As Oxfam celebrates its 70th anniversary, head of advocacy Max Lawson discovers its radical roots, and urges it not to lose its edge
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.
In 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.