address the erosion of the consensus (or perhaps more accurately the full frontal assault on that consensus) on the link between human rights and development; the clumsy rattling of the world aid and trade system not only by the US administration, but the rise of revanchist nationalism across the globe; and skepticism about the sector as a whole (even before the recent blow-up around sexual harassment), etc. etc. Chris was being a bit facetious (or not, knowing Chris), but I think his point was that it’s time for a wholesale rethink. Not just for Oxfam, but for the big players in the sector.

    • Chris Roche

      Laura, I was not trying to be facetious – even if it maybe came across that way – but suggesting that if one looked at processes that have really shifted political thinking and practice in a significant manner (even if one disagrees with this politics) then maybe there is something to learn from that, as well as how these initiatives were funded. Of course the response tends to be, yes ok but we don’t have the money or the business models to do that, rather than saying hmm yes maybe there is something to learn form this, and therefore how we might need to think differently about how to find the resources to work in this way.

  13. Christopher Pienaar

    Agree fully with Olga. So many creative people in Oxfam GB tried to influence the creation of an open space from creative thinking into action. There was and remains significant opportunity to release the purposeful creativity of Oxfam staff top down and bottom up in a seamless fashion. Unfortunately this ground felt to me like it was carefully guarded by some key staff functions who instead of supporting to release, were controlling/ gatekeeping. I also noticed a very significant shift in values post amalgamation. In business, ideas are turned into practice and scaled quickly if effective but despite all efforts this proved impossible in a Oxfam. Unfortunately a great and widely respected organisation lost the seamless top down and bottom up working that is essential for sustainable results.

    As said in so many earlier submissions, getting very good at releasing in communities of place and interest and letting go of control will leverage significant impact with very low resources. However if core values are lost, will the house not inevitably crumble? You have lost a lot of very good people who worked exceptionally hard for you – because of this problem. I don’t see it as any way arrogant to call them back and talk to them.

  14. Hernán

    Duncan, thank you very much for this post. Very promising and interesting. So to be provocative, I would say it’d be a good idea to replicate the same exercise you’ve been asked to wiht different people/profiles. Let’s say, the same ‘doc’ you have been commissioned to write, could have also been asked (at the same time of course) to an ‘old-Oxfam-guard’ with more than 10-15 years in the house; a newish recruitment (from 2017 onwards); a donor or similar profile; and to an Oxfam ntern under 28. Then you can compare the results and I am sure some interesting lesson would pop up from completely different mindsets. Just an idea. 🙂

    This hot and lovely summer I had the chance to read this book . Some ideas are WEstern centric and so on so forth, but for the reflection and exercise you are engaged in, it could be inspiring (or not). I liked it a lot.

    Here the sum up by the authors

    PS: apologies If you have already read the book.

  15. Marty

    It is great to read so many thoughts and if memory serves only one was not color blind. After looking through different org charts you are carrying many chiefs, directors etc compared to workers/volunteers. I’m not sure if top down resistance or ennui is causing internal strife. You do get some good done. Most likely more than UN food bonanzas that seem to go a few places rather than where intended. Happy holy days to all and let us all work towards, no child going to sleep hungry, left in the dark or cold. Simple with far reaching potential. Peace and out.

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