Tag Archives: Oxfam

A sympathy for strangers: Oxfam and the history of humanitarianism

On Tuesday 31st October the Oxfam Archive Assistants attended a lecture at St Antony’s College by Princeton University’s Professor Jeremy Adelman, entitled Towards a Global History of Humanitarianism. Professor Adelman’s focus was primarily the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, but his narrative had implications for the way we might view contemporary humanitarian agencies such as Oxfam.

 

Historians have not always been kind in their assessments of international humanitarianism. Alex de Waal was broadly critical of the role such agencies have played when dealing with famine on the African continent: by supplying aid externally, he argues, they inadvertently undermine the democratic accountability of African governments, disincentivizing humanitarian intervention or crisis prevention as a way of preserving political power.[1] To an extent, Adelman spoke in a similar vein: abolitionists may have helped stimulate the rise of humanitarianism in the nineteenth century but colonial penetration itself was often justified in terms of humanitarian intervention, where the white settler was morally and ethically obliged to ‘civilize’ the unsophisticated ‘native’. Humanitarian discourse, Adelman argued, is by its nature racialized, and it invariably reinforces the self-image of Western nations as occupying the apex of a civilizational hierarchy.

 

This might seem somewhat damning of all Oxfam does and stands for. However, Adelman also spoke of a ‘sympathy for strangers’ which grew out of increasing global connectedness and integration as telegraph cables, railways and steamships curtailed the spatial and intellectual distances between disparate peoples. The camera was, according to Adelman, a fundamental technological innovation in this respect and the relationship between photography and humanitarianism has in many ways been central to the development of charities like Oxfam. Borrowing from Susan Sontag, Adelman suggested that ‘moral witnesses’ – i.e., photographers – record public memories of pain, creating a connection between the ‘victim’ – the subject of the photograph – and the viewer.

 

In the 19th century missionaries armed themselves with Kodak cameras, and by producing lantern slide shows of their experiences in foreign climes hoped to raise money for future missionary work. But in the Congo Free State, rendered a personal possession of King Leopold of Belgium in 1885, missionaries began to use their cameras to record atrocities committed against Congolese rubber plantation workers. In the face of international scrutiny – which admittedly was somewhat more self-interested than compassionate – King Leopold was forced to cede Congo as a personal asset. It could certainly be argued that such photographs exploited the pain of others, titillating public interest at home without any true empathy for or understanding of the Congolese people. According to Susan Sontag, the ‘knowledge gained through still photographs will always be some kind of sentimentalism, whether cynical or humanist’.[2]

 

 

But the power of the photograph to reinforce moral or empathetic feeling can be – and has been – used for the genuine betterment of others. From 1957 to the early 1960s Oxfam sent simple Christmas ‘appeal’ cards to its donors, featuring a simple ‘thank you’ message and photographs of individuals helped by the charity. A card from 1958 showed a huge-eyed little girl, sitting wrapped in a coat and woollen socks with a spoon stuck into a beaker of food. The caption read ‘This little Greek girl was found as a baby hungry and dying… Now she is properly fed… because Oxfam sends food, and years ago was able to plant black-currant bushes in her village which are now bearing fruit.’ This photograph does not simply broadcast the pain of strangers. It broadcasts hope, and promises resolution through charitable action. While a healthy scepticism and constructive interrogation of the conduct of international agencies is to be encouraged, we should be careful not to overlook and devalue the charitable efforts inspired by genuine ‘sympathy for strangers’.

[1] Alex de Waal, Famine Crimes: Politics and the Disaster Relief Industry in Africa (1997)

[2] Susan Sontag, On Photography (1973)

Looking back and pushing forwards: 75 years of Oxfam

As an Archives Assistant spending the next twelve months helping to catalogue the Oxfam Archive, I probably shouldn’t admit how woefully ignorant I was of Oxfam before I started. I knew their shops sold cheap books and nice Christmas cards. I knew you could buy someone a goat or a toilet for Christmas, and that this goat or toilet would go to someone who lived somewhere without a sewage system or a supermarket selling pasteurized milk. But beyond this, I’d never really stopped to think who ‘Oxfam’ were and what they meant. It came as a surprise that ‘Oxfam’ wasn’t just a made-up word but came from Oxford Committee for Famine Relief, and that a charity which was born in one small city has spread its offices and infrastructure across the globe. I’ve learnt a lot in the two months since I started. But Oxfam’s 75th birthday party, held in Oxford’s town hall on Friday 6th October, taught me a lot more. 

some of the archive material used for the ‘show and tell’ sessions

 

At the Bodleian we were involved with preparations for the 75th anniversary in a low-key way, answering enquiries from Oxfam staff regarding photographs which would be used in exhibitions and slideshow presentations. Between the 4th and the 6th October there were also opportunities for Oxfam staff and volunteers to view some of the highlights of the Oxfam archive in the Bodleian, and this proved a learning experience for me as well. Through objects such as a scrapbook documenting fundraising and a damp-gnawed but still-legible gift-shop cashbook from 1948-9, I realised the importance of innovatory and motivated figures like Robert Castle and Joe Mitty, who respectively established the first permanent Oxfam shop and helped make the charity-shop phenomenon what it is today. A particularly memorable entry in the cashbook was simply ‘Dog’, which sold for 5 shillings – we presume the dog was ornamental, especially as an ‘Elephant’ was also sold at around the same time!

Oxfam’s first permanent shop on Broad Street, Oxford

 

The anniversary celebrations themselves took place on Friday 6th October in Oxford’s Town Hall. We were treated to cake and tea in the Assembly Room, and then moved into the ornate Main Hall where the Oxfam choir sung us into our seats. The full hall made me realise not only the importance of Oxfam as a UK employer, but also as a social institution which generations of people have grown up with. Many of the volunteers were elderly, but a gurgling baby at the back of the hall indicated that the Oxfamily spans all ages.

 

My job is to catalogue Oxfam’s project files, bundles of correspondence, receipts and reports which document how development work plays out on the ground. This is what Stan Thekaekara, founder-director of trade model ‘Just Change’ and one of the evening’s speakers, would call the ‘worm’s eye view’. I was much less aware of the ‘bird’s-eye view’, the need for an overarching vision and policy and the tension that can result between the bird and the worm, between the decision-makers at home and the boots on the ground. This was something discussed by the panel hosted by Duncan Green, strategic advisor at Oxfam GB. The panellists debated the need to reorient the global economic system away from exponential growth and a capitalistic zero sum game, but also the importance of listening to the communities worst-affected by this system and providing them with the knowledge that could help improve their lives.

the programme for the evening’s events

 

 

In a discussion on the future of Oxfam, Mark Goldring (Oxfam GB’s Chief Executive) suggested this focus on communities was already being embodied by Oxfam International, the worldwide confederation of Oxfam affiliates. Oxfam International Executive Director Winne Byanyima was optimistic as she announced that Oxfam International’s headquarters would shortly be moving to Nairobi, and the celebratory talks concluded with reiterations of Oxfam’s commitment to end poverty.

While the optimism and passion of the speakers was inspiring, I couldn’t help but notice the tragic irony of the fact that, twenty-five years ago, Oxfam’s 50th anniversary celebrations were overshadowed by the influx of Rohingya Muslims into Bangladesh, and that 2017 has witnessed renewed attacks and allegations of genocide by the Myanmar authorities. Despite Oxfam’s energy and determination, I can’t help but think that, while human hatred continues to fuel governments, human suffering will not be easy to uproot.

Oxfam archive inspires potential University of Oxford students

Nineteen year-12 students recently attended a seminar in the Weston Library’s impressive Bahari Room as part of a summer school organised by Wadham College.

The programme allows students from schools with low application/entry rates into higher education to experience university life through a four-day residential. During the visit, students attended lectures, seminars and tutorials, giving them a taste of what it is like to be an undergraduate at the University of Oxford.

The theme for this year was ‘The Politics of Immigration’ and in the seminar, students had the chance to handle a selection of material taken from the Oxfam archive. They were then asked to discuss the representation of Palestinian refugees in the archival documents dating from the 1960s. The material used was taken from the Communications section of the archive – i.e. records of Oxfam’s external communication with the public – and is just a very small example of the material available to the public in the extensive Oxfam archive (the Communications catalogue is online here).

An example of some of the material that the students were using from the Communications section of the Oxfam archive.

Though initially hesitant, we were pleased when two eager students volunteered to open up the archival boxes and find the files that were needed. After being carefully handled by our volunteers, all the files were laid out for the students to analyse in groups.

Dr. Tom Sinclair and a student unpacking an archival box.

The students then took it in turns to give examples of how Palestinian refugees were represented in the Oxfam material. One of the excellent examples that students spotted was how Oxfam was able to remain politically neutral (a constitutional necessity for charities) by not specifying why the refugees were displaced. Students also remarked that Oxfam preferred to focus on individual stories in their communications – for instance, that of a displaced teenager with aspirations to be an engineer – which the students suggested helped humanise a crisis that could be difficult for the public to comprehend.

The students studied selected material from the Oxfam archive and gave examples of how Palestinian refugees were represented.

Overall, the ‘Politics of Immigration’ seminar was a great success that gave the students a good feel for what it would be like to use the archives to complete research for a dissertation or other academic project.

Dr Tom Sinclair, who organised the summer school, said: “It was such a privilege to be in that lovely room and have such free access to the archives… I really think that a couple of the students were inspired, and I hope they’ll be future Oxford undergraduates visiting the archives again in a few years’ time.”

War, Health and Humanitarianism

How can we define humanitarianism?

What motivates humanitarian actors like Oxfam and the Red Cross?

How have relief and development organizations competed and collaborated to mitigate suffering from conflicts?

Is political neutrality feasible or necessary?

These and other questions will be addressed in the symposium, ‘War, Health and Humanitarianism’ on 16 June in the Weston Library Lecture Theatre, which brings together historians studying conflicts from the medieval period to the present day. Speakers will include Dr. Rosemary Wall, Bodleian Library Sassoon Visiting Fellow and Senior Lecturer in Global History at the University of Hull, whose current research focuses on conflict in Cyprus, Vietnam and Nigeria in the 20th century and British and French humanitarian responses.

For further information and to register see:

http://www.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/__data/assets/pdf_file/0005/222665/War-Health-and-Humanitarianism_Programme.pdf

Unloading dried milk

Unloading dried milk for the starving people of Biafra at Fernando Po during the Nigerian Civil War, July 1968
MS. Oxfam COM/5/1/51
Credit: Duncan Kirkpatrick / Oxfam

Oxfam’s founding minutes among the Bodleian’s treasures

Oxfam’s first minute book, recording the founding of the organization on 5 October 1942 in response to suffering behind the Allied blockade in Greece and other occupied countries, is now on display in the ‘Bodleian Treasures’ exhibition at the Weston Library and online.

The exhibition brings together some of the most iconic documents from the Bodleian’s collection of 12 million items, displayed in pairs. The Oxfam minute book is paired with a Poetical Essay on the Existing State of Things by ‘a Gentleman of the University of Oxford’ identified as Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822). This poem against war and tyranny was published by the 18 year old Shelley in 1811, shortly before his expulsion from Oxford for publishing a pamphlet on atheism.

As we near the 75th anniversary of that crucial meeting in the University Church later this year, we expect renewed interest in the origins of Oxfam. The first minute book will no doubt be revisited!

first minutes

Opening minutes of the Oxford Committee for Famine Relief, 5 Oct 1942 (MS. Oxfam GOV/1/1/1)

 

A ‘happy and fruitful’ relationship: Seretse Khama in the Oxfam archive

The recent release of ‘A United Kingdom’, a film about the inspiring true story of Sir Seretse Khama, the first president of Botswana, and his British-born wife, Ruth, got us thinking about Oxfam’s links with the country.

Director Amma Asante’s film opened the BFI London Film Festival in October, and tells how Khama, who was chief-in-waiting of the Bamangwato people of Bechuanaland (later Botswana), met Ruth Williams, an office clerk, while studying law in London in the 1940s. Despite opposition to their interracial marriage from the British Government, apartheid South Africa, and initially, tribal elders in Bechuanaland, Khama went on to to be the democratically-elected premier of his country, overseeing its independence in 1966, and a long period of economic growth and development.

In 1961, Oxfam took a significant leap forward with the appointment of T.F. (‘Jimmy’) Betts, ex-colonial servant and brother of the Labour politician, Barbara Castle, as its first resident ‘Field Director’, tasked with managing its development programme in Southern Africa. Previously, local voluntary agencies were entrusted to oversee the use of Oxfam funds, supported by occasional visits from Oxford staff. In 1962, one of Oxfam’s largest grants to that date – £90,000 – was allocated to work in the three British High Commission Territories of Bechuanaland (Botswana from independence in 1966), Basutoland (Lesotho from 1966), and Swaziland. The programme in Bechuanaland included repair work on water catchment dams to alleviate the effects of drought, training of farmers in modern techniques, and other agricultural initiatives. Over the course of the 1960s, Oxfam invested around £500,000 in the country, nearing £1 per head of population.  Khama’s regard for Oxfam and vice versa is revealed in two letters that we are currently cataloguing. The first, dated 24 June 1974, by Oxfam’s Director, Leslie Kirkley, informs Khama that after over ten years of collaboration, Oxfam feels that the time has come for it to concentrate its efforts “in other parts of the world where the problems are more intractable”. Kirkley praises the progress and achievements made by Botswana and Khama’s “concerned and enlightened leadership”. He also comments on the importance that the work in Botswana has had for Oxfam:

“Botswana has, and will continue to have, a special significance for Oxfam, as it was there that we began to practise our role as a long-term development agency and the experience gained has been of invaluable help to us as we have extended our activities to other parts of the world and constantly adjusted our thinking and policies over the years.”

Oxfam Archive, Bodleian Libraries

Oxfam Archive, Bodleian Libraries

 

Khama’s reply, dated 7 August 1974, expresses thanks to Oxfam for its work in Botswana, undertaken during the course of a “happy and fruitful” relationship, noting:

“We shall always be extremely grateful to Oxfam for the assistance which you have been giving us over the years. We have by no means solved all of our problems, but we have at least made significant progress in a number of fields, and much of the credit for this must go to Oxfam.”

Oxfam Archive, Bodleian Libraries

Oxfam Archive, Bodleian Libraries

 

Three photographs recently donated to the archive show the Khamas and Jimmy Betts in 1964, visiting a community centre in Serowe, Bechuanaland, built with Oxfam’s assistance.

Jimmy Betts and Ruth Khama inside the community centre. Photo credit: Hugh McIntosh. (Oxfam Archive, Bodleian Libraries)

Jimmy Betts and Ruth Khama inside the community centre. Photo credit: Hugh McIntosh. (Oxfam Archive, Bodleian Libraries)

 

Jimmy Betts and Seretse Khama outside the community centre. Photo credit: Hugh McIntosh. (Oxfam Archive, Bodleian Libraries)

Jimmy Betts and Seretse Khama outside the community centre. Photo credit: Hugh McIntosh. (Oxfam Archive, Bodleian Libraries)

 

Jimmy Betts and Ruth Khama with others (unidentified) in the library of the community centre. Photo credit: Hugh McIntosh. (Oxfam Archive, Bodleian Libraries)

Jimmy Betts and Ruth Khama with others (unidentified) in the library of the community centre. Photo credit: Hugh McIntosh. (Oxfam Archive, Bodleian Libraries)

‘A United Kingdom’ is currently in cinemas.

New Oxfam catalogues

The fifth catalogue of Oxfam archive materials, describing records produced by Oxfam’s appeals and fundraising function, is now available on the Bodleian Library’s website.

The Oxford Committee for Famine Relief’s first appeal, ‘Greek Week’, was a local affair, but raised £12,700 towards the alleviation of famine behind the Allied blockade of Greece through advertisements in the Oxford press, a gift shop selling donated goods, and events such as concerts of Greek folk songs. Following the end of the Second World War, the Committee began collecting food and clothing parcels for the war-affected in Europe, branching out into national press advertising in 1946. This was a pioneering step at a time when professional marketing techniques were rarely applied to charity fundraising and in subsequent years the charity would become known for its hard-hitting, and often controversial, use of advertising.

millions-ad_1966

Advertisement, 1966

Many of these early efforts can be viewed in the archive, which includes a series of newspaper advertisements published between 1943 and 1991. Used with other records such as correspondence relating to early appeals, appeals mailings sent out to supporters to request donations from the 1960s onwards, and a series of market research reports, researchers will be able to trace how the charity’s approach to fundraising evolved over time. This includes its adoption of ‘starving child’ imagery from the 1950s, and conscious use of more positive portrayals of empowered beneficiaries from the 1970s onwards.

Collecting tin

Collecting tin, 1960s

Also of interest will be records, including reports and newsletters, relating to Oxfam’s regular giving schemes, the first of which, ‘Pledged Gifts’, was launched in 1960. This had recruited 26,000 voluntary collectors by 1964, collecting small, regular donations from neighbours and workmates. Equally fascinating are correspondence files and reports relating to the co-funding of Oxfam projects by the Overseas Development Administration and the Commission of the European Communities and their respective successors, both of which began in the 1970s.

In addition to the new appeals and fundraising catalogue, a second, expanded edition of the programme policy and management catalogue has been released. This includes correspondence of the Policy Director and staff relating to organizational campaigns and Oxfam’s role in advocacy on behalf of poor people.

Gender policy and strategy are revealed in the correspondence, reports and publications of the Gender and Development Unit, established in 1984, tasked with raising awareness of socially constructed differences between men and women and the unequal power relationships that result, and incorporating a gender perspective in Oxfam’s programme.

News from GADU - First edition 1987

First edition of ‘News from GADU’, 1987

Records of the regional ‘Desks’ and the Humanitarian Department and their predecessors offer a detailed insight into the running of Oxfam’s development programme and its interventions in humanitarian crises from the early 1970s. These consist chiefly of correspondence between staff employed in numerous countries around the world and colleagues in Oxford. Health Unit materials include papers relating to Oxfam’s development of equipment such as immunization kits for use primarily in emergencies, and the production of the Oxfam energy biscuit which became part of its supplementary feeding programmes.

The second edition of the catalogue of files relating to grants made by Oxfam (‘project files’) will appear soon.

Interns at the Oxfam Archive

Over the summer the Archives and Modern Manuscripts Section hosted five interns who worked on  various projects . The Oxfam team was lucky enough to have two of them: Elena and Gabriel.

E+G

The Interns: Elena and Gabriel

Gabriel Lawson, reading History at Lincoln College, and Elena Müller, MPhil graduate in Modern Jewish Studies from Lady Margaret Hall, had both applied for internships organized and funded by the University of Oxford Careers Service.

They did sterling work for us over their six week stint and helped enormously with our ongoing ‘project file’ cataloguing work as well as sorting programme reports, and appraising and repackaging photographic material, which will all make up a part of our Phase 2 catalogues due to be released in the New Year.

multiple pics

The ‘project file process’: large containers full of files to appraise; the new archival boxes; spreadsheet used for cataloguing; final online catalogue

Project files make up over half of the Oxfam archive. They arrive with us from the Oxfam Logistics Warehouse in large containers, each filled with 3-4 cases brimming with files relating to projects funded and carried out in all areas of the world.
With advice and guidance from the Oxfam Project team, Elena and Gabriel managed to appraise 1,911 files between them, deciding on which to keep and which to discard. Those they kept, they catalogued, filling 359 of our ‘archival blue boxes’. Their contribution takes us much closer to our end-of-year targets than we would otherwise have been!
Their work will be added to the online catalogue of project files at the end of Phase 2. The Phase 1 catalogue can be viewed here: http://www.bodley.ox.ac.uk/dept/scwmss/wmss/online/modern/oxfam/oxfam-proj.html

photos and boxesThe interns also helped with the appraisal of photographic prints from the 1990s, weeding out duplicate and poor-quality photographs, as well as generic shots which did not relate to Oxfam or its work.
Both Elena and Gabriel felt that their time with the archive had helped them to view research in a slightly different light, having gained an appreciation of the work done by archivists in selecting, describing and making archives available to researchers.

Who founded Oxfam?

Last month we celebrated International Archives Day with Oxfam’s first minute book. It reminded us that the make-up of the small group that founded Oxfam has often been debated. The answer could be seen as simply a list of those attending the first meeting on 5 October 1942 that brought the Oxford Famine Relief Committee into being. However, no such list exists and the minutes of that meeting mention only three people by name as being present – Rev. T. R. Milford (Chairman), Professor Gilbert Murray and Mrs. White.

Cecil Jackson-Cole (left) and Canon T. R. Milford (centre) at the Oxfam Summer Conference, 1962. Oxfam Archive, Bodleian Libraries

Cecil Jackson-Cole (left) and Canon T. R. Milford (centre) at the Oxfam Summer Conference, 1962. Oxfam Archive, Bodleian Libraries

Rev. T. Richard Milford of the University Church of St. Mary the Virgin, where the meeting took place, explained at the outset that

‘the meeting had been called by a small preliminary committee of which he was Chairman and that its five members had been appointed at a public meeting …….. on July 20th.’

A list of names on the first page of the minute book, probably of those appointed at the public meeting, but with numerous later amendments, suggests that it is likely that the following were also present on 5 October: Miss Margaret Macnamara, Assistant Hon. Secretary, Sir Alan Pim, Hon. Treasurer, Wilson Baker, Mrs. Kathleen Compton-Ford, Rev. F. Greaves, R. V. Holt, Dr. Leo Liepmann, Rev. H. R. Moxley, Lady Mary Murray, and Nowell C. Smith.

At the second meeting on 11 December 1942 it was reported that the Hon. Secretary, Mary Pask (who had sent apologies to the October meeting) and the Assistant Hon. Secretary, Miss Macnamara, had resigned. The Chairman introduced the new Hon. Secretary, Cecil Jackson-Cole. Jackson-Cole, businessman and philanthropist, later the founder of charities including Help the Aged and Action Aid, became the driving force behind the work of the Committee by various means including his innovative use of advertising. He continued as Hon. Secretary and later Secretary Emeritus with the Committee (Oxfam from 1965) until his death in 1979.

Oxfam advertisement, Oxford Mail, 1947

Advertisement, Oxford Mail, 1947. Oxfam Archive, Bodleian Libraries

From Oxford to the World: International Archives Day 2015

updated weston and minute bookToday is International Archives Day, with repositories around the world celebrating the archives profession by contributing to a special website a document from their collections that they feel ‘shows the locality served by [their] archive service’. The Bodleian Library’s contribution is Oxfam’s first minute book, a simple, now rather worn, school exercise book used to record the proceedings of the first meeting of the Oxford Committee for Famine Relief on 5 October 1942 and subsequent meetings up to November 1948.

The Oxford Committee, set up to lobby for the relief of suffering from starvation behind the Allied blockade in Greece and other occupied countries, is now internationally recognised and respected as Oxfam. Both rooted in Oxford, Oxfam and the Bodleian Library serve a global community.

See the International Archives Day website here:
http://www.internationalarchivesday.org/wordpress/?page_id=25

The Oxfam minute book is at: http://www.internationalarchivesday.org/wordpress/?portfolio=bodleian-library-department-of-special-collections