Oxfam CEO Keynote Speech at 2019 NCVO Annual Conference

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- Short URL: https://www.oxfam.org.uk/mc/h54356/

Dr Dhananjayan Sriskandarajah, CEO, Oxfam Great Britain

It is a real honour to be here today to celebrate NCVO’s centenary. What a remarkable period in our history the last century has been. When NCVO was born, women in this country had only just won the vote, there was no welfare state, and Britain ruled over a quarter of the world.

How much has changed since then, much of it for the better and much of it thanks to the generations of civil society activists who have gone before us.

The organisation I have the honour of serving, Oxfam, is only 76 years old, a spritely septuagenarian compared to the NCVO.

I must admit that some of my friends and colleagues – including some in this room – raised an eyebrow when I said I was joining Oxfam. Some wondered why someone like me, who had been critical of the role of large NGOs would join one. Some asked why when many of my contemporaries were running disruptive start-ups, I was heading to a venerable old institution. Some mused how unexpected it was for someone like me, who grew up on a small island off the coast of Sri Lanka not speaking English, to be appointed as CEO of one of Britain’s biggest charities. And, perhaps most often heard, some wondered why I would want to join Oxfam now, after all the revelations of last year.

But, if you’ll indulge me, let me tell you why I did want this job, at this time.

Back in 1942, Oxfam began when eight concerned citizens met in the University Church in Oxford, determined to find ways to help their fellow Europeans suffering as a result of the Allied blockade of Greece. They set out, not only to raise money to send aid to starving people, but to change the very policy that was depriving their fellow citizens of food.

In this way, ever since its earliest beginnings, Oxfam has been about both saving lives and challenging power. And that remains the same today. For example, in Yemen, where a devastating war has just entered its fifth year, Oxfam is not only running one of the largest international aid operations, we’re also challenging the sales of arms that continues to fuel that conflict.

Secondly, the founders of Oxfam, even in the midst of World War II, saw beyond the politics of the day towards a progressive internationalism. And today, in the midst of all our political divisions and insecurities – as internationalism retreats in the face of populism – Oxfam’s mission remains just as relevant.

Finally, any lingering doubts I might have had about whether Oxfam would learn the lessons of the last year were quickly dispelled by the readiness that I have encountered from colleagues to seize this moment of change, to make sure this crisis is an opportunity for transformation. From the very first conversation I had with our Chair, Caroline Thomson, it was clear that the coming months and years will be anything but business as usual.

My former Chair at CIVICUS often says that a truly accountable organisation isn’t one that doesn’t make mistakes, it’s one that learns when it does. And Oxfam is learning. The appalling abuse that took place in Haiti in 2011 showed that saving some lives cannot be an excuse for damaging others in the process.

For those reasons and more, and despite all the challenges, I see this as a fantastic opportunity to take all that is good about Oxfam and re-purpose it for the rest of the 21st century.

It also feels like a critical and urgent moment for all of us in civil society, here and around the world.

Our politics are divided, inequality is rising, trust is plummeting, the planet is burning, feelings of insecurity are gripping our nations. I am convinced that now is not the time for those of us in civil society to tinker around the margins, making incremental changes here and there – but to think deeply about how we in civil society can make this the Century of the Citizen.

That might sound far-fetched, but bear with me. For most of human history, we were subjects, ruled by monarchs and chiefs, with few rights and little power. In the last few hundred years, the advent of democracy and capitalism has brought with it the promise of emancipation, but at its worst, has made us little more than consumers, and profoundly dissatisfied consumers at that. As things are heading, I doubt that states and markets alone will deliver the sustainable and equitable development our world so desperately needs.

We have an opportunity – and, more than that, a responsibility – to come together to make the 21st century an era in which we, as citizens, are more empowered, more connected and more equal.

How do we do that? I had the privilege of serving as a member of the independent inquiry into the Future of Civil Society, chaired by Julia Unwin and supported by the NCVO. Standing here, addressing this conference two years ago, Julia reminded us that “We have never been a sector that has let others determine our future…Now is the time to decide where next, in conversation together, and on our own terms”.

Our final report, published a few months ago and available at civilsocietyfutures.org, didn’t make a series of recommendations to government. Instead we talked about the need for a new PACT; a commitment to reimagine civil society – to decide where next, on our own terms – by addressing four fundamental things: power, accountability, connections and trust.

I’d like to look briefly at each in turn. Power comes first. Our role as civil society is not only to speak truth to power; it is also to shift power itself, through our advocacy and our actions.

Across our country today, too many people feel unheard, ignored, frustrated. They feel that the balance of power is too heavily weighted in favour of a powerful few. And internationally, the imbalance of power is even more stark.

As my colleagues at Oxfam have shown, just 26 people – almost all of them men – own more wealth than the poorest half of the planet combined. Meanwhile, hundreds of millions of people go to bed hungry every night without the power to break down the barriers that trap them in poverty.

If we want to see power in our society redistributed, we, as civil society, need to consciously model that change. We need to ensure that leadership of our own organisations is open to people of different ages, ethnicities, faiths, genders, politics and sexualities. We need a generation of leaders who are prepared to reimagine traditional organisational structures, who can take power off its pedestal and turn it into something much more accessible, collaborative and diffuse. And most urgently, we need to tackle the imbalances of power that enable bullying, racism and sexual abuse, including, to be frank, that which took place in Haiti.

The cause of our safeguarding failures lay not only in faulty procedures or policies, but in an institutional culture that privileged and protected certain people and practices.

The changes we need to make at Oxfam are both systemic and cultural. They include our policies and practices: we have already tripled our safeguarding resources, trained all our staff, reinforced our reporting mechanisms, and have just hired a Director of Safeguarding reporting directly to me. But they also include our attitudes and behaviours. We need to make a concerted, explicit effort to deconstruct the power inequities that are all too easily built into, and perpetuated by, institutions like ours. Or put another way, can old institutions channel new power?

For me, as a new leader – and for others like me – I believe there is a responsibility to model inclusive and feminist principles.

Only when we openly address our own power and accept our own responsibilities can we achieve the A in PACT: accountability. And the real question here is to whom, first and foremost, should we in the organised bits of civil society be accountable?

An Indian activist once told me that NGOs are great at ‘accounts-ability’ – the  ability to produce financial accounts, year in, year out – but poor at being accountable to the people, communities and causes we claim to be serving.

This has all too often led us to prioritise ‘what’ we do, over ‘how’ we do it. As Oxfam has learned, just because we’re working to ‘do good’ doesn’t mean we are exempt from causing harm. We need to ensure that our work is always carried out in a way that is consistent with the values we espouse.

Part of that, of course, is being willing to be held to account ourselves: to be open and transparent about our practices and our mistakes, to be ready to genuinely listen and to embrace change.

Part of it is about how we are governed. I’m just back from a meeting colleagues from across the Oxfam confederation in in Kenya, where our international HQ is now based, where we discussed a series of radical reforms that will put more stakeholders and partners at the very heart of our confederation-wide governance system. When it comes to rebalancing power and making ourselves more accountable, we know we can do better.

Which brings me to the third element of our PACT: connection. Building deep connections is perhaps civil society’s most enduring role and it’s one that has never been more needed. Of course, in many ways, it’s easier today to connect than ever before, but I am convinced that meaningful connections are becoming increasingly difficult to make.

In the UK, divisions seem to be deepening: between urban and rural, north and south, young and old, remainers and leavers.

Baroness Stowell, the chair of the Charity Commission and my predecessor as NCVO’s keynote speaker, said recently that “Charitable behaviour has a unique potential to bridge divides and help us to confront uncertainty with purpose and hope”. I could not agree more.

Unless we, as civil society, can rediscover and extend our ability to connect people across widening divides, our efforts to drive lasting social change will be thwarted.

This is also where bodies like NCVO are so important. If my six years at CIVCIUS taught me anything, it’s that networks like this have a unique value for bringing us together, for enabling us to speak with one voice, for facilitating collective action, for sharing best practice.

Connections are the lifeblood of our work. Connections can ensure that those with power listen to those who feel they have little. Connections can identify what change is needed and how we can work together to realise it. Connections can be the basis of what we on the Inquiry called ‘a national people-power grid’, facilitating social action across communities and across our country.

For some of us in civil society, building these kind of deep connections will involve being more humble, more interactive, less corporate and less wedded to our brands. For all of us, it will involve ensuring that the depth and quality of our connections are included in how we measure success.

A few weeks ago I spent some time in Oxfam shops in Manchester. While the primary purpose of our network of 600 shops is to raise money to fund our programmes, I was amazed at the important role our shops in strengthening local communities, whether through offering volunteers the chance to be part of teams or supporting back-to-work programmes or just hosting community events in our shops. A week later I was in the Democratic Republic of Congo where Oxfam volunteers are working to change public health behaviours to stop the spread of Ebola.

Saving lives and strengthening communities, here and abroad. For me, this is the power of organisations like Oxfam: to build from below and beyond borders, to connect local struggles to global platforms.

And this brings me, finally, to trust, civil society’s most important asset. Trust is our core currency, the essential foundation of everything we do. It’s the hardest thing to earn and the easiest to lose.

If we’re to restore and increase trust, an unswerving, authentic commitment to our core values is going to be critical. We need to be honest about our failures and ready to acknowledge the role of others in our successes. And when those in power fund our work, we still need to be ready to challenge them.

But we must also be pragmatic. In a diverse society with divided opinions on many issues, we’re not going to please everyone, all the time. We need to prioritise building trust among the people and communities that we exist to serve.

We can’t expect such trust to be built overnight. We must include time for dialogue in our processes and time for building relationships in our interventions.

And we also need to repay and return trust. We need to show people, communities and other civil society groups that we trust them to provide valuable insights, to make decisions, to own and control assets, to run projects.

The bits of civil society that excite me most are those that have participation and collaboration at their very heart. Many new, cooperative-based initiatives look very different from the big NGO structures of today.

As Oxfam, our challenge is to harness the very best of these participatory models. If we don’t find a way to trust and embrace these new movements, we risk becoming trapped in the institutions we have built. Trust must be something we live out in the way we work and the decisions we make.

That’s why in the next few weeks, we’ll be opening Oxfam up to ask our supporters, partners and the public to help us create our strategic vision for the next ten years. And I am also proud that Oxfam will join a network or organisations committed to taking forward the PACT. I also want us to acknowledge our particular responsibility as one of the bigger, better-resourced organisations in our sector. I am determined that Oxfam will be better – less supertanker, more dockyard – ready to use our resources and platform to empower and enable others in the sector to speak up for the people and causes they represent.

It is by shifting power in this way, by recalibrating our accountability, by making meaningful connections, that we will begin to rebuild trust.

A Century of the Citizen will be marked not by the passage of time, but by the deepening of trust. By moving away from charity for charity’s sake, and towards a world of mutuality.

This PACT between civil society, our supporters and the people we exist to serve is something that can inform our everyday actions, as well as our long-term visions. It isn’t about change that’s going to come from the outside: it’s about the change that’s within our gift.

Of course, many of the challenges we’re facing are unique to Oxfam, but many are not. It became clear last year – very painfully so – that our focus on ‘what’ we do had taken precedence over a focus on ‘how’ we do it. Responding quickly and efficiently to humanitarian disasters, or to longer-term development challenges, doesn’t represent success if, in the process, we abandon our most fundamental values. As I said earlier, saving some lives cannot be an excuse for damaging others.

And this applies to us all. When our work is funded by the generosity of others, we must be objective and mission-focused, but we must also, always be values-led.

In this instance, the onus is on us, but donors too have a responsibility. Compliance comes at a cost. I hope institutional donors will recognise the importance of overheads for safe, quality programming; that they will recognise the value of time spent on building connections, relationships and trust; they need to allow our primary accountability to be first and foremost to those we serve. Living out our values comes at a price, but the cost of not doing so is infinitely higher.

I began by challenging us all to think about how we can make this the Century of the Citizen. I’m convinced that we are standing on the brink of a participation revolution. All over the world, we’re seeing citizens organising and mobilising in new and creative ways to defend civic freedoms, to fight for social justice and equality and to push back against populism.

In the Gambia, united civil society action played a crucial role in persuading President Jammeh to accept the election result that saw him lose power.

In Romania, mass protests forced the government to shelve plans to soften punishments for corruption.

And in the United States, ahead of the inauguration of President Trump, the Women’s Marches are estimated to have constituted the largest (and most peaceful) day of protest in American history.

Here in the UK, at this moment of uncertainty and insecurity, of inequality and division, the challenge for those of us in civil society is not to tinker, to trade in incremental change. People like us, in rooms like these, have a responsibility to come up with ways of amplifying the voice to those being left behind, of ushering in a more participatory democracy, to live up to our values, to embody the PACT, to make sure that this indeed is the Century of the Citizen.

Thank you very much.

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