Oxfam CEO Dame Barbara Stocking may be focused on the humanitarian crisis in East Africa, but she’s also got one eye on the home front.
Oxfam House isn’t much of a house. Plonked on an industrial estate in Oxford, away from the city’s Gothic spires and higgledy-piggledy Saxon walls, the headquarters of the UK’s poverty-fighting titan could easily be called Oxfam Metal Cube. But that would be misleading. Because like so many great surprises in life, this charmless exterior, all utopian symmetry and artificially neat lawns, reveals little or nothing of the inner core. Buildings don’t create a culture – people do.
Inside, a light-filled atrium is surrounded by floor upon floor of open-plan desks. People wander around chatting quietly, folders cradled in arms. You could be on any college campus, except half the faces are well past graduate age.
It’s late July. Just yesterday, ministers and senior representatives from the world’s largest NGOs gathered in Rome for an emergency summit to discuss the escalating famine in Somalia and surrounding states. An estimated 11.6 million people need humanitarian assistance, but the media coverage pinned to a notice board in Oxfam’s reception would do well to fill a pamphlet.
The message in the waiting area, however, is gargantuan in scope: ‘Alone we are human. Together we are humankind’, declares one wall in fuchsia pink lettering. On another, three Afghan women stare out from a six-foot poster, boxing gloves poised below defiant eyes. They are Afghanistan’s first female boxing team – just one of many empowerment projects Oxfam works with on the ground. The sheer determination in their gaze is contagious.
Dame Barbara Stocking is efficiently fast. She welcomes you in, sits you down and starts answering questions before you know what to ask. That’s what happens when you’ve got the world’s biggest problems piled on your plate.
“Right now we have people who are actually dying of hunger,” says the 60-year-old Chief Executive of Oxfam. Yesterday, she delivered a two-pronged message to G20 leaders in Rome. Today, she has the same message for us all: “One is, ‘Save lives now’. The second is, ‘This need not have happened at all’. There could have been much better longer-term investment in agriculture, small farmers and pastoralists. But also we need to change some of the rules of the world in terms of the food system, because it simply doesn’t work for poor people.”
“How can you do things that deliver on poverty and your profits?”
Since coming on board in 2001 (after answering an advert in The Economist) Stocking has steered Oxfam through a decade of global tremors – some natural, but most man-made – and led it to an annual turnover of £367.5 million. Under her leadership, the agency has responded to humanitarian crises sparked by tsunamis, earthquakes, floods and war, in countries as diverse as Haiti, Pakistan, Somalia and Iraq. But those are just the headline-grabbers.
With the support of 5,000 employees, over 22,000 volunteers and 1,000 partner agencies, Oxfam works in 60-plus countries, funding roughly 1,250 longer-term development projects, alongside its more media-friendly emergency relief programmes. It takes an intricate net to tackle global poverty, but so long as it’s in place, Stocking has faith. “Virtually everybody here believes you can change the world,” she says. “If you all believe it, it sort of helps.”
After being ‘diverted’ into the NHS as a regional director, Stocking came to Oxfam knowing how to pivot around other people’s lives; she understood what it took to balance business with beliefs. “Both positions have multiple stakeholders,” she says. “And in both organisations, everybody is very committed to the cause. That makes them quite an interesting bunch to manage, particularly in Oxfam where we don’t pay much; people are here because they want to do something about poverty. They have quite specific ideas and corralling them so they work to corporate objectives is an interesting challenge. Quite often people don’t come to me to discuss the pros and cons; they come to lobby me heavily about what they think is right.”
Lobbying for what’s right is Stocking’s bread and butter. At the World Economic Forum in Davos this year, she echoed President Sarkozy by calling for a levy on financial transactions – a ‘Robin Hood’ tax that would redistribute wealth to fight global poverty. But speaking to power is not just about politics. “It’s also about working with the private sector,” she says. “We’re encouraging companies to ask, ‘How can you do things in a way that helps deliver on poverty and your profits?’”
One good example is a partnership with Unilever in Azerbaijan, which is helping small-scale onion farmers tap into a global supply chain. But not all corporations are so forward-thinking. Starbucks recently tried to trademark Ethiopia’s speciality coffee names without paying for the privilege – Oxfam made sure they failed.
“It’s not that we’re anti-capitalist – we believe in markets,” Stocking affirms. “There isn’t a set of particular ideologies [within Oxfam], but if you work on poverty, you end up with a somewhat jaundiced view about power and how it’s used in the world. If we have a belief, it’s that all people are equal. I don’t know if that’s ideological; it’s not a whole framework. But you’d feel very uncomfortable here if you couldn’t at least go along with that.”
Another belief is that people can affect change – especially in the age of social media. “It makes an enormous impact, actually, if there’s a lot going on around the blogosphere,” Stocking says. “Politicians are beginning to learn that if they don’t pay attention to what people are thinking, they can be rather shocked by what happens. The Arab Spring is a prime example of mobiles and social networking bringing about dramatic change. So I think politicians really do take note. There’s the question of how seriously they take it, but they’re certainly listening in. It’s up to the public to push governments to act.”
Having seen the inner workings of the political machine, Stocking harbours an ambition to work within the UN, which she sees as “a big bureaucracy that could be run better.” Her solution? “Stop pressuring the UN – let’s get in there and help it.” At Oxfam, she’s fostered a more horizontal structure. “I’ve got a superb international director and a superb humanitarian director – both women as it happens. There’s a lot to do within the organisation to make sure we’re firing on all cylinders,” she says. “But the best bit, of course, is being on the ground. Every time I get tired of being here managing the organisation and doing high-level lobby work, I go out to a programme and think, ‘Now I know why I’m doing it’.”
This urge to touch base sees Stocking scheduling at least four trips a year. “It’s about engaging with local communities,” she says. “Also, I need to know enough about our work to be able to speak about it organisationally.” As the face of Oxfam, the onus is on Stocking to present the right message. Her diary is a carefully calibrated mix of media appearances and ministerial meetings; when she’s not lobbying politicians, she’s lobbying us. Whether it’s behind closed doors (“We have access to some very significant places in the world, in government and the private sector”) or under public scrutiny, her words have to tally with what’s happening on the ground. And that’s just the way she likes it.
“If you’re in the third sector, you are exposed as an organisation,” she explains. “Because we’re trying to persuade people that we’re doing something that’s morally right, we worry like hell about our reputation and the trust people have in us. We’re constantly thinking, ‘Have we got it right?’”
That commitment to accountability – worrying enough to put the right checks in place – should guide any organisation in a post-WikiLeaks world. Stocking knows this: “I think the NGO sector is still not transparent enough, but we’re certainly working on it here. I’ve seen the way people will trust us if we tell them what’s really happening.” True to her word, she talks openly about a case of fraud uncovered in a partner organisation during the Pakistan floods. “If you’re the head of an organisation, it’s really not on to say, ‘I just didn’t know’,” says Stocking. “You could say that for one small mistake, but not an ongoing set of practices. That’s simply not good enough.”
A lot of things, in Stocking’s view, are simply not good enough. As a kid, it wasn’t good enough that the boys from Rugby, the elite boarding school nearby, enjoyed privileges her postman father couldn’t afford. “So, naturally, I wanted to save the world, as you do when you’re 18,” she smiles. “It came about through an understanding of inequality and the class system in the UK. I remember seeing all the advantages these boys had compared to me and I used to think, ‘Why them?’”
Though Stocking has found herself galvanised into action, she understands others may take an apathetic stance. The £613-million funding gap for the East Africa aid effort has partly been blamed on donor fatigue – people tired of giving after Haiti and Japan. And the recession, no doubt, has played a part, too. The worst upshot of a drop in public altruism, says Stocking, is not a lack of money, but rather a lack of will. “When people are feeling bad, because of job losses and public sector cuts, they become less interested in the outside world – the market intelligence shows that. [Our donations] have been pretty stable, but getting people to campaign is much harder at the moment. People are just closed down.”
But that’s simply not good enough. “What we’re really trying to do is change the rules of the world – that’s the only bit that is going to make a difference,” says Stocking. “We keep trying to explain to people that we are all in a global, interconnected world. The economic crisis just showed how much we’re dependent on each other. We’re trying to explain that to people by saying, ‘Look, we want a better world because it’s actually good for us all.’”
Stocking heads back through the airy atrium, where every few days staff gather for an update on the Horn of Africa’s critical situation. The sun streams in through the glass ceiling. “Sometimes I feel a lot like that old woman in a shoe,” she says, softening. “There are 800 people in this building, and each one needs attention in their own way.”
Oxfam House may be nothing like a house. But in its own way, it’s every inch a home