TCS Daily


Oxfam's Dark Side

By Alan Oxley - February 28, 2006 12:00 AM

Like Bono, Oxfam has discovered there is pop fame in the aid business. The political chic this gives Oxfam is invaluable. The G8 meeting in Gleneagles, Scotland last year and the worldwide Live Aid concerts put Oxfam second only to Bono for global poverty cool. The timing was handy because it overshadows a significant, recent failure another less-publicized program (driven by politics) that would make many of Oxfam's mainstream backers uncomfortable if they knew the details.

Oxfam's pop trick is "Cold Play", the only other British pop band since the Beatles to crash first releases onto the US Top Ten. Cold Play's lead singer, Chris Martin, is new generation pop glamour. He is married to Oscar winner Gwyneth Paltrow. He has marked himself as an anti-globalization rebel by attacking the shareholders in the recording company which made him very rich, calling them "greedy". Oxfam is his charity of choice. It gets plugs from the stage at Cold Play concerts worldwide and free entrée on global tours to sign up people to its anti-globalization "Make Trade Fair" campaign.

Oxfam has successfully parlayed its pop glam into political influence. It conscripted Tony Blair to endorse its campaign to shift the blame for economic disaster in many poor countries, particularly in Africa, from corruption and callous incompetence of its leaders, to the failure of rich countries to provide aid. Blair ran Oxfam's lines at the G8 Summit last year - i.e. pressing for more aid, a soft line on free trade, and debt forgiveness. Last year Oxfam turned over around US $300 million, the biggest earner being its British parent.

Running alongside Oxfam's programs to reduce poverty, its soft side, there is a hard political side -- "advocacy" programs. This is NGO code for political activism. They are not commercially important to Oxfam's soft side programs, but motivate its more hard core workers and are evidence of a deep anti-private sector (even anti-growth) sentiment in the Organization.

The core of Oxfam's political platform is human rights. It aims to "empower" people in poor countries. This sounds good, but it is high risk. It requires Oxfam to take sides and can lead it into unacceptable company. When does today's union activist in Peru become tomorrow's Shining Path Maoist revolutionary? Or today's social worker in Palestine, tomorrow's supporter of terrorism? Careful aid agencies shirk these risks. Not Oxfam. It has been enmeshed and doesn't seem to mind. The Institute of Public Affairs in Australia has revealed that Oxfam has supported radical groups in both Palestine and Indonesia.

The global mining industry is a special target for Oxfam's advocacy program. Mining does not restrict human rights. But it is a good target for Oxfam's ideologues. They are big first world businesses in the third world. Mining has significant local impact and offers good opportunities to play up environmental effects and local discontent. Oxfam's pitch is that it does not oppose mining, just the effects of mining.

But it has no problem working with Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth who do oppose mining; the latter have a strong record of fomenting discontent in Third World countries. All collaborate in campaigns to block financing of mining projects in developing countries by the World Bank and other development finance institutions. Oxfam has created an additional niche for itself. It claims to be the world's global "Mining Ombudsman".

Oxfam in Australia provides the "Ombudsman" and presumably appropriated the concept from Australian practice where Ombudsmen are established in law to provide neutral hearings to any party aggrieved by government administration. No global government appointed Oxfam. There isn't one.

Oxfam doesn't need that form of legitimacy, NGO political ideology is enough. It goes like this: in today's globalized world, multinational companies are unaccountable so it falls to NGOs like Oxfam, to keep them accountable. This nonsense is even taken seriously at the annual Davos big business talk-fests.

Oxfam has a third string in its bow, not only activist and grievance board, it is also in the business of facilitation. It offers to help mining companies (to deal with local community groups) and community groups (to deal with mining companies).

Get the picture? Oxfam promotes local "empowerment", (and works with others that encourage local communities to be dissident), offers a supposedly neutral corner to hear problems between international companies and local communities and offers to facilitate contact between the parties; on a good day, securing funding from the companies concerned (not the community groups, they usually don't have any) to fund this activity.

What a tangled web that is and sure enough Oxfam snared itself. It put its multi-functional capacity on show at the Tintaya copper mine, the third largest in Peru. Tintaya generates significant benefits to Peru. From the time it was developed by Magma, a US company, Oxfam US had hounded the company about the consequential environmental and social impact of its operations. BHP Billiton, one of the world's biggest mining companies, based in Australia, took over the mine when it purchased Magma.

Oxfam Australia offered itself to the company as the party able to manage and broker the complaints by local groups about the mine. It was after all the global "Mining Ombudsman".

An expensive (to the company) process of consultation was established. Commissions of enquiry into complaints about environmental damage, social impacts, sustainability and abuse of human rights were established. By Oxfam's own accounts, the complaints against the company (fostered by its US counterpart) were found baseless or insignificant.

But Oxfam were unable to deliver peace. Other local groups, not within Oxfam's range of influence), raised fresh complaints about the mine and sought unreasonable payments from the company (such a increasing the US$1.5 million dollar contribution to the local community to US$20 million). Oxfam peevishly grumbled in its reports that these groups were undermining the process of consultation it had established .

Oxfam was not in a strong position to complain. You can't be both Ombudsman and activist. When entirely new complaints were produced by locals (not connected with the Oxfam process) about a new tailings dam, Oxfam gave them currency. The supporter of empowerment found itself in conflict with its commercial role as mediator and its self-appointed role as Ombudsman.

Oxfam got itself in this mess because of the political values that drive Oxfam's advocacy activities. They are antagonistic to the private sector, urge global regulation of trade in commodities, and oppose intellectual property rights. Consistent with the political methodology of the old European left from where these values come, the operating principle is that the ends justify the means. In other words, anything goes.

The best we can hope from this is that Oxfam's remarkable capacity to mobilize public opinion and money might come to be regarded by its managers and funders as more important than the political ideology which drives the organization's darker activities. And, with luck, they might even spare a thought for the development benefit to poor countries like Peru of big private sector projects like Tintaya.

But this will only occur when those who contribute to Oxfam are no longer dazzled by the glam or amused by the radical cool and hypocritical chic of Chris Martin's anti-business ranting.

Alan Oxley is host of the Asia Pacific page and former Chairman of the GATT, the predecessor of the World Trade Organization.

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