Oxfam offers helping hand in 80 countries

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

We're just a tiny enterprise with a handful of blokes trying to get on with the job," asserts Guy Stringer, deputy director of Oxfam, the international relief agency based in this ancient town.

"We're just trying to do the best we can to relieve human suffering."

Whether it is airlifting supplies to flood victims in northern India, supporting self-help projects in Ethiopia, or sending food to Cambodia, Oxfam has won a reputation for helping thousands around the world.Conor Cruise O'Brien , editor of the Observer (London) calls the group a "relatively lean, unbureaucratic operation, highly effective in proportion to its relatively small size."

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Despite its size -- last year's budget barely reached the L10 million ($20 million) mark -- the agency supports more than 1,000 projects in 80 countries.

"What we're trying to do is not only help poor people achieve the basic needs -- food, health, shelter, work. We're trying to help them become aware of the options they have in society," says Richard Moseley-Williams, who heads the agency's Latin America program.

Projects under his supervision this year range from a $50,000 grant to improve the skills of Bolivian potato farmers to a $25,000 donation to support a fishermen's cooperative in Chile. Local participation is a vital part of Oxfam's support.

To seek out and supervise projects, Oxfam has appointed 17 field directors and 20 assistants who work on the spot in a dozen countries of Asia, Africa, and Latin America.

"In this way," explains Asian director David DePury, "we can keep an eye on existing projects and watch for new areas where we can help. We can also respond to local initiatives which is an important part of our philosophy."

Emergency help is another of Oxfam's priorities. In 1960 the group rushed funds and clothing to famine victims in the Congo, to earthquake survivors in Guatemala in 1975, and to flood victims in northern India in 1978.

In November last year, Oxfam contributed $130,000 to the Catholic Relief Service in East Timor for food and medical help to drought victims.

And last fall, the organization captured world headlines when it brought relief to thousands hit by the famine in Cambodia. Since unloading its first shipment of food in September, Oxfam has shipped over 10,000 tons of food and equipment into the country.

Additionally, a consortium of 30 nongovernmental agencies, organized and led by Oxfam, is pumping L2 million ($4 million) a month into the relief effort.

Oxfam's widely publicized Cambodian venture has prompted an avalanche of inquiries and donations. Extra staff were hired to handle calls reaching 600 a day and to process the flood of contributions for Cambodia.

A special Christmas appeal from the popular British children's television show, "Blue Peter," raised more than L3 million that was handed over to Oxfam for its work and Cambodia.

Oxfam has a history of bypassing politics to help the needy. Thirty-seven years ago a small group of idealists met in Oxford to discuss the plight of children starving in Nazi-occupied Greece. Calling themselves the Oxford Committee for Famine Relief (later shortened to Oxfam), they collected $40,000 for food that they channeled through the Greek Red Cross.

The campaign was controversial, however, and the British government halted it to avoid indirectly helping the German Army.

Oxfam picked up its efforts again after the war, helping European refugees, and has grown apace since, with 40 regional organizers in the United Kingdom and Ireland.

It has also spawned offshot organizations in the United States, Canada, Australia, and Belgium, which use the Oxfam name but operate independently as autonomous groups. "They are linked only in name and in spirit to the mother organizations," information officer Sue Roberts explains.

Oxfam's headquarters is a vast network of offices stretching above a modern shopping mall on the edge of town. A staff of 150 carry out the agency's dual function: promotion and fund-raising at home and nurturing the development projects abroad.

Forty percent of its funds come from cash donations, often raised with near-missionary zeal. In the mid 60's Oxfam was responsible for popularizing the now-famous "sponsored walks," a fund-raising venture that caught the imagination of groups around the world.

Other contributions pour in from the 550 Oxfam shops around Britain which sell donated used clothing and handcrafts from developing countries.

Oxfam has faced many challenges, but few could be greater than in Cambodia. In spite of reports that conditions are improving, Guy Stringer warns that help is still deperately needed.

"Future prospects in Cambodia are not rosy," he says. "The December harvest was terrible due to the fighting and excessive rain, and there won't be a decent crop till next December."

He adds that "it's up to us and the various agencies" to make sure that the Cambodian people are fed until next December, when it is hoped that the farmers will have a better harvest.

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