Oxfam America: A Secular Perspective from Elizabeth Carty

December 1, 2006

Our meeting with Elizabeth Carty, the National Outreach Coordinator of Oxfam America, provided many insights into the development agenda of a secular organization and potential areas for increased collaboration between secular and faith-based organizations. Oxfam America, an American NGO, has a budget that consists primarily of donations from foundations and private individuals, and does not receive government funding. Oxfam world-wide has a structure akin to a federation, and Oxfam America is the U.S. branch. Therefore, it is important to note that observations about Oxfam America do not necessarily apply to branches of Oxfam in different countries.

Oxfam’s independent funding mechanism has given it great flexibility in making policy decisions and greater cultural sensitivity in executing projects. For example, Oxfam America was one of the only NGOs to remain in Nicaragua and Vietnam in the 1970–80’s during periods of armed conflict and tumultuous relations with the U.S. government.

In addition to reserving policy flexibility, the fact that Oxfam America does not receive government money prevents its funding from being subject to sharp fluctuations resulting from governmental budget cuts. Groups that do receive government funding have had to scale back projects on occasion due to sharp decreases in government funding.
Oxfam’s independence thus manifests itself in two ways. First, as aforementioned, Oxfam America has greater policy freedom, and none of its aid is subject to stipulations about money returning in some form to the United States. Secondly, Oxfam’s development partnerships are subtle: partnering directly with local groups and not overtly claiming sponsorship. Oxfam thereby effectively garners community involvement and ownership.

An example of how Oxfam’s financial independence shapes its work can be seen in development initiatives promoting women’s rights. In Mozambique, Oxfam America funded local groups that implemented new legislation at the close of the civil war allowing for women to own property. Another project provided free legal services for women in Senegal. In both instances, since Oxfam funded local groups there was a high degree of community ownership. This meant that the advancement in women’s rights was not rejected or dismissed as an imposition of foreign culture and values.

Given the importance of community involvement, Oxfam often works with local religious groups that have similar development goals. With regards to field work, collaboration with faithbased organizations often occurs during emergencies or humanitarian disasters. Faith-based organizations also collaborate at the policy level on issues such as debt relief and trade justice.

The Jubilee Campaign, which aimed to have the debt of developing nations forgiven, is a notable example of collaboration among faith-based and secular organizations, as these groups came together to advocate for changing Congressional policy. Religious organizations played a key role in infl uencing members of Congress with similar faith affi liations. The US Conference of Catholic Bishops took a particularly strong stance on debt relief and lobbied members of Congress.

Finally, it is important to note the considerable common ground among the mission statements of secular and religious development NGOs. Groups such as Interaction that aim to centralize information about these groups, their mission statements, and initiatives are very useful in keeping groups aware and abreast of others’ initiatives. Groups like Interaction are especially important in promoting collaboration regarding advocacy on issues of common interest, while policy and advocacy are some of the most important forms of collaboration among religious and secular NGOs.
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