Edward Hands / CC BY-SA

May 20, 2020; Devex

The ultimate goal for charities and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) working in development programs should always be to have an exit plan, making and paving the way for new opportunities to take hold.

Oxfam International announced it is set to withdraw from 18 countries in the Global South and subsequently will be laying off almost a third of its program staff.

“We’ve been planning this for some time, but we are now accelerating key decisions in light of the effects of the global pandemic,” said Oxfam International’s interim executive director, Chema Vera.

This announcement is an outcome of Oxfam’s 10-year strategic review, which began in 2018, and has seemingly come sooner than anticipated. Oxfam states that its decision to withdraw was expedited as a result of financial pressures and COVID-19. However, to be clear, they were always going to withdraw, COVID-19 or not

The past decade has been arguably one of metamorphosis for the international NGO, starting with the hiring of Winnie Byanyima in 2013. Byanyima is a Ugandan woman, a former fighter in the National Resistance Army, and a qualified engineer, diplomat, and civil servant. Under Byanyima, Oxfam moved its international secretariat from London to Nairobi between 2017 and 2019, making it leaner and transferring key secretariat positions to other southern cities like Addis Ababa and Bangkok. The move, rooted in the belief that the power of the organization’s decision makers should be closer to those they serve, was celebrated by many development practitioners.

In the spring of 2018, the #MeToo movement and allegations of cover-ups (as we at NPQ have covered comprehensively over the years) found its own voice within Oxfam. The aftermath resulted in significant individual giving drop-offs, but those financial losses were offset by the retail arm, a revenue source of £5M a week upon which Oxfam has been heavily dependent in Europe.

In spring 2019, Oxfam was in the news again. This time, Oxfam Australia Trading announced the shuttering of all of its retail operations, citing a tough retail environment and declining revenues. Now, in 2020, with the global pandemic, Oxfam is set to expedite its exit from 18 countries as part of its organization-wide transformation.

An outcome of this transformation will see almost 1,900 local implementing partners—a combination of NGOs and governments—begin to identify alternative funding sources to support their work serving communities in need.

While the reaction from local NGOs and governments has been one of “shock and sadness” and “fear for the world’s most vulnerable,” in this author’s opinion, this is the time to focus on opportunity—the opportunity for the “local implementing partner” or “local national partner/subsidiary” to come into their own, independent and free of the lens of their northern-rooted funders. This trepidation we see is rooted in the fear that comes at the cusp of possibility.

As a Sri Lankan woman who was born in Seoul, raised across Southeast Asia and later the Americas and Europe, and built a 17-year career with 40 years of genuine lived experience “in development,” Oxfam’s withdrawal is something to be celebrated. On the other hand, Sri Lanka, one of the 18 countries Oxfam is leaving, has a long way to go; it’s been less than hospitable to NGOs of any kind, particularly since the 2007–2008 atrocities against its Tamil population, and today continues to violate the rights of its Muslim citizens. There is still a need for NGOs like Oxfam—but they don’t have to be foreign goliaths.

Oxfam India’s CEO Amitabh Behar says, “I just don’t understand why [international NGOs] need hundreds of people sitting in the North with huge teams to support Southern NGOs on the ground. Most of the resources get tied to these headquarters and little goes to the South. Real decision-making about what needs to be done and how is still decided by HQ-based Northern experts.”

The opportunity that arises with the departure of Oxfam from countries like Sri Lanka is for homegrown civil society organizations (CSOs) to lead, champion, and advocate for and on behalf of those that continue to be in need. This is the time for CSOs to demand their governments remedy the neoliberal policies they jumped to adopt many years ago, resulting in significant structural adjustments of agriculture, transport, public health, and infrastructure.

Ultimately, it is up to us—the diaspora from the Global South as well as those still living in these regions—to find our own path and partners who will support and finance our efforts for equity, justice, and the universal right to food, shelter, water, health and education.

This does not have to be a time of fear, shock, or sadness. This can be, if one chooses, a time of opportunity to build anew.—Niduk D’Souza