“We open doors to decision-makers”
TAR: Much of Oxfam’s work is focused on the African continent. What are the most compelling reasons for Africans to support Oxfam’s work? WINNIE BYANYIMA: I believe the profound historical reasons that have caused African countries to have lagged so far behind others in developing their economies – trapping so many African people in extreme poverty for generations – are breaking. We now have the understanding and means to break them in far more profound and sustainable ways, if we choose to: new technologies, particularly in communications and trade, rule of law, growing democracies, better utility and governance of natural resources, more definitive African political influence in the old and newer corridors of power. Civil society organisations play an important part in all these kinds of struggles.
Do you see a crackdown on the work of NGOS and civil society organisations in African countries today? Yes, civil society crackdowns are happening. They’re happening against NGOS. They’re happening against media. Civicus recently found that among all UN countries just 3% of the world’s population lives in areas where civic space is truly open, where one can peaceably oppose the state. Over 40% are in places where the right to free expression is repressed or oppressed. We live in a very big world where civic freedoms are the exception, not the rule. That to me is objectively extraordinary, as much as it is worrying. There is much talk in the NGO community about raising the role of local civil society partners. What is your plan to do this? Last year Oxfam worked with 3,249 partners. This number grows by the year. Last year, 41% of the partners we worked with were national NGOS, for instance, and 10% were women’s organisations. We also partnered up with co-operatives, coalitions, research groups, local government agencies, the private sector. Some were long-term development relationships, some were shorter-term strategic alliances, some were geared to advocacy or campaigning – globally, Oxfam has a huge, colourful and diverse partnership profile.
Oxfam often seems to speak for particular groups – the poor, rural women, and so on – but what mandate does Oxfam have to play this role? I do not ‘speak for’ poor people, or rural women, or refugees, or victims of crises. But I do represent an organisation whose work opens doors to decisionmakers that affected people often cannot reach. I’m very conscious that is a privileged position that is not available to all the people who Oxfam works with and supports. So if I can help them to raise their voices and concerns, even in their absence, I will. But I’m happy to say that every time Oxfam is at a major summit – for example at the UN General Assembly in New York or at the [IMF and World Bank] Annual Meetings in DC – we try to ensure that local partners from Africa and around the world are part of our delegation. Interview by M.A.