Oxfam chief: ‘We also feel the lack of trust among citizens’

20646692683_0a063d3913_k [European Commission]

Winnie Byanyima believes it is high time to come up with fresh thinking in the world of politics and economy. But first, deeper self-criticism is needed across the board because all fields, including the NGO sector, are affected by a lack of trust from citizens.

Winnie Byanyima is executive director of Oxfam International. She served eleven years in the Ugandan Parliament and was director of gender and development at the United Nations Development Program.

Winnie Byanyima spoke with EURACTIV’s Jorge Valero on the margins of the Institute for New Economic Thinking conference held in Edinburg (Scotland) on 21-23 October.

This event is about bringing progressive thinking to the economy. The starting point for any progress should be self-criticism. But economists in this conference did not speak up during the years before the crisis, despite their influence or their positions. This self-criticism is also needed in politics, journalism or the NGO sector. Are we missing more collective self-criticism to really move forward?

Yes, you are right. Even us, in the NGO sector, are being disrupted. We also feel the lack of trust. The mistrust in the institutions is across the board. Citizens don’t trust politicians, don’t trust business, don’t trust media, don’t trust NGOs. It is all of us. We all have to be self-critical. In our case, we shifted our approach. We realised that citizens are not even responding to the evidence we bring.

They are responding with their emotions. We are engaging with citizens more, using an emotional angle, talking to them, speaking from the heart. Not just the hard evidence that we know so well how to research and produce. We must shift ourselves away from being policy influencers back to be social mobilisers. We realise it is more important to engage citizens and profile their own voice. So we engage more with the public, more than we used to.

As you said, trust is key. In the case of development aid, it was seriously damaged by the reports of the high salaries paid to NGOs’ top executives. Is there a problem there or do you consider it was an attack orchestrated by NGO critics to question their role?

There was a problem. There are some NGOs that pay very high salaries. They have their own reasoning. They say they are very big companies, if you can use that word. We have grown so big. My own organisation is a 1.5 billion dollar organisation. Some of them argue that, in order to run something of that size, that is global and comparable to a global firm, you need to pay high salaries to attract the best talent to manage the people, the resources and the programmes.

What about Oxfam?

We don’t do it like that at Oxfam. We don’t pay market value. We try to align our values with our pay. Most of us who work for Oxfam are paid 75% less than the sector on average pays. So we are among the lowest pay. But when the attack came, it was against the whole sector.

And I must say it came from those political groups that are anti-aid. The Cameron administration made the commitment to fulfil the 0.7% of GDP of spending in development aid.

They made a law but they never achieved it. Some parts of the conservative party, not Cameron himself, were against it. So they were using particularly the Daily Mail, but also other sections of the media, to attack the NGOs because we are part of the channel for aid delivery.

Who is behind the EPP’s latest attempt to tighten rules for NGOs?

On 14 September, MEPs voted against amendments to tighten controls on EU-funded non-governmental organisations (NGOs) that act “against EU interests”. A search for the proponents of these measures points to a pro-Israeli pressure group and a Glyphosate supporter.

Europe is trying to limit the flow of migrants coming here by working with the countries of origin. Is it naive to expect results in the near future, given how systemic the change should be, or is this the only possible solution?

Europe went into panic mode these last few years in regards to migrants and refugees coming from across the Mediterranean Sea. It abandoned its values and international commitments. Instead, it went for really ugly solutions, including striking deals with Turkey and Libia to force these people who already fled prosecution and possible death to be forced to return.

It also shifted money that is for the eradication of poverty to pay for the refugee costs in the European countries or anti-migration programmes. There are 65 million people displaced in the world today. Of those, 85% are in the developing countries, in the poor countries. What Europe is receiving is so small. In a country like Lebanon, one out of six people is a Syrian refugee. And they are not crying and screaming.

The UK, the sixth richest country in the world, was making a big deal about 20,000 refugees! Europe that made the universal human rights. What happened to that? They are not even taking their fair share of the global numbers of the displaced. This is not about appealing to the European countries to be nice. This is about a commitment they have made internationally. This is about the safety of the world.

Red Cross questions Turkey refugees deal

EXCLUSIVE / Francesco Rocca, the vice-president of the International Red Cross Federation, questioned the European Union’s controversial refugee repatriation agreement with Ankara on the first day refugees started being sent back to Turkey, euractiv.com has learned.

Is it selfishness? Or the electorates? As European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker said, leaders know what to do but they don’t know how to be elected after they do it.

Of course it is selfishness. But part of the xenophobia has to do with scepticism driven by populist groups that want to take power. Instead of facing the economic crisis which is driven by a greedy and aggressive model, they blame the refugees. But the refugees are not the ones to blame for the economic crisis. Actually, they come and help.

They do the jobs citizens don’t want to do and they pay taxes. For me, the good examples are countries like Lebanon, Jordan, Uganda, Turkey, which are absorbing these refugees and allowing them to live in their communities. Angela Merkel showed leadership. And there she is, back in power. She has been pushed back and has taken some steps back, but still, that is a good signal.