How Oxfam has influenced for change over the last 75 years

Ruth Mayne Active citizenship, General, Influencing

In advance of the Oxfam Research Network’s Evidence for Influencing conference (Soesterberg, Netherlands, 23-24 October), Ruth Mayne, Chris Stalker and Andrew Wells-Dang look back over Oxfam’s history of influencing and future challenges. 

Influencing policymakers is in Oxfam’s genes. Right from its inception in 1942, Oxfam called on Prime Minister Winston Churchill to lift the Allied blockade of Nazi-occupied countries to get aid to the starving people of Greece. The values of compassion and solidarity with suffering people, and speaking truth to power, have remained. But how we do ‘influencing’ has evolved in response to changing times and our growing understanding.

Where have we come from?

Oxfam’s influencing efforts have often involved controversy, whether standing up to Churchill or to giant pharmaceutical, food and extractive companies. We have often had to gain the support of an indifferent, or even hostile, public. In 1945 Oxfam joined the Save Europe Now Hunger campaign, which despite an unsympathetic mood whipped up by wartime propaganda and shortages, galvanised people to voluntarily give up their rations to send to starving people in Europe. Today, countries that are experiencing a rise in national chauvinist sentiment face similar challenges.

Oxfam’s initial influencing tactics included letter writing, lobbying, petitioning, public meetings, education pamphlets and alliance building. These tactics were in turn likely informed by earlier national independence, civil rights, suffragette, and anti-slavery campaigns. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, we began to educate and mobilise the public via hard hitting and creative advertising, as well as supporter groups and school organisers. One highpoint of mobilisation was in 2002 when 17.8 million people signed a global petition to Make Trade Fair!

Early on Oxfam also learnt the value of enrolling influential figures and celebrities to support a cause, such as the Beatles endorsing the Hunger £1million Campaign in 1963 or Nelson Mandela speaking at the launch of the Make Poverty History campaign in 2005. By the early 1980s Oxfam had set up the Public Affairs Unit and Campaigns Department, and subsequently began using online digital methods to mobilise alliances and the public. A vital principle underpinning all our ‘influencing’ has been the importance of a solid evidence-base of rigorous research.

Over time Oxfam’s understanding of how to achieve change has deepened and widened, resulting in the concept of influencing that we know today namely as:
‘systematic efforts to change power relations; attitudes and beliefs, the formulation and implementation of official policies, laws/regulations, budgets; and company policies and practices, in ways that promote more just and sustainable societies without poverty’
(Oxfam internal guidelines for national influencing).

What has Oxfam learned along the way?

We can take numerous lessons from our history of ‘influencing’. Here are a few that struck us:

Partnership and alliances are key
By the mid-1970s Oxfam’s work with communities and social movements had showed that combating poverty was not about ‘us’ helping ‘them’, but rather about working in partnership as part of a common struggle to end poverty. Translating this principle into practice remains a challenge, as partners continue to remind us today. We need to be constantly vigilant that influencing the powerful doesn’t draw us into circles of power that breaks our links with the grassroots work we do with communities. We must also ensure the status and possible privilege that Oxfam accrues doesn’t lead to being co-opted.

Coordinated worldwide influencing can achieve large scale change
Coordinated worldwide advocacy and campaigning by national and international civil society organisations can truly transform lives at scale. Examples include, among many others, the successes of:

  • The Access to Medicines campaign in driving down prices of life saving HIV/AIDS medicines for people in poor countries,
  • The Control Arms Campaign, which resulted in an international treaty to restrict arms sales,
  • Recent efforts to influence extractive industries and governments to ensure that people participate in decisions about natural resource use

There is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach
From our staff and partners around the world we have learnt that there is more to influencing than advocacy and campaigning. There is no one-size-fits-all approach. In contexts where governments are dictatorial, corrupt or weak, efforts may be better put to strengthening social movements and building long-term alternatives. Playing a convening and brokering role between government, business and civil society can also form an important part of longer term influencing approaches.

Changing laws is not enough
In all cases changing government or corporate policy is only a start. It is also vital that we use influencing to ensure laws are implemented in practice. Ultimately, influencing must also aim to transform the power, gender relations and behaviours that underpin poverty and suffering. Achieving change in invisible power structures, including the mental structures and social norms, that underlay visible power is a challenge. The Enough! campaign to end violence against women is beginning to show how this might be done.

Rigorous research that humanises the issues can turn hearts and minds
Combining hard facts with powerful human stories, whilst conveying them using innovative communication methods and campaigning, has proved an important component of influencing. To give just one example, Oxfam’s recent ‘killer statistics’ on global inequality combined with national inequality reports, have helped make inequality a major global concern.

What about the future?

Over the years, Oxfam’s influencing has evolved with the times. While we maintain a multi-level approach, our focus has shifted from European to Southern countries, to international institutions and increasingly back to Southern countries. Our role has expanded to encompass emergency work, direct poverty reduction, campaigning and now influencing. Our target audiences have expanded from northern governments to also include the public, international institutions, the private sector and increasingly governments of emerging economic powers in the south.

The times now appear to be shifting faster than ever. While poverty has fallen significantly across the world, the challenges of profound inequality, climate change and resource degradation remain. The need for effective and agile influencing for social justice is as great as ever. Looking forward, one of the key challenges will be to combine the rigorous research needed for effective influencing with the required? agility to respond to fast changing circumstances. The Evidence for Influencing conference which takes place in the Netherlands 23-24 October will provide many inspiring examples of how this can be achieved for both Oxfam and the wider sector.

You can join the conversation and share your views during the conference. Follow #OxfamEvidence on Twitter and follow our Facebook page for selected live streamed sessions.

Read more about Oxfam’s history

Ruth Mayne

Ruth Mayne is Oxfam GB lead researcher on Influencing and Climate Justice