Dhananjayan Sriskandarajah

Why Oxfam is talking about race

Guest post by Dhananjayan Sriskandarajah, Chief Executive, Oxfam GB

In the past few weeks Oxfam’s work on anti-racism has attracted some criticism. Various commentators have characterised it as “woke posturing” or “anti-white.”  

I think they have got it wrong. Let me explain why tackling racism is an integral part of Oxfam’s mission.  

It is almost 80 years since a small group of volunteers, motivated by a sense of compassion and justice beyond borders, founded what became Oxfam. The group organised aid for starving citizens in Nazi-occupied Greece and lobbied Churchill’s government to allow food imports through the Allied blockade.  

Those of us working in Oxfam today have been thinking about how we retain our founders’ spirit while re-imagining this wonderful organisation for this era. A key tenet of our approach is to focus on how we work as much as what we do.  

We’re committed to evolving our culture to become a truly safe, feminist and anti-racist organisation, because we believe in a world where no one is left behind, and where power is shared fairly. That must be as true within Oxfam as within wider society. 

Put simply, without tackling systemic racism around the world, we cannot end global poverty. Racism makes it harder for people to earn a living, feed their children and put a roof over their heads.    

This isn’t just theory. We’ve seen it for ourselves. Many of the communities that Oxfam works with around the world have been scarred by exploitative colonial histories; histories that were often shaped by what Kipling called the ‘White Man’s Burden’. While colonial legacies are not the only factor that has shaped uneven development around the world, it is important to recognise that many of today’s global structures and institutions were formed at a time when power was held predominantly by white people.

Photo by Amy Elting on unsplash.com

There’s no blame game here. Being white does not make someone a racist, and nor are we saying that white people cannot experience poverty or be discriminated against because of the colour of their skin. And it shouldn’t need saying, but being anti-racist doesn’t make Oxfam ‘anti-white’. On the contrary, we want to build an inclusive global movement of people to overcome the injustice of poverty.

There are many different and overlapping kinds of discrimination that can hold people back, including those based on race, sexuality, gender identity, religion, physical ability, ethnicity and class or caste. Oxfam’s approach to fighting poverty is known as ‘intersectional’ because it seeks to understand how these intersecting factors affect people’s experience.

Critics have claimed Oxfam is more obsessed with various types of discrimination than with ending poverty. These are false choices. Meeting our charitable objects of preventing and relieving poverty require us to address the systems of power that keep people in poverty. Our efforts to improve safeguarding, advocate for women’s rights, tackle racism and fight poverty are deeply interlinked.

For Oxfam, it’s also a priority to live up to our values of equality, diversity and inclusion. In 2019, an independent inquiry into our culture found cases of “toxic” work environments and said sexual exploitation and abuse were “symptoms of several power abuses, manifested in varying degrees as elitism, racism, colonial behaviour, sexism, and patriarchy.”  

We believe that you cannot deliver genuine social justice using toxic methods. As Gandhi said, ‘Be the change you wish to see in the world’. In recent years Oxfam has undertaken many important steps on our journey to improve, delivering an action plan agreed with the Charity Commission that included safer recruitment, greater oversight of safeguarding, and changes to working culture. 

Photo by Maria Thalassinou on unsplash.com

But we know there is more to do. Our recent survey – which was anonymous and voluntary – canvassed staff views to help inform the development of a Racial Justice Framework. This will be an important tool to guide both our internal culture change, such as HR policies to promote diversity, and external work, such as how we partner with communities overseas.   

We want to have a thoughtful conversation with our valued staff and supporters about what each of us can do to build an anti-racist society. However well-intentioned we are as individuals, we are also part of a society in which racism exists. Almost two-thirds of the British population think there is a “fair amount” or “great deal” of racism in Britain, something brought home viscerally in the racial abuse of English football players. And a new study shows that 89 per cent of ethnic minority staff in the development sector do not think their organisations are committed to diversity and inclusion.

Talking about race isn’t easy or comfortable, and some of the concepts we are using can be challenging to get to grips with. Yet I believe it is more important than ever to have a nuanced, respectful conversation about how we move forward together.  

As we approach our 80th anniversary, Oxfam has an ambitious new strategy that is rooted firmly in our founders’ resolve to tackle poverty and injustice around the world, while also making sure that we are challenging power imbalances, promoting diversity, and connecting people on a more equal footing. 

I am often reminded of the words of Australian indigenous campaigner Dr Lilla Watson: “If you have come to help me you are wasting your time. But if you recognise that your liberation and mine are bound up together, let us work together.” If we get this right, if we work together, we can deliver a more equal, kinder future where we all win.    

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12 Responses to “Why Oxfam is talking about race”
  1. Roy Trivedy - UN RC Timor-Leste

    Good to read this but I think the title should be: Why Oxfam is still talking about race! I worked for Oxfam from 1987-90 and many of us were talking about race inequality then. Sadly many of the key development indicators worldwide still show that race is an important dimension to understanding global poverty, inequality and exclusion. Additionally

    • Tina

      Yes, I agree Roy. In Oxfam in the 1980s a lot of work was done on anti-racism including on management issues such as addressing inequalities in pay and terms and conditions between local and ex-pat staff, which still continue today. The differentials in insurance, in security provision, in promotion etc were discussed and analysed and a commitment to having nationals heading offices around the world made, but this all proved hard to change/implement for multiple reasons – which I think have never really been explored or learned from.
      These race and racism issues dropped off the agenda over time and sadly race was not an issue across the entire aid sector for many many years subsequently, though it was an issue for some programmes and those working with a gender lens. You won’t see it in any strategic plans or visions or missions.
      Now the issue has now come back to bite the sector and the evident lack of experience in discussing and analysing these issues is proving hard to overcome for many agencies.
      It would be useful if Oxfam would publish the survey so people could see what questions were asked and how they were worded so that there is a transparency about the findings. INGOs are rarely sharing their research in ways that enable people to make their own judgments and assessments or to learn from each other and this has been a hall mark of many of the staff surveys done on race by many agencies in the past few months. A lot of money and resources have been spent on these but the learning is not being shared or widely discussed, and there’s little written material in the public domain except for the BOND report for example and snippets on some other reports. A more co-ordinated approach across the sector is needed to see where there are examples of good practice, where the organisations are falling short of their own values and stated positions, and what needs to change in the aid sector from donors to relations with partners.

  2. John

    If that Times story is accurate, then that survey would appear seriously misjudged. If you don’t want to appear anti-white, then don’t define racism as something that only white people are capable of. And don’t be so arrogant as to assume that people’s objections are because the concepts are ‘challenging to get to grips with’ rather than because the concepts are fundamentally flawed.

  3. David Booth

    I am afraid Danny’s piece doesn’t provide the reassurance it promises. If you insert phrases like ‘systemic racism’ casually into a sentence, implying it is a simple and uncontested idea, you are definitely engaging in woke posturing. The long-established Oxfam anti-racism to which Roy refers did not do that. There’s the difference.

  4. David Waller

    Very supportive of your approach Dhananjayan. As another ex-fam I wish you well and if there is anything I can do to help here in Oxford then please ask!

  5. Kevin

    Perhaps Oxfam’s approach to racism should take into consideration its own key tenet of “how as much as the what.” Clearly there are issues with how the matter is being handled.

  6. Georgia Cook

    We should all be anti-racist and fight discrimination. But Oxfam staff are talked down to and told that any debate or alternative view is racist. Meanwhile language used is inaccessible and very divisive.

    Oxfam should be kind, inclusive and fighting for a better, more equal world. Not one where different groups of people are pitted against each other. Time to listen to your staff – if anyone is brave enough to give their opinion in the climate of fear that’s been created.

  7. Bex

    It is time for Oxfam staff to be treated as individuals, all of whom have very different lived experiences. It’s time to stop the dangerous, divisive and overly simplistic categorisation of white people as the oppressors and BAME people as the oppressed.

    • Anil

      Totally agree with this. It’s ludicrous. Particularly given the rise of China and India and the decline and poverty in parts of the west. Ludicrously simplistic. The world is complicated and everyone has a different, unique story to tell. Lots of white people are very privileged, others have faced abuse, poverty, discrimination (eg. Jewish and Gypsy communities) and more. Please fight racism but don’t divide us into simplistic categories Oxfam – treat your staff and volunteers with some respect.

  8. Georgia Cook

    Please read this from More in Common: https://www.moreincommon.com/media/q43lim5p/dousing-the-flames-uk-mic-report-july-2021.pdf

    “Culture wars debates consume a small minority of highly-engaged partisans,
    who ignite and feed the flames of conflict. But their effects are not contained
    to the small numbers who are engaged with them. They contribute to
    disinformation, by creating inaccurate and exaggerated perceptions of
    disagreements and divisions in society… The arsonists who ignite and fan the flames of the culture wars like to set the terms of these debates by framing complex issues in absolute ‘us-versus-them’ terms.”.

    “Recent research by British Future shows that white Britons are more likely to
    acknowledge that life is easier for white people when plain and simple language
    is used. Many more people agree when asked “is it harder or easier to get on
    in Britain, if you are white British?” compared to the abstract framing of “white
    privilege”, which narrows support by 20 per cent and doubles support for the
    opposing view that white Britons do not find it easier to get ahead in Britain today.”

  9. Mosharraf

    Why Oxfam is talking about only race when we are working to leave no one behind and ensure a fairer world for all. Danny indicated other factors of discrimination, such as the physical ability. Racism is deeply rooted in international development, giving white people the privilege to perpetuate; intersectionality of racism and ableism aggravates the situation. Both racism and ableism are social diseases, not less harmful than the biological disease – Covid-19 pandemic, especially to create stress, not ensuring reasonable accommodation, and make disabled people ineffective in the workplace, which is the cause of mental health challenges in the workplace.

    Disability organisations discriminate against disabled people more than others because of the proximity, unconscious bias, white supremacy, and the false claim of their ability and capacity. They have successfully campaigned for years that “disabled people” don’t have the capacity. It disempowers them, which goes against organisational values. A Bangladeshi disability rights activist, Misti Ashrafun Nahar, commented in an interview recently that DPOs (disabled people organisations) are the main actors to make the changes, and DPOs do more than NGOs and INGOs. She added, “They think that our time is very much free, because we don’t have any serious job”.

    The white or nondisabled development employees, who often claim part of the disability movement, get C suit benefits and job security for their services. Disabled people, members of the movement, work free as volunteers. There are huge disparities, which hinder the progress of disabled people in international development!

    The whites exclude colour people, but they also discriminate against the white disabled people – women and men. A white disabled woman had to wait a long time for a career progression because their white bosses, mainly male, did not believe she could work in upper grades.

    Now isn’t the time that one organisation will work on one standalone agenda to address the injustice and inequality of society. We need to take a holistic approach – a concerted effort to handle all forms of discrimination, working together engaging all stakeholders – for a fairer world.

    Can we do it? Do we have that leadership?

  10. Andres

    Honestly, I struggle to understand why (some) people go straight into telling you Dhananjayan why your note is not good enough; why it should have been titled something different; why this is not new and how much they have done already; why you have not unpacked something enough; and a long etc … I will just say, well done for speaking up, for putting (again, yes i know) these important topics in the agenda of one of the leading organisations in the world; for committing to work with others as the only way forward; for recognizing shortcomings but also how much more needs to be done. This is a long battle with no quick wins and some of those criticisms should just make you, your teams and our anti-racist allies, stronger. Keep it going!

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