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Aid is never the answer

A recent campaign by Oxfam Canada provides a stark contrast to the reticence of NGOs to actually fight for global justice

War ZonesHuman Rights

Photo by Tineke D’haese/Oxfam/Flickr

On December 12, 2023, Oxfam Canada posted to its Instagram page an infographic about Israel’s invasion of Gaza. The first image in a series of slides read, “Aid Is Not the Answer.” The post remained pinned at the top of Oxfam Canada’s feed until mid-March. In it, the organization acknowledged that it is rare for humanitarians to question the efficacy of aid. In Gaza, however, a meaningful humanitarian response was impossible, so attention must focus on “addressing the ROOT CAUSES of the conflict” (Oxfam’s emphasis).

In the weeks that followed, the Oxfam Canada Instagram feed presented calls for a ceasefire and then a letter writing campaign demanding Canada suspend arms transfers to Israel. From a focus on the suffering of Gazans—particularly women and girls—in their earlier posts, Oxfam shifted to advocating against Canada’s complicity in Israel’s military campaign.

The strident tone and overt political stance of these social media posts may seem radical for a Canadian international development NGO. But they shouldn’t be. Canadian NGOs have the ability to devote their resources to advocate for changes in laws and government policies in Canada. The problem is, they rarely choose to do so.

Humanitarian aid is, of course, necessary. People need water, food, medical care, shelter, and so on. But it is never the answer. Aidt is a means of ameliorating suffering and saving lives, but it does not address the causes of suffering. And aid often serves as a palliative that allows those causes to be ignored or even reinforced. Worse, charity reinforces the illusion that affluent people in the Global North are simply innocent bystanders.

The December post was not the first time Oxfam Canada has identified that charity is not enough. Indeed, in the year preceding that post, about one-third of Oxfam Canada’s Instagram posts focused on the exploitation of women within the garment industry in the Global South. For instance, multiple posts promoted the NGO’s campaign to expose the horrid working conditions faced by Cambodian women garment workers at the factories of fast fashion company Aritzia. These efforts were part of Oxfam’s #WhatSheMakes initiative, which called for structural changes to transform the lives of women in the garment industry, including higher wages and better access to education and health care.

Oxfam has long been perceived as more focused on addressing the structural causes of poverty and suffering than other humanitarian NGOs. Their website highlights past “successes,” including campaigns for fair trade and against illegal weapons. Some more recent initiatives have focused on climate change, corporate accountability, income inequality, and tax reform.

These campaigns, though, are a weak legacy of the solidarity framework that defined Oxfam in the 1970s or 1980s. As Nikolas Barry-Shaw and Dru Oja Jay trace, solidarity focused work was replaced in the 1990s with a focus on charity. As a result, NGOs like Oxfam became increasingly dependent on funding from the federal government, and aligned their work with program goals set by the Canadian International Development Agency (now Global Affairs Canada).

Further, the resources Oxfam Canada devotes to these campaigns are dwarfed by what they spend on overseas development projects, which are fundamentally acts of charity. The “frontline” of the problem is always far away from Canada—and the “Donate Now” tab is always prominent on the website, reinforcing the idea that poverty can and will be solved by the rich recognizing their obligation to give (a little).

Like other major international development NGOs in Canada such as Plan International and Care Canada, Oxfam foregrounds gender inequality, or women’s rights, as the overarching framework for their work. “Gender,” Oxfam explains, “is the most persistent predictor of poverty and powerlessness in our world today.” Their list of current projects focuses almost exclusively on the empowerment of women in the Global South: leadership programs for women’s organizations, sexual and reproductive health projects, education initiatives, and more.

This focus on agency—initiatives creating rights, resources, and opportunities for women and girls—conveniently constructs women as “victims,” isolating the problems they face as solely byproducts of their patriarchal societies, and our role as those who can empower them by providing aid.

As Kalpana Wilson and Sylvia Tamale argue, this focus on women’s empowerment naturalizes, and even facilitates, neoliberal models of development that typically demand more labour from individual women. What’s more, making global poverty synonymous with gender inequality hides how poverty is caused by an international economic order that still largely funnels wealth to the Global North.

Further, there is a troubling irony in the way development organizations construct gender inequality as a cultural limitation of the Global South despite a long history of these same NGOs, and notably Oxfam, not only failing to address sexual violence perpetrated by their staff, but also seeking to cover it up.

Oxfam Canada’s Instagram feed suggests that political action is a key aspect of their mandate. But their 2023 audited financial statements reveal that the organization spent $26.3 million on overseas projects and project management and just $2.8 million on “education and public affairs.” The latter line item is not broken down into the various forms of education and advocacy the organization undertook. So, at most, political advocacy comprised just 7.8 percent of Oxfam Canada’s expenditures, and most certainly substantially less than that. That’s about the same as the organization spent on administration and just a little over half what it spent on fundraising.

Significantly, this figure is well below the 10 percent Canadian NGOs could spend on advocacy for legal and political change under the regulations set out by Stephen Harper’s Conservative government, and staggeringly low considering that that restriction was removed in 2019. As John D. Cameron and Olivia Kwiecien explain, “Canadian international development charities allocate few resources to advocacy work, despite recognizing the principle that policy advocacy is crucial for the achievement of global justice.”

Since Parliament voted to adopt a watered-down motion to limit Canadian exports of military equipment to Israel, Oxfam Canada’s Instagram feed has continued to ask their supporters to demand Canada support a ceasefire and to actually end the trade of arms with Israel. Yet, ending the Israeli genocide in Gaza, or its apartheid policies in the occupied West Bank, have not formally become one of their “campaigns.”

In the same week as Oxfam’s “Aid Is Not the Answer” post, World Beyond War Canada, an anti-war organization that provides peace education and non-violent direct action training, was denied charitable status by the Canada Revenue Agency. Apparently, their work is “unacceptably biased against war.”

If international development NGOs are truly committed to ending poverty and inequality, as they profess to be, they should be devoting more of their resources to educating people about the causes of inequality, suffering, and war, and campaigns aimed at changing the structures that produce poverty and deprivation in the first place. Instead, they continue to focus almost exclusively on providing aid.

David Jefferess is a settler-situated scholar, who lives and works in unceded Syilx/Okanagan territory, teaching at UBC’s Okanagan campus. His research focuses on the construction of white benevolence in humanitarian discourse. Follow him on X @DavidJefferess.

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