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Member Profile February 2012

Oxfam Canada was formed in 1963. Oxfam Canada’s mission is to build lasting solutions to poverty and injustice with a focus on improving the lives and promoting the rights of women and girls. Working with Canadians, partners and allies around the world, Oxfam Canada mobilizes people and resources to change policies, practices, attitudes and behaviours that create inequality and human suffering. Oxfam is committed to strengthening a global movement in support of human rights and gender justice on a healthy planet. In February 2012 CCIC interviewed Robert Fox, Executive Director of Oxfam Canada, to create a member profile for our e-bulletin Flash. Here is the interview:

Robert Fox
Robert Fox - Oxfam Canada

CCIC: Oxfam Canada mostly works in areas such as the Americas, the Horn of Africa, Southern Africa, and South Asia. Can you tell us about one particular success story in one of the countries where Oxfam Canada is working?

Robert Fox: There are a number, but I’ll talk about our work in Cuba. In Cuba, we work with the National Farmers’ Association, and we have focussed a lot of our work with them on addressing issues of gender equality. When we started working with the National Farmers’ Association, there were relatively few women within the National Farmers’ Association, and very few women in leadership positions. And several years later, working with both women and men within the Farmers Association, but also within co-operatives and farm communities, we now have a situation where in many provinces in Cuba women form a significant number of the presidents of farming co-operatives, and have a number of roles on the executive of the provincial councils of the National Farmers’ Association. There are provinces where in fact the majority of farmers on the provincial executive are women and the majority of the presidents of coops are women.

So that is a change within ten years, in a country where a lot of the women within the farming sector had high levels of education, because the human capital in Cuba is so extraordinarily well-developed, in the countryside as well as in the cities. The historic pattern of farming - because a lot of the farms were owned by the state - made farming as much a job as a livelihood. And the men had the jobs and the women didn’t have the jobs, so the women did the farm work but they weren’t really seen as the members of the cooperatives. So there was this whole further dynamic then, where the National Farmers’ Association, which is an important organization in Cuba that has significant political and economic weight, was completely male-dominated.

So as women have assumed leadership roles within the National Farmers’ Association, we see changes in their policy, changes in their practices, much more recognition of women’s contribution to agriculture, much more emphasis on the connection between organic agriculture, locally produced and locally consumed agriculture, value added within the farm and within the community. So, as I say, it isn’t just a question of there now being women in leadership positions, which is very important, it’s that because there are women in leadership positions, the National Farmers’ Association’s policies and practices are different.

CCIC: Could you tell us about a couple of the main challenges that Oxfam Canada has faced in the last several years?

Robert Fox: Well, we’re facing challenges on many fronts, as with the sector as a whole. We have been re-thinking what we do and how we do it. It is always easier to do that in times of growth, but we are doing that at a time when in fact the growth in our fundraising from the public for our long term development work and for our work in Canada, has stalled. So we see continued growth in support for our humanitarian work, but donations from the public to support our long term development work and our work in Canada are not growing as quickly as our costs. We are seeing that our program funding from CIDA will come to an end, and so we are moving to project-based funding awarded on the basis of competitive bids, rather than an acknowledgement of the quality of the program and a long-term commitment to funding that program. This forces us to change our way of partnering with our partners overseas, because we cannot predict with any confidence whether there will be any CIDA co-funding for our programs and the work of our partners. We are also changing significantly - as part of Oxfam International - the way that we are present in the countries in which we are present, delegating much more responsibility and authority to our staff in-country, to make decisions based on their own analysis of the country’s priorities and their strategy for meeting those priorities.

So those would be three big changes. The global economic circumstance is a big challenge to us in terms of adding uncertainty, which is dampening donations, and adding volatility, which is increasing the demands from our partners for our work. And so those are the big changes.

That said, we’ve been going through a very interesting process of re-thinking what we do, and reorganizing ourselves to do it better. So there are dramatic changes that we are making in terms of how we organize ourselves to have more impact, taking advantage of our role within Oxfam International to leverage our impact within the confederation. Using social media and the internet to reach out to and mobilize Canadians in new ways. Its not that its all negative, there are a lot of positive things happening in the last several years that are also part of helping us increase our impact, our influence and our effectiveness.

CCIC: Could you tell us what makes Oxfam Canada unique?

Robert Fox: Oxfam Canada has a focus on women’s rights, a very strong rights-based analysis of what we do and why we do it. We combine work at the local, national and global level. We play an important role as a broker and a connector of people and ideas. That means that at the local level we are trying to change attitudes and behaviours, as a critical contribution to changing policies and practices at the national and global level.

CCIC: What are your thoughts on the role of CSOs in society?

Robert Fox: CSOs have a critical role as autonomous expressions of the views and interests of citizens. We bring a rights-based approach to our work. A critical element of a rights-based approach is to hold people with power to account, for creating the conditions that allow citizens to exercise their rights. So we see that, when we talk about the language of rights, it isn’t just that individuals have rights, it’s that governments have the responsibility to create the conditions to allow us to enjoy those rights. And so civil society organizations play a critical role in galvanizing and representing the voices of citizens in holding people with power to account: governments, corporations, elites. A lot of our work is strengthening that capacity, and defending that space.

CCIC: Oxfam Canada has been doing some advocacy work in regards to the upcoming 2012 Federal Budget. Can you tell us a bit about the recommendations that Oxfam has for the budget?

Robert Fox: Oxfam has been pressing the Canadian government to live up to the commitments that it has made to Canadians and to the world, in terms of increasing the effectiveness of our contribution to ending poverty and injustice around the world. We have been calling on the government to maintain our levels of funding and in fact to grow our levels of funding. We have been advocating that the Canadian government maintain its commitment to food security, looking at support for small scale farmers, particularly women, creating the conditions that allow small-scale production to not just survive but to thrive, to be investing in resilience, to be taking action to control price volatility: all those things are issues that the budget can have an impact on. We’ve also been pressing the Canadian government to sign on to global action to tap into new innovative sources of funding. We hear the Finance Minister say that Canada can’t do more, and yet we see that if Canada were to come together with other countries in support of a financial transactions tax, or a bunker oil tax on global maritime shipping, that in fact we could create significant amounts of money to support global development, but also action on climate change mitigation and adaptation. So those are the principle planks that we have been pressing for action. Oxfam members and supporters across the country have been sending e-actions to the Prime Minister and to the Minister of Finance in support of our specific asks, but also I know many of them have been supporting the asks of the community more broadly.

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