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The Story of Oxfam

Oxfam was one of the first UK aid and development charities fighting global poverty to arrive in Dadaab

In 1979, Oxfam hit the headlines by taking the first significant quantities of aid into Kampuchea (now Cambodia), where Pol Pot's brutal regime had laid waste to the country and left more than one million people dead

Twenty years after the first Somali refugees fled the crisis that ousted President Mohamed Siad Barre; thousands of people continue to pour across the border from Somalia into north-eastern Kenya and into the largest refugee complex in the world. Today, the three refugee camps – Dagahaley, Ifo and Hagadera – that make up the overcrowded and chronically underfunded Dadaab complex are home to more than 400,000 people and three generations of refugees.

In an area spanning 50km, just two hour's drive from the Kenyan-Somali border, the world's largest refugee complex, originally set up at the start of Somalia's civil war in 1991 to host a total of 90,000 people, now also counts Sudanese and Ethiopians among its growing population.

With over 60 years of experience, working with partners in more than 90 countries, Oxfam was one of the first UK aid and development charities fighting global poverty to arrive in Dadaab. They knew their task would be long and arduous, but in 20 years they haven't set foot outside the complex. This is their remarkable story.

In May 1942, in response to reports of severe hardship in Nazi-occupied Europe, particularly in Greece where people were dying of hunger , a national Famine Relief Committee was set up to lobby for the relaxation of the Allied naval blockade of Europe to allow food and medical relief through. As a consequence, support groups were set up throughout the country.



The original 'Oxford Committee for Famine Relief' met for the first time in the Old Library of the University Church of St Mary the Virgin, Oxford, on 5 October 1942. Among its founding members were Canon Theodore Richard Milford (1896-1987), Professor Gilbert Murray, a member of the national Committee and former Regius Professor of Greek at Oxford, his wife Lady Mary, Dr Henry Tregelles Gillett, a former Mayor of Oxford and prominent local Quaker, Cecil Jackson-Cole, a London businessman, and Sir Alan Pim, administrator in India and advisor to the Colonial Office.

Members of the Society of Friends (the Quakers), were to play a significant part in Oxfam's development, and the subsequent commitment of Cecil Jackson-Cole who was appointed Honorary Secretary of the 'Oxford Committee for Famine Relief' in December 1942, drove the Committee's work for many years to come.

Many of the Relief Committees were wound down after the war, but the Oxford Committee saw a continuing need and enlarged its objectives to include "the relief of suffering in consequence of the war". Their activity then centred on the provision of food parcels and clothing to Europe including Germany. From 1948 grants were made to projects in Europe and elsewhere and in 1949 the Committee's objectives were again broadened to "the relief of suffering arising as a result of wars or of other causes in any part of the world". The Committee gradually became known as 'OXFAM' (created as an appeals 'reply code' and later used as the organisation's telex address); this name was formally adopted in 1965.

In 1951, Sir Howard Leslie Kirkley, CBE was appointed General Secretary. He was a man of utter practicality. One of his earlier incarnations had been as an insurance salesman in his native Yorkshire at a time when insurance was sold "on the knocker". This might explain the characteristic bluntness of his language and approach to fundraising. He was known to his colleagues at Oxfam by his initials. "HLK wants you in his office", his secretary used to say and somehow they didn't resent such cinematic verbals. You would often find him smoking a pipe and wearing a cardigan when you got there. But this was a man who built a massive international organisation, whose opinion on aid and development was sought by government ministers, who served on innumerable committees and who earned a CBE, followed by a knighthood.

Registered as a conscientious objector in 1939, Kirkley had helped found and run the Leeds Famine Relief Committee. He remained with Oxfam for 24 years, latterly as Director, and his own presence in disaster situations, the swift response of his organisation and his work as Chairman of the UK Publicity Committee for the UN 'World Refugee Year' in 1959-60 brought Oxfam to the attention of a global audience.

The 1960s brought great changes. Concern for the world's poor grew among the general public and the charity's income trebled over the course of the decade. To this day I can remember one particular fundraising campaign in The Chelsea Drugstore, a sleek modern glass and aluminium fronted building on the Kings Road in London. Inside, customers would find bars, a chemist, newsstands, record stores and other concessions. A popular service was the 'flying squad' delivery option run by the store. Those who used this service would have their purchases delivered by hand by young ladies adorned in purple 'catsuits' arriving on flashy motorcycles. A titan of British fundraising, Kirkley looked totally bemused but somehow dutiful as he subjected himself to the new rules of charity publicity.

The 1960s also saw the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation's 'Freedom from Hunger' campaign aimed to combat food shortages by enabling people to grow enough food to feed themselves rather than depend on food aid. By 1965, hundreds of local 'Freedom from Hunger' groups had raised £7 million in the UK and helping to grow a dedicated supporter base for Oxfam.

Oxfam worked tirelessly to present a different picture of poor people in the Third World: one in which they were portrayed as human beings with dignity, not as passive victims. A far cry from the militaristic ideals of The Salvation Army for example, whose members in Africa, can barely afford to meet the cost of their hats, and 'Blood and Fire' badges and brooches they are expected to purchase, yet so justly proud to wear.

For Oxfam, innovative education and information materials explained the root causes of poverty and suffering, the connections between North and South, and the role of people in the North in creating, and potentially solving, poverty in the developing world. Oxfam's overseas operations changed too. The major focus of work, managed by a growing network of Oxfam Field Directors, became support for self-help schemes whereby communities improved their own water supplies, farming practices, and health provision.

As Oxfam continued to expand its work through the 1970s, many new ideas and theories were put forward about development and poverty, including the decision to employ local people to run and work on projects. Oxfam's relief work in the Sahel in the late 1970s looked at the traditional ways in which communities survived – helping them to improve and refine their survival techniques, and making sure that the local people kept control of the schemes they were involved in. The same principles of community involvement and control are still behind Oxfam's work today.

The current drought in East Africa is an urgent humanitarian crisis, but one which also highlights the underlying problems people face in having sustainable and affordable access to food. In Dadaab, where an outbreak of cholera has now struck, hygiene is a question of life and death. Thanks to people like Audrey Andwati, a hygiene promoter with Oxfam, camp residents are learning about the importance of washing their hands.

In the 1970s it became clear that many of the problems associated with poverty required government and international action. Oxfam started – within the bounds set by charity law – to campaign on behalf of the people it worked with overseas and to talk to decision-makers who shaped policy on relevant issues.

In 1979, Oxfam hit the headlines by taking the first significant quantities of aid into Kampuchea (now Cambodia), where Pol Pot's brutal regime had laid waste to the country and left more than one million people dead. Oxfam then organised and led a group of agencies which mounted a huge relief effort, importing supplies of rice, seeds, tools, water pumps, and fertilisers for cities and rural areas alike.

Oxfam's Public Affairs Unit (PAU) was also set up to provide research into and analysis of the causes of poverty. By the mid-1980s the PAU was lobbying on a range of issues including pesticides, food aid, and Third World debt.

Oxfam also recognised the importance of the retail market, for as far back as 1948 they opened their very first charity shop at No. 17 Broad Street, Oxford. It also served as Oxfam's administrative offices in the early years, but these moved to Summertown in 1962. Oxfam's network of shops run by volunteer groups around the country soon became one of the main sources of income in the late 1960s, selling donated items and handicrafts from all over the world. They are now a familiar sight on most high streets, with approximately 22,000 volunteers working in more than 830 Oxfam shops in the UK alone. Of these shops, around 100 are specialist bookshops or book and music shops, making them the largest retailer of second-hand books in Europe.

In 1974, Oxfam also established the 'Wastesaver Centre' in Huddersfield, with pioneering facilities for recycling. Today, Wastesaver processes around 80 tonnes of used clothing every week. In the 1970s they also developed probably the first fully comprehensive fair trade programme ('Bridge') in the UK and sales of fairly traded products rose throughout the 1970s and 1980s. A mail-order catalogue was also started, which boosted annual sales above £1 million by the early 1980s.

Emergency relief and rehabilitation in the Horn of Africa dominated Oxfam's work in the 1980s. With other aid agencies, Oxfam had been warning of the impending crisis and had sought to galvanize the international community into action. In October 1984, TV footage of famine in Ethiopia (especially a BBC news report by Michael Buerk who had been encouraged to visit Korem by Oxfam) prompted unprecedented public generosity. Initiatives like Band Aid, Live Aid and Comic Relief soon followed, and contributed to Oxfam's income, which more than doubled in one year to £51 million.

Nearly half of the £51 million that Oxfam raised in 1984/85 was spent on relief and rehabilitation in the Horn of Africa, where Oxfam confirmed its pre-eminence as a provider of water and sanitation in emergencies. Oxfam's 'Hungry for Change' campaign was also launched in 1984. It captured public indignation at the obscenity of famine in the Third World alongside food mountains in the First.

The growth in income enabled Oxfam to expand its support for development projects worldwide. In parallel, increased resources were dedicated to policy, research, and campaigning work to address the structural causes of poverty in the South, such as crippling debt burdens, unfair terms of trade, and inappropriate agriculture policies.

In the 1990s, Oxfam changed its fair trade programme's name to the 'Oxfam Fair Trade Company' to bring it in line with the wider Fair Trade movement. Oxfam collaborated with UK alternative trading organisations, Traidcraft, Equal Exchange, and Twin Trading, to develop and launch Cafédirect, the first company to feature the Fairtrade Mark on their imported coffee and tea range. The Fairtrade Foundation was set up by Oxfam, CAFOD, Christian Aid, New Consumer, Traidcraft Exchange, and the WDM, to tackle exploitation of workers in the Third World. In 2001 Oxfam stopped directly importing goods from producers overseas but it continues working to improve terms of trade and the livelihoods of workers.

With the escalating number of conflicts following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc, Oxfam began emergency and rehabilitation work in the region. During the 1990s, they supplied humanitarian aid to affected civilians on all sides of the wars in the former Yugoslavia.

Oxfam's largest response to a humanitarian disaster at the time was in the Great Lakes region of Central Africa in the mid-1990s. The genocide of an estimated 800,000 people in Rwanda and the ensuing exodus of more than 1.7 million refugees precipitated Oxfam's largest humanitarian response at that time. In the camps around Goma, Eastern Zaire, Oxfam rapidly installed clean water and sanitation for 700,000 refugees. But aid alone could not provide solutions to the political, economic, and social problems of the region. The work on the ground was matched by international lobbying and campaigning aimed at the UN, the Organisation of African Unity, and powerful governments, in an effort to build a lasting peace.

In 1994, Oxfam UK and Ireland joined with 9 other relief and development agencies based in Australia, New Zealand, America, Canada, Quebec, Hong Kong, Holland, and Belgium to form Oxfam International. The following year saw the first international launch of an Oxfam campaign: 'The Campaign for Basic Rights', launched simultaneously in the UK, Ireland, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Uganda, and the USA. In 1999 the 'Education Now' campaign was the first campaign launched by all members of Oxfam International.

During 1997/98, Oxfam undertook a major review of the way it works, its aims, and how it fits into the world around it. At about this time, Oxfam UK and Ireland became two separate bodies, Oxfam GB and Oxfam Ireland.

The 2000s saw Oxfam become a truly international campaigning force. Working at local and national levels and through coalitions such as 'The Global Campaign for Education' (GCE), the' Global Call to Action against Poverty' (for Make Poverty History), WE CAN end all violence against women, and Oxfam International, their influence became global.

Many London Marathon competitors run to raise money for Oxfam, and they also receive funds in return for providing and organising volunteer stewards at music festivals such as Glastonbury, Reading, WOMAD and Shambala.

Christopher McCandless, the American hitchhiker who was the subject of Jon Krakauer's bestselling 1996 book 'Into the Wild', donated his life savings of $24,000 to Oxfam before leaving society for the solitude of the Alaskan wilderness, an adventure that would cost him his life. In August 2009, it was announced that the Arctic Monkeys would release a 7-inch vinyl version of their new single "Crying Lightning" exclusively through Oxfam shops, with proceeds going to the charity.

The Ebola outbreak that has swept across West Africa is the biggest ever reported. There have been more than 25,000 cases and more than 10,000 people have died. The disease now appears to be under control in Liberia, however in Sierra Leone and Guinea, new disease ‘hotspots’ continue to appear. We cannot stop fighting the Ebola outbreak until the disease is totally eradicated in West Africa. In common with many other charities who are striving hard to fight the outbreak, Oxfam are getting there, but there’s still a long way to go.

The deadly clashes and Saudi Arabian-led coalition air strikes in Yemen over the past few months have seen more than 1,400 people killed. Thousands more have been forced to leave their homes and are struggling to find food and water. Over 60 percent of the population – 16 million people – were already in need of some form of aid before the air strikes started and Oxfam was among the first to respond.

On the morning of 25 April 2015, a devastating 7.8 magnitude earthquake hit Nepal, impacting a large area near the capital city of Kathmandu.

More than 8,000 people have been reported killed and more than 16,000 injured. A second 7.3 magnitude earthquake struck on 12 May, compounding the destruction already faced by the Nepalese killing an additional 65 people.

The UN estimates that 8 million people across the country are affected by the disaster – more than quarter of the population. There has been much destruction to buildings, with over 700,000 houses and historic temples having been totally destroyed or badly damaged along with many of the country’s roads and infrastructure.

With almost half of the population of Nepal being children, there is an immediate need to help provide families with emergency supplies. Oxfam was once again, among the first to respond. They desperately need your help to provide emergency shelter, clean water, sanitation, hygiene kits, food and seeds, for with the increasing risk of an outbreak of Cholera, urgency is the key to their survival.

Oxfam has come a long way in the last 60 years, thanks to the generosity and commitment of their supporters and of those they work with, and they are now one of the best-known non-government organisations in the world. Their reputation for providing humanitarian aid to those affected by the current famine in the Horn of Africa will no doubt continue undaunted for many years to come, for Oxfam have always been among the first to respond to such emergencies. At its heart is Oxfam's belief in the collective power of people. "That there is no 'them', only 'us'. And that by working together we can achieve anything. We aren't just against poverty – we are for humanity" This of course, is their Motive for a Mission.

Should you wish to donate to Oxfam's East Africa appeal, the fight against Ebola, the Yemen crisis or the Nepal earthquake appeal please visit: oxfam.org.uk or call: 0300 200 199


Top Image: In Dadaab, where an outbreak of cholera has now struck, hygiene is a question of life and death. Thanks to Oxfam's policy of employing local people to run and work on community projects, camp residents are learning about the importance of washing their hands. (C) With the kind permission of Oxfam GB


Middle Image: The original 'Oxford Committee for Famine Relief' met for the first time in the Old Library of the University Church of St Mary the Virgin, Oxford, on 5 October 1942. Among its founding members were Canon Theodore Richard Milford (1896-1987). (C) With the kind permission of Oxfam GB

Bottom Image: The current drought in East Africa is an urgent humanitarian crisis, but one which also highlights the underlying problems people face in having sustainable and affordable access to food and water. This could not be more evident than this pitiful image of an undernourished girl in the arms of her mother in the hospital at the Ifo refugee camp, Dadaab. (C) With the kind permission of Oxfam GB


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