Exclusive: Oxfam to lay off 1,450 staff and withdraw from 18 countries

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An Oxfam assessment team member at work in East Samar, Philippines. Photo by: Jire Carreon / Oxfam / CC BY-NC-ND

LONDON — Oxfam International is withdrawing from 18 countries and laying off almost a third of its program staff amid financial pressures brought on by the coronavirus pandemic.

More cost cutting is expected, as Oxfam — one of the world’s best-known development charities — conducts an organizational restructuring.

Opinion: In the face of COVID-19, a new direction for Oxfam

In the face of the announced restructuring, Chema Vera, interim executive director, Oxfam International, explains why, and why now.

A strategic review of the organization, made up of 20 affiliate members, began in late 2018 but its effects have been greatly accelerated by the economic turmoil brought about by the pandemic, which has seen fundraising events canceled and Oxfam stores closed.

Oxfam said the move will affect around 1,450 out of nearly 5,000 program staff, and 700 of its 1,900 partner organizations.

“I would like to place on record my deepest thanks to our staff and the brilliant work they have achieved in helping the people and communities we work with improve their lives,” said Oxfam International’s Interim Executive Director Chema Vera.

He added: “The organizational changes we have announced today, combined with further phases of transformation in the months ahead, will be the foundation for our future over the coming decade as the longer-term effects of this devastating pandemic become clearer.”

Oxfam is shutting down country offices in Thailand, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Haiti, Dominican Republic, Cuba, Paraguay, Egypt, Tanzania, Sudan, Burundi, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Benin, Liberia, and Mauritania.

It has been present in some of those countries for over half a century.

Since the 1960s, Oxfam has worked in Tanzania on projects including governance, women’s empowerment and rural poverty, as well as in Rwanda, where it tried desperately to galvanize international action to halt the 1994 genocide.

The charity also first provided relief in Afghanistan in 1961 and worked in the country throughout the Taliban rule. It has worked extensively in Pakistan since 1973 and in Haiti since 1978, where the charity’s response to the 2010 earthquake was stained by a sexual abuse scandal that rocked the development sector and led to financial difficulties for its British arm.

Oxfam will see out contracted projects in the countries it will exit from, meaning the full withdrawal from all 18 countries may not come about for some months or even years.

It is currently working with around 700 local organizations in those countries. “We will have to work with those 700 local organizations, over time, in a responsible and orderly way, so they can find other funding sources and begin [to] take over fully the work we did together," explained Oxfam spokesman Matt Grainger.

“I would like to place on record my deepest thanks to our staff and the brilliant work they have achieved in helping the people and communities we work with improve their lives,”

— Chema Vera, Interim Executive Director, Oxfam International

Oxfam staff have already taken voluntary pay cuts and seen budgets slashed during the coronavirus crisis.

Public fundraising amounted to nearly 40% of Oxfam International’s revenue in 2018-19 and trading brought in €22 million ($24.2 million) after costs, according to the organization’s most recent annual report.

But Oxfam shops have closed their doors, major fundraising events have been canceled, and there are fears that public donations to charities are falling amid the economic impact of the pandemic. In the U.K., where Oxfam’s network of shops — which normally bring in around £7 million ($8.6 million) every month before costs — were closed in March and around two-thirds of the organization’s 2,100 staff were furloughed under the government’s Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme.

Alongside the withdrawals, Oxfam plans to explore new affiliate members in Indonesia, the Philippines, Colombia, Senegal, Kenya, and the Pacific — countries or areas where it already has a presence which it will be strengthening.

These locations were chosen for their strategic importance, and a traditionally strong Oxfam presence, according to Grainger. The countries will “give us far more diversity and southern voice in our own governance,” he added.

Including those places, Oxfam plans to retain a presence in 48 countries, with some receiving increased resources.

“Looking strategically at where and how we operate is the essential first step in ensuring that Oxfam can continue to make the best possible contribution to fighting inequality to end poverty and injustice, and to influence for change as effectively as possible,” Vera said.

He continued: “We’ve been planning this for some time but we are now accelerating key decisions in light of the effects of the global pandemic. In some countries, Oxfam will have a deeper footprint as we focus our program resources and strengthen our local partnerships to maximize impact. In others, we will focus more strongly on our humanitarian or influencing goals.

“Inevitably, we have had to make some very difficult choices about where we will no longer have a physical presence. This reorganization will take time to complete. We feel a deep sense of responsibility to the countries where offices will be closed and we will do everything we can to ensure the people we work with will be able to look to the future with confidence. This includes continuing work with partners and allies in countries where there will be no Oxfam office, to support social movements and influence governments and private sector for positive change.”

About the author

  • William Worley

    William Worley is the U.K. Correspondent for Devex, covering DFID and British aid. Previously, he reported on international affairs, policy, and development. He also worked as a reporter for the U.K. national press, including the Times, Guardian, Independent, and i Paper. His reportage has included work on the Rohingya refugee crisis in Bangladesh, drought in Madagascar, the "migrant caravan" in Mexico, and Colombia’s peace process.