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April 17, 2019

New direction for Oxfam

Rocked by safeguarding scandals and criticised from all quarters for their initial responses, Oxfam appears to have taken stock and concluded it’s time to change tack. Interesting thoughts from the relatively new CEO, Danny Sriskandarajah on a new direction he wants the Oxfam to take. He describes the approach as ‘less super tanker, more dockyard’ in which it becomes less about what Oxfam do on the ground and more about how they use their scale and resource to empower others. An approach that all charities of a certain size could do well to look at


Rebecca Cooney, Third Sector magazine

Danny Sriskandarajah tells the NCVO annual conference that Oxfam plans to ask supporters, partners and the public to help it set out its 10-year strategic vision

Oxfam needs to focus on using its resources and its platform to support and empower other organisations, the charity’s chief executive has said.

Speaking at the National Council for Voluntary Organisations’ annual conference in central London this morning, Danny Sriskandarajah said he wanted the charity to be “less supertanker, more dockyard” in its approach and revealed that the charity planned to ask supporters, partners and the public to help the charity set out its strategic vision for the next 10 years.

He also said that civil society as a whole needed to “reimagine traditional organisational structures” if it wanted to effect real change in the coming years.

“We have, I think at our peril, seen civil society primarily as a means and not as an end,” he said.

“So if we do that, we end up, for example, seeing volunteers as instrumental income generators and not paying enough attention to the fact that we are there strengthening communities. We will fail to see that a strong, vocal civil society is an inherent good in itself.

“If we see ourselves as simply a means for delivering aid, collecting money or whatever else it is, we forget sometimes at our peril how we are in this together.”

Sriskandarajah said that after the Haiti safeguarding scandal that rocked the charity last year, the charity had “a fantastic opportunity to take all that is good about Oxfam and repurpose it for the rest of the 21st century”.

He said: “In the next few weeks, we’ll be opening Oxfam up to ask our supporters, partners and the public to help us create our strategic vision for the next 10 years.”

He added that Oxfam would join a network of organisations committed to taking forward the findings of the inquiry into the Future of Civil Society, chaired by Julia Unwin, which concluded that charities needed to address issues concerning power, accountability, connection and trust.

“I also want us to acknowledge our particular responsibility as one of the bigger, better-resourced organisations in our sector,” he said.

“I am determined that Oxfam will be better, less supertanker, more dockyard, ready to use our resources and platform to empower and enable others in the sector to speak up for the people and causes they represent.”

If the sector wanted to see power redistributed in society, Sriskandarajah said, it needed to consciously model that change, not “tinker around the edges” or “trade in incremental change”.

“We need to ensure that leadership of our own organisations is open to people of different ages, ethnicities, faiths, genders, politics and sexualities,” he said.

“We need a generation of leaders who are prepared to reimagine traditional organisational structures, who can take power off its pedestal and turn it into something much more accessible, collaborative and diffuse.

“Most urgently, we need to tackle the imbalances of power that enable bullying, racism and sexual abuse, including, to be frank, that which took place in Haiti.”

Charities also needed to think about how trust in them could be repaid and returned, said Sriskandarajah.

“We need to show people, communities and other civil society groups that we trust them to provide valuable insights, to make decisions, to own and control assets, to run projects,” he said.

In order to deepen trust, the sector needed to move away from “charity for charity’s sake, and towards a world of mutuality”, he said, adding that the bits of civil society he found most exciting were “cooperative-based initiatives” which looked different from the existing big NGO structures.

“As Oxfam, our challenge is to harness the very best of these participatory models,” he said.

“If we don’t find a way to trust and embrace these new movements, we risk becoming trapped in the institutions we have built. Trust must be something we live out in the way we work and the decisions we make.”