Oxfam looks south for next generation of affiliates

An Oxfam staff helps distribute humanitarian supplies for displaced people in Juba, South Sudan. The international nongovernment organization not only plans to move its secretariat south, but to establish new affiliates in other regions as well. Photo by: Oxfam East Africa / CC BY

In a move that could challenge the typical division of labor among large development organizations — with fundraising and campaigning led from the north and implementation undertaken in the south — Oxfam International has revealed further details of its plan for a truly global network of affiliates.

Alongside the future relocation of Oxfam International’s secretariat — still at an early stage, with little confirmed beyond the decision to move, in principle, from its base in the United Kingdom to either Bangkok or Nairobi — the international nongovernmental organization plans to add eight new affiliates by 2020 in Africa, Asia and Latin America.

Oxfam is a confederation of autonomous organizations, seven of which previously existed as independent NGOs in their own right, and each is responsible for raising its own funds and leading its own campaigns.

The same principle would be extended to the next generation of affiliates, explained Matt Grainger, spokesperson for Oxfam International — which coordinates work across the confederation.

“Rather than, for example, Oxfam GB working in South Africa with funds raised elsewhere, we would have an Oxfam South Africa, responsible for its own fundraising,” he said.

Oxfam International’s Executive Director Winnie Byanyima hinted at this approach last year when she spoke to Devex, saying the “old model of mobilizing resources in the north to solve problems in the south” was becoming “irrelevant,” and that the “centers of power” were no longer located solely “at the doors of the U.N.”

Currently just two of the 17 “Oxfams” are in development countries: Mexico joined the confederation in 2008 and India in 2011.

Jodie Thorpe, formerly private sector adviser at Oxfam GB, said a greater shift to the south may not be easy, but should be welcomed.

“A lot of the decision-making is driven by the north where the main affiliates are based,” she said. “Fundraising in the north influences priorities and strategies.”

Having people on the ground in the south “doing the thinking,” she said, helps to “shift the issues more equitably across north and south.”

With the emphasis on working with “home-grown” organizations — inviting existing self-sufficient NGOs to join the confederation — the admission criteria for a future Oxfam in a developing country may need to be more flexible.

“In the past, we have been quite prescriptive,” said Grainger, explaining that potential affiliates had to have the capacity for both campaigning and generating funding in their home market, as well as for delivering programs and carrying out research.

“These are very big and onerous [demands] … It may well be that the next Oxfam from a southern country only has three of these things,” he suggested.

This is where more established affiliates in the north would step in, functioning as “knowledge hubs” depending to their specific expertise. Oxfam Canada is particularly strong on gender, for instance, according to Grainger.

Meanwhile, Oxfam’s team is starting to work on the business case for the move of the international secretariat away from its premises in Oxford. A range of possible scenarios are on the table, Grainger confirmed. One possibility could be that some of its approximately 50 staff members transfer to different affiliates, resulting in “a much smaller physical, but much larger virtual, international office.”

How will new Oxfam affiliates in southern countries change the way development is done? Will other international NGOs follow suit? Tell us what you think by commenting below — and stay tuned for more coverage of Oxfam’s shift to the south.

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About the author

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    Anna Patton

    Anna Patton is a freelance journalist and media facilitator specializing in global development and social enterprise. Currently based in London, she previously worked with development NGOs and EU/government institutions in Berlin, Brussels and Dar es Salaam as well as in the U.K., and has led media projects with grass-roots communities in Uganda and Kenya. Anna has an master’s degree in European studies — specializing in EU development policy — and is a fellow of the On Purpose social enterprise program.