Oxfam has been on a ten-year journey to transform itself into an organisation more reflective of the world in which it works and more diverse in its leadership. In this article, Oxfam staff and local partners share some of their experiences and thoughts on supporting local humanitarian leadership while opening new affiliates in the Global South.
When Oxfam set out to address imbalances of power and money in its confederation, it reimagined itself. Its traditional configuration involved a small number of interconnected non-governmental organisations (NGOs), known at Oxfam as affiliates, in the Global North; it envisioned a diversified network of NGOs across the world working interdependently toward a common vision and mission. Now, Oxfam has affiliates in India, Mexico, Brazil, Turkey, Colombia and South Africa, with more on the horizon.
Oxfam is not alone. Many other humanitarian and development international NGOs (INGOs) have taken a similar approach.
Alongside what it calls its ‘global balance’ journey, the organisation has been working to fulfil its commitment to promoting and strengthening local leadership, which it sees as crucial to effective, appropriate, and sustainable humanitarian systems. Oxfam has invested in partner-led programmes to help local actors strengthen the skills, networks and institutional capacity they need to thrive. It has also shifted away from assuming a dominant role in emergency response in favour of complementing and supporting the work of local actors.
Infused with the same spirit and fundamental values, these two agendas would seem to complement each other, but decisions around how and where an organisation occupies space have major implications for those who call those spaces home. Some local and national organisations are finding INGO affiliates competing with them for funding and for hard-won seats at the decision-making table – behaviour that is undermining rather than boosting local humanitarian leadership.
Are these agendas on a collision course, or are there ways they could build on and strengthen one another?
Poaching, stealing and grabbing the space
‘My fear is that [INGO local affiliates] will arrive, settle in, create expectations, and leave … I fear an attitude of neo-colonialism and of “reconquest”, as if locals did not have much to contribute to their knowledge or resources. It would be a disastrous scenario’(Luis Guillermo Guerrero, Director of the Center for Research and Popular Education, a Colombian NGO).
The prospect of international supporters becoming local competitors rouses both fear and indignation among local actors. A nationally registered INGO would have access to all the systems and support of an international organisation, giving it a leg up on winning grants – including funds intended to cover indirect costs. It could step into the limelight in emergencies by going operational itself rather than supporting capable local organisations. And it could view itself as a local actor and occupy seats at the table that rightly belong to indigenous groups that are not part of an international family, contravening guidance from the Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC) and Grand Bargain.
‘INGOs and their national counterparts sometimes act with arrogance in an individualistic way – isolated, and without generating strategic alliances’(Guillermo Guerrero).
‘Some INGO affiliates in the Philippines access major funds for emergency response and then go into direct implementation mode, even in places where local NGOs are capable of doing the work. … In some cases, they poach local staff. They are depriving local NGOs of needed resources, including human resources’(Benedict Balderama, National Coordinator for the Partnership of Philippine Support Service Agencies).
‘INGO local affiliates sometimes try to take spaces on decision-making platforms that are reserved for local actors … Local and national NGOs should represent civil society’,(Esteban Masagca, Director of the People’s Disaster Risk Reduction Network in the Philippines).
In other words, national INGO affiliates that set up competitive relationships with other NGOs pose serious threats to local civil society and may be undoing years of progress on strengthening local humanitarian leadership. Oxfam’s path has not been a smooth one, but increasingly its visions for global balance and local leadership are coming into focus as one.
The search for global balance
In 2008, Oxfam made the important decision to pursue a more balanced and equitable affiliate structure – a move to stand in solidarity with local and national civil society. It bore fruit quickly, with the new southern affiliates like Oxfam India immediately tackling critical national issues. Their directors have taken their places at the top levels of Oxfam confederation leadership and brought to the table new voices, opinions, and ways of working.
‘Global balance in Oxfam is not just an internal project but rather a political project that shapes how Oxfam acts in the world … It is about enhancing and leveraging diversity, fostering inclusion and equity, and supporting citizens as agents of change – both inside and outside Oxfam. This requires shifts in how power is used, shared, and understood, and calls for diversity to be reflected in everything we do’(Leela Ramdhani, Chief Operating Officer for Oxfam International).
In the early years of Oxfam’s journey toward a more representative confederation, the impact on local actors of establishing local affiliates was not top of mind. New affiliates coming online, however, have built supporting local leadership into their plans, policies, and perspectives, and they have been deliberate about working collaboratively with partners.
Oxfam now has six affiliates – independent, nationally registered NGOs with local boards – in the Global South:
- three made the transition from an existing Oxfam office that had close programmatic and financial ties to a northern Oxfam affiliate;
- one was created from scratch; and
- two were the result of respected national partners becoming affiliates.
The organisation is exploring the possibility of incorporating five new affiliates in the near future. The context and timing of each transition have differed, and each new Oxfam has a story to tell about its relationship to local leadership.
In Colombia, for example, where Oxfam’s existing office became an affiliate in March 2021, the team asked more than 200 local actors – including representatives of more than 50 NGOs – to share their thoughts and perspectives on the transition. The Colombian NGOs requested that Oxfam work with them for peace – without which no other progressive agenda can succeed – and not to compete with them for funding. Director Carlos Mejía agreed.
‘We are explaining to funders that whatever we do, we do with others. Whenever there is a funding opportunity, we apply together with partners. But we are not donors. We are partners in building a country that is safer, more resilient, and more just. We want to share what we know and share our global platforms, and – yes – share other resources, but as partners rather than donors as we move forward together’(Carlos Mejía, Executive Director of Oxfam Colombia).
An Oxfam priority in recent years has been to forge deeper connections with Colombia’s most marginalised communities and help them communicate their struggles and messages to the wider world. A nationally based NGO with an international network is well positioned to take this on. But Mejía notes that INGO affiliates may need to undergo cultural shifts in order to be successful. They must not work in isolation or take centre stage, for example, and their staff need to embody solidarity. ‘What we do and how we act must reflect our values’, he says, ‘and those values should be informed by the principles of local humanitarian leadership’.
In Mexico, national NGO Rostros y Voces became the affiliate Oxfam Mexico in 2010. This led to an unintentional and temporary loss in unrestricted funding, as US and European affiliates that had been present and active in Mexico stepped back to make way for the new entity. Several NGOs ended their partnerships with Oxfam, citing this as a factor. But Oxfam’s more modest presence and resources ushered in a new approach: it used to be that training was a one-way street – from Oxfam to its partners – but now Oxfam Mexico and partners engage in mutual capacity assessments and provide one another with trainings when they are able. Capacity sharing, in other words, has become a reality.
While boosting local leadership is a top priority for the Mexico team, one size turns out not to fit all. In Mexico, humanitarian response has been politicised to the point where many NGOs don’t want to be identified with the sector and would like Oxfam to retain a leadership role.
In Kenya, the decision to become an affiliate hasn’t yet been finalised, and options like inviting a local partner to become the Kenyan affiliate are still on the table. Over the years, the Oxfam team has demonstrated a strong commitment to local leadership, supporting Kenyan NGOs to strategise, lead, and implement emergency responses and raise the funds they need. One possible new model for the sector that could empower local organisations is for Oxfam and its counterparts to offer up their specialties in what would effectively become a marketplace for humanitarian skills and support.
‘We need to be very mindful of how we show up as Oxfam. … Regardless of whether or not we are registered locally, we have the ability to either hoard humanitarian space or work in a very empowering, feminist way. There’s plenty of room for collaboration, and that’s the paradigm I’d like to push’(John Kitui, Country Director of Oxfam in Kenya).
As Oxfam makes its way along diverse paths to national affiliation, a set of principles to guide future policies and practices is becoming clear.
- National affiliates of INGOs aren’t strictly local. They are connected to global networks and should provide local organisations with access to those networks when agendas coincide.
- To ensure that affiliate transitions enhance rather than diminish local humanitarian leadership, two feminist principles must be at the forefront: collaboration and solidarity. It is easy to lay claim to these values, but embracing them fully means resisting the urge to compete. In practical terms, it means listening well to comprehend how local actors view an affiliate transition, enabling them to participate in the design of the new affiliate, and understanding where in the country’s humanitarian ecosystem the new NGO will add value. This process is fundamental to future collaboration. Also essential is supporting and complementing the work of local and national actors from the start – a principle that must be embedded in the new organisation’s identity. This has implications for everything from responding to emergencies to raising funds to strengthening capacity to enabling access to international advocacy networks.
- Complementing local actors in emergencies may mean funding, supporting from the sidelines, accompanying partner interventions, or intervening directly where gaps exist, taking care not to dominate the space. Raising funds in the spirit of solidarity means joining forces with partners, systematically forwarding on funding opportunities that local actors could benefit from, and channelling funds to partners in cases where the current system doesn’t enable direct access.
- Strengthening capacity in a truly collaborative way requires that all parties consider themselves candidates for improvement and potential sources of knowledge. It means embracing capacity sharing, and learning to listen to what you need to hear. Read about the importance of addressing systemic weaknesses, not simply organisational gaps in Eyokia, J., Abdul Latif, M., Ochepa P. and P. Righetti (2021) ‘Strength, voice and space: making locally led response a reality‘. Humanitarian Exchange Magazine 79:57-63. London: Humanitarian Practice Network/ODI. INGO affiliates like Oxfam have international networks that can advance the agendas of their partners; collaborative relationships could mean connecting partners with the global audiences they need in order to accomplish shared goals.
When INGOs form national affiliates, the how is as important as the what. Adopting feminist principles can help counter the tendency to dominate. In particular, they can help counter the colonial mindset that dogs northern-based organizations. To the extent that affiliates can accomplish that, they can join hands with local and national actors as equal partners.
Hopes, fears and commitment
Some local NGOs are transforming themselves into national and even international organisations, while some INGOs are setting up national affiliates and local offices. Growth and adaptations like these are not new, but the current context is unprecedented: brutal prolonged wars; the climate, refugee, and Covid-19 crises; and the deaths that spurred the Black Lives Matter movement – combined with growing right-wing nationalism – have highlighted the moral, political and practical failures of traditional northern leadership. Meanwhile, internet connectivity has enabled grassroots activism to thrive and helped fuel a southern-based international movement of local humanitarian actors who will not be silenced.
Meeting urgent and growing humanitarian needs requires all hands on deck. But for northern-based organisations that have traditionally played a dominant role in the humanitarian sector it can be hard to grasp how to become truly equitable and desirable partners to local actors. It is time for INGOs to take their place – humbly – in a humanitarian ecosystem that acknowledges the value of all its parts and, in a fiercely competitive world, help find pathways to cooperation.
National affiliates of INGOs that fail to stand in solidarity with their local and national counterparts – including around fundraising – are bound to undermine the strength, voice and space of local actors. But if they are committed to boosting local humanitarian leadership it seems possible for these hybrid organisations to positively impact their countries’ short-term ability to take humanitarian action, while also supporting the longer-term capacity of national NGOs, networks and systems.
The local partners Oxfam works with reflect on their hopes and fears for the future:
‘Oxfam can and should be a champion for really committing to strengthening civil society organisations while going through the affiliation process’(Esteban Masagca, Executive Director, People’s Disaster Risk Reduction Network (PDRRN).
‘What Oxfam in Kenya has been doing has been great so far. But if affiliate formation is in any way going to undermine local humanitarian leadership, then we are not for it … If Oxfam is going to change its ways of working, making it a competitor of local actors, we don’t want an affiliate. It’s that clear-cut’(Ahmed Abdi, Executive Director of Arid Lands Development Focus and a convener of the ASAL network of local and national NGOs).
Oxfam is taking heed.
‘If we could start the affiliation process over knowing what we now know, we would put more focus on making sure our impact on local leadership and our ways of working were consistently positive,’ says Gabriela Bucher, Executive Director of Oxfam International. ‘We are learning and evolving. But we believe it is possible for nationally registered INGOs to have a net positive effect on local leadership, and that’s what we have committed to around the globe.’
Leela Ramdhani is Chief Operating Officer at Oxfam International.
Ahmed Abdi Ibrahim is Executive Director, Arid Lands Development Focus and convener, ASAL network of local and national NGOs.
Lydia Zigomo is Oxfam’s Global Programs Manager.
Carlos Mejía is Executive Director at Oxfam Colombia.