Oxfam is a world leading expert in public health in emergencies. We recently put on a small display of material from the Oxfam archive showing how the development of its work in water and sanitation, both in humanitarian emergencies and longer term development, is recorded in the archive. Documents included reports, photographs, information booklets, posters, and files relating to grants made for water and sanitation work. A few have been highlighted in the photos below.
One of the first references to water projects in the archive is this photo of Winifred Coate, a retired headmistress turned relief worker who struck water in the ‘waterless desert’ at Zerqa, north of Amman, Jordan, in 1963 with the help of an Oxfam grant. This supported a very successful community of Palestinian refugees.
A leading figure in Oxfam’s work in water and sanitation was Jim Howard (1926-2003); a water engineer by training, he joined Oxfam in 1965 as Field Director in India.
When he started, Oxfam was not itself operational but granted funds for work to local organisations. In a report in October 1966, Howard suggests that it may be time for Oxfam to do more and increase its specialisation in water:
‘I look forward very much to the time when Oxfam….. offers skill as well as funds. We could for instance, narrow our field to water resources, well-drilling, simple irrigation techniques, and make this our speciality.’
From 1970, Howard worked with Oxfam as Technical Officer and Chief Engineer. He developed a sanitation unit that could be brought in to emergency situations and rapidly set up. He was in the front line of virtually every major international emergency between 1965 and 1991, when he retired, including the Bihar famine in the late 1960s, when Oxfam first became operational in emergency work, the Bengal refugee crisis, 1971, Cambodia, 1979, the Ethiopian famine, 1984-1985, and the aftermath in Iraq of the first Gulf War, 1991.
Journalist John Pilger said of Howard:
‘In all my career, going to places of upheaval, I’ve never seen the course of human suffering turned back by one person as I did with Jim Howard in Cambodia.’
The display also featured examples of material produced for the general public relating to Oxfam’s work in water and sanitation, calculated to raise funds and raise awareness:
The following mailing focuses on Oxfam’s water and sanitation work in emergencies, particularly the work it was at that time carrying out in refugee camps and feeding centres following famine in Ethiopia.
Agencies such as Oxfam are increasingly considering gender when planning water and sanitation projects, for example whether facilities are placed in safe locations for women to use and whether female beneficiaries have the opportunity to make their needs known.
The first four Oxfam Archive catalogues are available to view via the Bodleian’s Online Catalogue of Archives and Manuscripts by searching for ‘Oxfam’.
For more information on the Oxfam Archive cataloguing project please view our project page