The following is a conversation between Abby Maxman, President & CEO of Oxfam America, and Denver Frederick, Host of The Business of Giving on AM 970 The Answer in New York City.
Denver: One of the questions I ask of my guests during the Lightning Round on The Business of Giving is: “What is something you believe that other people think is just insane?” Well, if that guest was a nonprofit organization, Oxfam, the answer very well might be, “I believe that poverty and powerlessness are avoidable and can be eradicated by human action and political will.” Tonight, we will be discussing that and much more with Abby Maxman, the President and CEO of Oxfam America. Good evening, Abby, and welcome to The Business of Giving.
Abby: Thanks, Denver. Good to be here.
Denver: Give us a little bit of the history of Oxfam and what the mission of the organizations is.
Abby: Oxfam was founded in 1942 in Oxford, England as the Oxfam Committee for Famine Relief– giving humanitarian response to those in occupied Greece. And over the years, as Europe recovered, Oxfam continued to widen its reach around the world to end poverty and ultimately the injustice of poverty. Here in the US, we were established in the ‘70s in response to the Independence War in Bangladesh, and later in Cambodia in the later ‘70s, which really gave us our role and relevance here in the space and who we are today.
Poverty is the result of human action and inaction, and we have the ability that has been shown to change that. One in three people live in poverty, and that’s both unacceptable and within our reach to change.
Denver: What do you believe, Abby, is the unique and distinct value proposition that Oxfam brings to this global enterprise of development and humanitarian aid?
Abby: Oxfam looks at issues of poverty through the lens of the injustice of poverty. As you said at the beginning, we believe that poverty is the result of human action and inaction, and we have the ability that has been shown to change that. One in three people live in poverty, and that’s both unacceptable and within our reach to change. Our approach is a multi-strand approach where we do save lives in disaster. We also speak truth to power because of the policy issues and structural issues that keep people poor, and we help people build better futures for themselves for over the long term.
We’ve reduced the number of refugees welcomed to the country from 75,000 to 45,000 at a time when this administration is also challenging humanitarian assistance. We have to step up in the world and really do what we can with the big power that the US has to end some of the conflicts in Syria, in Yemen, and also help people in times of need.
Denver: While you’re involved in so many different things, let’s touch on a couple if we can. There are now about 60 million refugees and displaced people in the world, and half of those are children. I don’t think we’ve had this many refugees and displaced people since World War II, and I know how deeply committed you are to that issue. Is the global community getting any closer to addressing this crisis in a thoughtful and effective way than they were perhaps a year or so ago?
Abby: You raise important issues. There are more than 65 million people displaced by persecution, conflict and hopelessness. People don’t want to leave their homes. They don’t, so as a community, globally and nationally here in the US, we have opportunity and a responsibility to help those in the places so that those issues that are driving them out can end– such as conflict in some places around the world. But we also, in terms of refugee resettlement here in the US for example, have slammed the door on refugees in the past year.
For example, since January through mid-May, the US has allowed exactly 11 Syrian refugees into this country, and compared to last year which was over 2000 by this time. We’ve reduced the number of refugees welcomed to the country from 75,000 to 45,000 at a time when this administration is also challenging humanitarian assistance. We have to step up in the world and really do what we can with the big power that the US has to end some of the conflicts in Syria, in Yemen, and also help people in times of need.
Denver: Do you see anything changing with this administration in that regard?
Abby: It’s concerning what’s been happening in terms of refugee resettlement, and actually the door seems to be slamming tighter and tighter. The bureaucratic red tape for refugees who are seeking asylum is getting harder and harder. We are hopeful in some bipartisan signs in reaching out and having legislation that holds the war in Yemen and the Saudis accountable for bringing peace and some conditionalities to the US’ assistance to the Saudi government in the Yemeni conflic,t for example.
We know that this world, the planet, has the ability to feed more than the current global population. Yet, more than 800 million people as you said, more than half children, go to bed hungry every night. It is completely possible to change.
Denver: I know Oxfam believes deeply in trying to find lasting solutions, and that almost always requires systems change, which is never easy. One area where you’re working to do that is in reforming the food system. What needs to be reformed, and what are you doing about it?
Abby: The food system is a big issue, and this is one of those areas, Denver, that is again within our control as humanity. We know that this world, the planet, has the ability to feed more than the current global population. Yet, more than 800 million people as you said, more than half children, go to bed hungry every night. It is completely possible to change. So, what we’re doing, and we believe in this multi-tiered approach is helping work on the ground with small-scale farmers and small-scale land-owners to help them in looking at sustainable production practices. At the same time, we look at some of the bigger issues and the supply chain and global companies; and we both influence and campaign against companies at times, and also support them and partner with them to help them do better– whether it’s in the poultry industry or other of the big supply chains around food.
Denver: You’re also committed to changing the nature of emergency response. Goodness knows we’ve had enough emergencies of late! How can we make them more effective?
Abby: There is so much learning over the decades of what works well in terms of preparedness and response and local humanitarian leadership. And response is fundamental to effective, timely response and lifesaving work when disaster strikes. And also in the long-term of sustainable improvements after the crisis and the media cycle passes. So, we advocate and work on the ground locally in many places, be it in South Sudan and in Puerto Rico and elsewhere, while also looking at the policy changes around that. This has been a topic for years in the system, and there has been pledges made in the World Humanitarian Summit in 2015 to look at local humanitarian leadership and support and ensure revenues go to investing in that effort. That’s very important to us so we know that it has real impact.
Denver: The places in which poverty flourishes, Abby, also happen to be the very same places where the rights of women do not. Oxfam is working around the world to change that. Tell us some of the things you have been doing in this arena.
Abby: Fundamental to everything we do is looking at issues of gender and power. These are interrelated and those voices we are hearing and how decisions are made in the community and household level and those who are not and how. So issues of inclusion and exclusion is very important, be it in our water and sanitation responses, in our food systems work,… hearing the voices and bringing in women in decision making that affects all communities is absolutely fundamental. When our extractive industries work, where we are holding extractive companies to account, ensuring that women’s voices are heard with men’s… and free prior informed consent, that’s all fundamental to ensuring that profits go to the communities for required social services to make their lives better. We work to end violence against women and girls, but fundamentally, we should be looking at doing gender and power analysis in everything we do.
We believe that the US government, as one of the wealthiest in the world, has the ability and the responsibility to respond to disaster of its people and its citizens. We were appalled and disheartened at the inadequate response back then and took the decision to respond there– providing water and water filters to those who needed it immediately after the response.
Denver: Oxfam has been out-front and outspoken on the situation in Puerto Rico in the wake of Hurricane Maria. What is your assessment of the relief efforts on the island? And what are some of things that Oxfam has been doing to help the Puerto Rican people?
Abby: We responded in October … as part of the response, certainly after the Hurricane Maria hit, and it was very unusual for us to do a domestic response. It was the second time in our history that we responded in the United States. We believe that the US government, as one of the wealthiest in the world, has the ability and responsibility to respond to disaster of its people and its citizens. We were appalled and disheartened at the inadequate response back then and took the decision to respond there– providing water and water filters to those who needed it immediately after the response.
Also solar lights and lanterns to help people because the power grid– which is something that still isn’t completely fixed– left millions of people in the dark… and providing legal services to people as they were trying without power, without internet connections to make their required online applications to FEMA to have their houses rebuilt and to deal with the damage. Above all, concurrently, advocacy with the US government to assure a timely and adequately supported response. What we’re very concerned about now, Denver, is: here we are weeks away from the new hurricane season. 70,000 people in Puerto Rico still do not have power. The Army Corps of Engineers have been sent back. It is a signal there seems to be a fundamental lack of care and worse. With the 3 million citizens of the United States in Puerto Rico, we believe more can and should be done.
Our whole intervention with our local partners, who have been wonderful and heroic, has been to build back better.
Denver: Would I be correct in assuming that they’re not much better prepared for this hurricane season than they were last?
Abby: Our whole intervention with our local partners, who have been wonderful and heroic, has been to build back better. We believe that the sign of the power grid is one example. We have concerns about whether the investment has really reached all the places it needs to, and we know that it has been an underfunded response.
If Oxfam’s voice and experience can help share our learnings and experience to make things better for social change and social good, we are committed to that.
Denver: Earlier this year, Abby, some individuals that work for Oxfam were accused of sexual misconduct in Haiti back in 2011, a story that rocked Oxfam as well as the sector. It should be noted that Oxfam is certainly not alone in this, as other international aid groups were implicated as well. Tell us the impact that that had on the organization and how it has responded to it.
Abby: As you say, it really was something that rocked not just Oxfam but the sector as a whole. We, of course, were deeply disheartened to uncover what happened in 2011. However, at the same time, there was a lot of work in 2011 to take corrective action. Investigations, disclosing to various authorities. What we have done… and it’s fundamental because we believe these issues are about gender and power and these are societal issues as well as sectoral issues. If Oxfam’s voice and experience can help share our learnings and experience to make things better for social change and social good, we are committed to that. This is a priority to safeguard our staff, the people we serve, and to look and ensure we’re looking at gender and power dynamics and relationships and all we do in the workplace and in frontlines of our work… So, we are investing significantly in ensuring harmonized global policies, practices, and also looking at the internal culture, understanding what happened then that enabled that to happen. We’ve commissioned an independent commission of women’s rights and other leaders who are looking at our policies, practices, culture and systems back in 2011 and relooking at things we investigated so that we can take those learnings for ourselves and share them with others.
Denver: Speaking of those learnings, how do you change a corporate culture? You have 10,000 employees. We know how difficult it is. How do you hope to actually effectuate that change?
Abby: A couple of important areas. One is with continuous looking and alignment with our values. Really internalizing our values of empowerment, accountability and inclusion. What do those mean? And how do we model behaviors consistent with those in everything we do as leaders, as staff, and with partners in the communities? That work on culture is ongoing.
At the same time, when you look at us structurally and organizationally, we had already made some big changes since 2011. We worked in a very dispersed way. In places like Haiti, we made huge organizational changes even as early as 2012, 2013 in how we work in a unified one Oxfam confederation– to have more consistent policies, practices, approaches. We’re strengthening our enabling environment for people to come forward. And what does that mean? Again, the power dynamics. How do we create the space for communities for staff– where there’s power dynamics going on– for them to come forward, to be aware of how they can bring issues forward, and to ensure that the due diligence and victim-sensitive approaches are embedded in who we are and what we do.
Denver: Looking at it from a broader perspective, you’re also the co-chair of a group that was created by Interaction, which is an alliance of international NGOs here in the United States to address this issue. What are these development organizations committed to doing?
Abby: As a community, back in December, before the Oxfam issues of 2011 came to attention, we had already been working on this with Interaction and in our community. This is an important issue for me personally and professionally, and it’s important for Oxfam globally. We convened other CEOs in the sector and said, “What can we do to bring more attention and capacity for better approaches to protecting staff, communities, and ensuring policies and systems are in place?”
The pledge which 118 CEOs have signed, is I believe a first step, and it’s an important one because issues of preventing sexual exploitation and abuse have been long-standing. I’ve worked in post-genocide Rwanda. I‘ve led humanitarian response in Haiti and Ethiopia. These are issues that others and the UN and in this sector have dealt with for a long time, and require continued attention. The mobilization of a large group of NGOs in the US has real muscle, and we believe it can influence good practice and keeping attention on these issues over time.
Denver: Speaking of mobilization, Oxfam has very creative ideas in helping bring attention to a cause, and one of my favorites is the Famine Food Truck. Tell us about that.
Abby: The Famine Food Truck was a wonderful effort back in the fall of last year to have a truck in DC that was empty. It definitely brings exposure and highlights and awareness to people about the issues of hunger and famine that we can control, and that we do have the power; everybody can do something about it. So, we do stunts and campaigns to help educate and bring knowledge to people and awareness so that everybody can see how they can get involved.
Denver: It caught my attention, so it was successful as far as that is concerned. What’s your business model for Oxfam, both here in the US and internationally? What are your sources of revenue?
Abby: Oxfam has a position in the US where we historically, in our roots, when we were founded in the 70s, we wanted to assure that our actions and our efforts were independent of US government funding and of companies who we might be campaigning against. So, our business model requires us to raise funds from individuals, foundations, and other institutions, and it requires us to invest in fund raising along the way, supporter engagement, bringing awareness to these issues. We believe that this independent voice has made us uniquely positioned to advocate with the US government, with companies to hold them accountable. In the US government, we are huge proponents of development aid, and our peers look to us to be able to speak truth to power on a consistent basis to influence good policy and practice.
Denver: Not beholden to anyone. You have had a very interesting personal journey, Abby, on your way to becoming the president and CEO of Oxfam America. Share with our listeners if you would.
Abby: I feel very privileged to have my work be my cause. I’ve been very motivated by these issues. I became aware of the Ethiopian famine in 1984 when I was graduating high school. It really struck me. I couldn’t understand at that time how this was happening, and it led me eventually to be a Peace Corps volunteer working in Lesotho in the late ‘80s when Nelson Mandela was still in jail and Apartheid was still the law of South Africa. HIV AIDS was only beginning to be understood and killing and stigmatizing millions of people.
So, that led me on this journey. I’ve worked in post-genocide Rwanda, Haiti, Ethiopia, the former Soviet Republic of Georgia and many other places over these years, and ultimately to Geneva before joining Oxfam where I was involved in operations and helping people at the community level and meeting incredible, resilient women and men and children who pick themselves up from the most unimaginable conditions. And with their incredible inspiration and optimism, it has really inspired me to work with them. Oxfam’s approach of helping people on the ground build better futures for themselves, save lives and disaster remain incredibly important. But what really led me to Oxfam was the advocacy and policy influencing that gets at the systemic issues and brings them to scale.
Denver: Absolutely. Sometimes a lot of social entrepreneurs want to do things the way they want to do them and stay away from government, but you have to get government involved if you really are going to have the kind of impact you want.
Let’s close on that optimistic note which takes us right back to our opening, which is the belief that Oxfam has that poverty and powerlessness are avoidable. During these difficult and challenging times, what gives you the greatest source of this hope and optimism about the future?
Abby: All the incredible people I’ve met. When I was in the slums of Nairobi, the Korogocho slum last fall, I met I woman named Beatrice who was holding her local authorities accountable for taxes that she and her neighbors were paying, to ensure that a local clinic was functioning and running. And she, against all odds in a place that could be a threat to her own life and livelihood, was bringing voice and holding those in power to account. People like Beatrice give me the inspiration. I know and I’ve seen over the years over continents and countries that every person counts. Every person matters, and we have the opportunity to help and help people realize their own aspirations.
Denver: There are some remarkable people out there who are both tough and resilient in the very best sense of the word.
Abby Maxman, the President and CEO of Oxfam America. I want to thank you so much for being here this evening. Tell us about your website, maybe something that listeners would find of particular interest there, and also how they can become engaged and support the organization if they’re so inclined.
Abby: Thank you Denver. Please go look at our website, www.oxfamamerica.org. You will find our Take Action page where you will get information and be able to see how you can get involved. Whether it’s talking to your friends and families about the issues that matter most, calling your local lawmakers and legislators, your voice matters. Being active, getting out to vote on issues that we know are of common cause that keep you motivated and are important to us. You can donate to Oxfam.
Denver: There you go. Well thanks Abby. It was a real pleasure to have you on the show.
Abby: Thank you, Denver. Appreciate being here.
Denver: I’ll be back with more of The Business of Giving right after this.
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