Mark Goldring, Oxfam’s chief executive, on why the international aid agency is investing in food banks in the UK
It is absolutely, entirely appropriate that Oxfam should be investing money to support UK food banks, says its new chief executive, Mark Goldring. He’s aware that some powerful voices argue that aid charities associated with humanitarian disasters in the developing world have no real business operating in the UK, where, it is sometimes suggested, “real” poverty doesn’t exist. But Goldring is unmoved: “It’s really important that we can say our job is to respond to injustice, poverty and suffering, wherever we see it.”
He points out that some of those same voices have in the past criticised Oxfam for caring too much about international poverty and ignoring poor people in the UK (the charity has had UK programmes for the past 20 years). But it is not just grumbling voices from the British rightwing media. When he’s abroad, he says, the locals occasionally question Oxfam’s moral authority: “People say ‘You come here and tell us what to do – so why is it we read about people sleeping in the streets in your own country?’”
Hand-up, not handout
Poverty looks very different across the world, says Goldring, and of course Oxfam is not going to be distributing emergency shipments of grain to people in the UK. But there are aspects of poverty that deprived communities share all over the world, whether it’s Mongolia, Manchester or south Sudan: a sense of social exclusion, a lack of voice, and a lack of opportunity to shape their own lives. Addressing that – using the principle of the hand-up, rather than the “permanent handout” – is what Oxfam sees as its business across the globe, and that includes Britain.
Here, Oxfam has a partnership with the Trussell Trust food bank network. Oxfam’s money is not spent on buying food supplies but the insights that food banks can bring to the understanding the causes of (and solutions to) poverty in the UK.
On a practical level Oxfam funds welfare advisers to guide often desperate food bank clients through the social security maze and offer them advice on managing debt and getting back to work (it also pays for Trussell to staff their distribution warehouses, for training and other forms of support). Its work has helped highlight the fact that hunger and food insecurity is triggered not just by a shrinking, occasionally punitive and increasingly threadbare social security system, but by low pay and insecure employment.
“One of the reasons we have supported food banks is that what we are seeing is people who are just slipping through the system completely; where quite often they are not allowed to work or not able to work; or where they are not allowed to access benefits; or where complications with benefits mean there are massive delays,” says Goldring.
“That shows us that our own social security safety net is not working. If our safety nets are not working there are some people living in serious poverty. So what Oxfam wants to do is [ask] what are the causes of that? How can we bring [those causes] alive? How can we push local or central government to respond to the underlying issues?
“So food banks aren’t the answer but what food banks do is give people the opportunity to eat, and at the same time by working with those people we can understand the underlying causes, both to try and help them address them, but also to work with partners in the UK to tackle welfare reform.”
When another UK-based international aid charity, Save the Children, launched a campaign last year making similar points, it was denounced by critics as “straying into overtly political territory”. Goldring is not fazed: “Oxfam has always been political. Many of the causes of poverty are political. That’s very different from: ‘Is Oxfam party political?’”
Unlike Save the Children, Oxfam won’t be asking the public to donate specifically to a UK poverty programme, says Goldring. Its fundraising focus will remain very much on the developing world (Oxfam spent £2.3m on UK programmes in 2012-13, around 1% of its income). But poverty in the UK, a wealthy country, cannot be ignored, he says, and you can’t help poor people if you ignore the reason they are trapped in poverty.
“If we see things that are being caused by our political system – welfare reform, for example – or our political system is not addressing those blockages, it is right that we should challenge them, whether we are talking about the UK, or Africa or a country in Asia,” he says.
There has been a “hardening” of official attitudes towards campaigning charities, he accepts. In a sense it is not new – he recalls Oxfam being attacked by politicians for similar reasons 30 years ago – and he refuses to be cowed. “Whether we are talking of domestic or international issues, you can only tackle the underlying cases by tackling power relations; if you tackle power relations, that includes challenging how laws are made and what’s in them. I think that is central to the work of the best charities because they are trying to change things for good.”
He is appalled by the government’s lobbying bill (“really ill conceived”) that critics says will limit charities’ ability to campaign, and disappointed by the rightwing media’s attacks on international aid and development, particularly when the government has, he says, such a positive aid agenda. Particular ire is reserved for the chairman of the Charity Commission, William Shawcross, whose reported comments that millions of pounds of charity money raised for the Syria crisis “undoubtedly” went to extremist groups played straight into this agenda (the commission later distanced itself from the piece, saying Shawcross’s comments were taken out of context).
“You have got your traditional rightwing attack on international aid – ‘Why should we care about them, they will only buy a Mercedes with it’ – hardening; we see that very strongly in the press. It is not helped by the irresponsible and unsupportive attitude of the Charity Commission which seems to miss the point that its job should be to encourage good charities to work well rather than, in a sense, rabble-rouse, which is what it feels like they are doing.”
The learning and experience developed over decades fighting poverty abroad now informs Oxfam’s UK strategy. The charity supports community development trusts in the UK, that are local organisations that encourage deprived neighbourhoods denuded of jobs and public investment to take control of local assets, such as parks and sports centres, and set up community shops and businesses. “Things like community development trusts are the British example of the organisations that Oxfam are promoting right across the world.”
Oxfam faces a “tough” financial situation, Goldring admits. Voluntary income fell £18m (on a total income of £368m) in 2012-13, at a time when it increased spending on humanitarian emergencies. The charity has to live within its means, he warns, and bring “business discipline” to the way it operates.
Looking ahead, he wants Oxfam to campaign more closely in partnership with multinational companies to improve employment practices and wage levels, and widen its influence on policy, in areas such as inequality. He says: “Unless we can tackle that, promote fair taxation and social safety nets for the poorest, we will always be helping people survive in an unfair world rather than trying to make the world fairer.”