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Interview by Jeremy Shoham.



Nick Roseveare (Deputy Director of the Humanitarian Department) and Susanne Jaspars (Food Security and Nutrition Co-ordinator) were interviewed for Field Exchange at Oxfam's headquaters in Oxford. Nick has worked for Oxfam for 15 years with ten years posted in Africa and five years at headquarters. Susanne has only recently joined Oxfam in her present post but has worked for Oxfam in Darfur in 1989-90 and been involved in Oxfam evaluations in Turkana and Red Sea Province in the late nineties. She was also Food and Nutrition advisor at headquarters for ten months in 2000.

Oxfam evolved out of a small action committee of Oxford based academics, church activists and Quakers who got together to raise funds for emergency relief during the allied blockade of Nazi occupied Greece in 1942. The Greek population were suffering appalling food shortages and high levels of malnutrition. Oxfam quickly realised that what was most needed was a change in Government policy to allow urgently needed food supplies to pass through the Allied blockade. Their lobbying helped to bring this about. As Nick pointed out, this shows how Oxfam was dealing with the complexities of relief and military conflict from its inception. Their development agenda came later.

Nick talked about critical moments in Oxfam's history. Biafra, which was very much a manmade famine, presented the challenge of attempting to provide relief without fuelling the conflict and at the same time, maintaining a perception of impartiality. Another pivotal moment was Cambodia/Kampuchea where Oxfam rapidly implemented and managed a large-scale water and sanitation (WATSAN) programme and imported substantial amounts of rice to meet acute food shortages after the overthrow of Pol Pot. WATSAN interventions have remained a specialist area of intervention for Oxfam who have continued to maintain a high profile in this sector.

Gujarat, India 2002.Cash for work: workers, usually a group, gets paid 100 Rupees per bras-ie a square 10ftx10ftx1ft deep. The dug out area creates a shallow pond, and the earth is piled up to make an embankmet; both these will help to conserve soil and water when the drought breaks.Oxfam's cash for work programme is enabling many families to survive.

The Sudan/Ethiopia programmes, following the 1984 famine, were also turning points. The scale of these programmes, involving resident populations, was far larger than any previous interventions and marked the growth of Oxfam activities in the horn of Africa. This was followed by the Great Lakes emergency in the wake of the genocide in Rwanda and work in the politically charged Goma refugee camps. Nick described this as a period of 'Oxfam's loss of innocence'. After ten years, during which the highest profile and most organisationally demanding responses were related to dealing with natural disasters, Oxfam (along with the entire humanitarian community) were suddenly plunged into the political and moral maze of refugee camps harbouring large numbers of ' genocidaires' with questions of 'who to feed' - flagging the importance of the separation of humanitarian and political roles. The experience showed how Oxfam could successfully 'scale up' at speed and provide a technically rigorous programme. However, there was a huge cost as the efforts stretched the organisation to the full and meant that other activities/programmes were less supported.

Bosnia, Kosovo and Afghanistan continued to pose complex challenges, especially in terms of the overlap between humanitarian and military action. Co-option of the humanitarian agenda and loss of humanitarian independence were constant threats and Nick admitted that Oxfam might have made some poor compromises. 'In Kosovo, Oxfam were probably unwittingly coopted into the political agenda".

Susanne explained how there are currently four food and nutrition advisors based at headquarters, as well as two regional food and nutrition advisors. There are also five nutrition humanitarian support personnel (HSPs) who spend most of their time in the field, for anything up to 6 months, to support programmes. They undertake a variety of activities including assessments, establishing programmes, technical support in-country and programme management. In the seventies and eighties, Oxfam's primary nutritional activities were selective feeding programmes and nutritional surveys. In the eighties, Oxfam also became involved in general food distribution. Selective feeding programmes were carried out by Oxfam health staff, nutritional surveys by nutritionists, and general food distribution by programme managers. This was followed by a period in the early nineties when WATSAN became more prominent.

In the early 1980s, the health unit produced a practical guide on selective feeding and also the widely used Oxfam feeding kits. At the same time, nutritionists in the field were using a broad approach to nutritional surveys, which included an analysis of the underlying causes of malnutrition.

Involvement in food distribution in the mideighties was the first time that Oxfam promoted food aid for livelihood support, in this case 'food for recovery' in Red Sea Hills in Sudan. The late 1980s and early 1990s was also a period when Oxfam began implementing community based food distribution in South Sudan, Uganda, and Kenya.

Gradually Oxfam renewed its focus on food and nutrition, following the appointment of a food and nutrition advisor in 1996 in the humanitarian department. Discussions with Oxfam's policy department, and experience in the field, consolidated thinking around food security and livelihoods programming which led to Oxfam's livelihoods approach to food security in emergencies. This includes assessing risks to livelihoods as well as to lives, and combining a variety of food security interventions to ensure adequate access to food and to protect livelihoods.

In 2001, Oxfam commissioned a year long review of its response to food crisis which culminated in new guiding principles for response to food crisis. The impetus for the review was recognition of the changed internal and external environment, i.e. a large increase in the size and variety of Oxfam's food and nutrition programming, and the changing nature of emergencies and donor practices. The new guiding principles (see box) reflect Oxfam's increasingly confident assertion of a livelihoods approach to food crisis. Two key aspects of this policy were i) Oxfam would consider a range of food security and livelihood interventions tailored to the severity of food crisis and how livelihoods are affected, and ii) Oxfam would move out of therapeutic feeding and wet supplementary feeding by establishing Memoranda of Understanding (MOUs) with other agencies who could pick up these types of programme in emergency situations. As Nick reflected, " it is difficult to leave specialist sectors behind but the fact that we can is perhaps a measure of Oxfam's confidence and maturity". Oxfam have recently piloted an MOU for therapeutic feeding with ACF in the Red Sea Province.

Susanne explained that a lot of her team's work involves implementing the new guiding principles for response to food crisis. The food and nutrition team is currently developing guidelines on food security assessments, cash for work, livestock interventions in emergencies and food distribution programmes. She is also forging closer links with the livelihoods team in Oxfam's policy department. One of the first activities will be a short briefing paper on how Oxfam's activities in food crisis, market access and fair trade fit together to address livelihood insecurity.

Nick believes that one of Oxfam's strengths is that it is a 'thinking' agency. However, he also believes that this tendency to deeper analysis can create conflict and lead to problems of balance. "As Oxfam's understanding and analysis of humanitarian need becomes more sophisticated and incorporates principles like impartiality, codes of conduct, vulnerability reduction and gender awareness, there are inevitable costs in terms of intervention speed and scale" - "the best jewellers take months to fashion a quality gem, but often what is actually needed is the High Street jewellery store - quick and easy". Nick felt that they got the balance in Gujurat wrong as "Oxfam wanted too comprehensive and integrated a response which meant that they tried to do too much and this simply became unmanageable in a rapid onset emergency".

Advocacy is another area where Oxfam exhibits strengths and weaknesses according to Nick. "Oxfam are hugely influential and have, for example, addressed the Security Council on several occasions. Our influence has grown even more since the inception of Oxfam International. However, there is often a conflict between speaking out and consequences for humanitarian action on the ground. This is not always an easy tightrope to walk".

Nick explained how the intrinsic ethos for most people who work for Oxfam is the need to address both poverty and suffering, and to address the causes of both. Clearly, this creates programmatic tensions within the organisation and some degree of 'schizophrenia'. Staff are, however, passionate about their work. "The roots of the agency were (and still are) in campaigning - originally about food needs in Greece. This has been a continuing theme. The annual Oxfam 'fast' has run for decades, while the 'Hungry for Change' campaigns and 'Grain of Hope' food shipments to Africa were activities in the 1980s and 1990's respectively. Oxfam is still a movement of people. It has over 23,000 volunteers with a constituency of approximately 700,000 people giving more than two pounds a month through direct debit. Many of Oxfam's activists are high profile people, e.g. Chris Martin (lead singer of ColdPlay) sports a 'fair trade' tea shirt on gigs'. Although Oxfam is renowned for its high street shops and these provide a major public 'face' of the organisation, much of the considerable income generated by these outlets is absorbed by the high level of overheads in the retail sector, and fundraising has moved on to develop other areas. A major source of Oxfam income is now individual members of the public who give small but regular amounts (some also give a great deal) and are the key to Oxfam's stable resource base.

With some prior knowledge of Oxfam and the benefit of these two interviews, I found myself reflecting on the significant contributions that Oxfam has made over the past 60 years in the humanitarian sector, and in particular to practice in the emergency food and nutrition sector. There is a unique culture within the organisation - especially with regard to the depth of analysis. However, as with all agencies, Oxfam faces challenges and internal contradictions, which in part stem from the very things that make the agency unique.

Oxfam (GB) Guiding Principles for Response to Food Crises

  1. crises are an acute cause of human suffering and the severest crises lead to excess deaths. Oxfam's humanitarian mandate makes it imperative that Oxfam acts.
  2. Adequate food security and nutrition is of utmost importance to save lives as part of an emergency public health response.
  3. Livelihood support is essential to help people achieve improved food security and nutrition both in emergency and development contexts, and to reduce vulnerability to food crises in the long term.
  4. The effectiveness of response to food crises is improved by emergency preparedness.
  5. The identification of appropriate interventions to respond to food crises should be based on an analysis of the nature and severity of food insecurity. This should include an analysis of vulnerable groups and of diversity (including gender) at all stages of food and nutrition programming.
  6. Oxfam will focus its emergency food security and nutrition programming on non-food alternatives and general distribution of free food aid; areas in which it has a comparative strength. Where Oxfam has no comparative strength (in therapeutic feeding), it will support other agencies to respond.
  7. There is a range of different interventions to respond to food crisis, both food aid and non-food alternatives. A combination of different types of interventions is frequently the most effective.
  8. Commitment on the part of States affected by food crises, donors and the UN, is required to ensure that everyone's right to adequate food is met.

Show footnotes

1The Guiding Principles for Response to Food Crisis comprises eight policy principles. In the full document, specific policy points are included under each policy principle, and guidance notes relevant to the principles and policy points are included at the end of the document. A separate Strategy Paper sets out how the Guiding Principles can be implemented. For more information about the Guiding Principles, contact Susanne Jaspars. Email:

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Reference this page

Jeremy Shoham (). Oxfam. Field Exchange 19, July 2003. p31.



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