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Posted on 07/25/2021 in Education

Getting to know Jim Clarken, CEO of Oxfam Ireland by Tracey Citron

Getting to know Jim Clarken, CEO of Oxfam Ireland by Tracey Citron

Chatting with Jim Clarken, CEO of Oxfam Ireland

By Tracey Citron

June 9th 2021


What comes to mind when you hear the word Oxfam? An image of your local charity shop, faraway places that are so far away they’re barely worth thinking about, a flyer for a Christmas fund drive with a haunting image of a desperate child, or was that another charity? I admit these are the thoughts that come to my mind. At least they were before speaking with Jim Clarken, CEO of Oxfam Ireland, Executive Board Member of Oxfam International, Irish Human Rights & Equality Commissioner, Adjunct Professor at University College Cork and Aspiring Feminist, as noted on his Twitter bio. 


First off, let me tell you that the word ‘charity’ is doing no one any favors these days, including me. “Tracey, we hate the word charity. The reason we hate it is because it depicts us, usually (relatively) rich, (usually) white people giving to the poor, (often) black person with the strong suggestion that this person is somehow disempowered or incapable of resolving their problems without us. This is a false narrative and completely ignores the structural issues that have created and exacerbated poverty and inequality which we all have a part to play in resolving. Oxfam works in partnership with people who are living in poverty who determine their own direction. We ask, “what’s our role in facilitating people to help them build better lives for themselves?” It’s the human rights approach to development. How do we make sure people have the opportunity to realize those rights?” 


It’s taken me several days to get my head around the true nature of Oxfam. It’s not what I had it cut out to be — a “charity” in the narrowest sense of the word, which makes me feel like I’ve been living with my head in the sand. But as I write, I now see Oxfam as a forward-thinking movement that harnesses and supports rapidly changing social attitudes and capitalizes on technical innovations in a global effort to end poverty and injustice worldwide. So where to start?


Oxfam Ireland is one of a confederation of 21 organizations led by Oxfam International. Behind the store fronts, there’s a powerhouse working in three main areas: mobilizing humanitarian support in areas of conflict like Yemen and the Congo or places struck by natural disasters such as Vanuatu; long-term development in health, education and women’s rights; and influencing work. “What we’re best known for,” says Jim, “campaigning for equality for all people in all places. Because we work with local partners, and then at the national and international level, we can ensure that the voices of those most affected by poverty and inequality are brought to key decision makers. Every year, we produce papers, statistics and reports on key issues of inequality. We look at the world through the lens of the multiple inequalities that exist – wealth and income inequality, gender inequality, etc.” 




In terms of influencing the global agenda, in January 2021, Oxfam International presented The Inequality Virus at the World Economic Forum at Davos, home of the super-wealthy. Based on the fact that the coronavirus has exposed and increased existing inequalities of wealth, gender and race, it claims the disparity between the mega-rich few and the struggling many, has actually widened during this period. The wealthiest quickly recovered any losses and indeed increased their wealth whilst global poverty is increasing for the first time in over a decade with many of the gains we have made in fighting extreme poverty being reversed. It also emphasizes how the pandemic is an opportunity for radical change to create a more equitable and sustainable world.


 “The development of the vaccine and its rollout in the global north is a marvel of modern science, yet only 0.2% have access to it in the global south. It’s an injustice that we can get our lives going again when others can’t. Just look at India to see the devastating effects. It’s not an anti-wealth thing, but wealth stagnates when it’s held by the few.” 




Not surprisingly, Jim is a huge advocate for the Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) waiver proposal. TRIPS refers to an international legal agreement between all member nations of the World Trade Organization, which protects patents, copyrights, industrial design and ‘trade secrets’ of the Covid-19 vaccines. In October 2020, South Africa and India called for sections of the Agreement to be waivered “until widespread vaccination is in place globally.” Indeed, the fact that poorer countries are forced to rely on richer ones for access to the vaccine when they could be making it themselves given the green light, is not a great look for western democracy.


“We’ve called for a waiver on the IP rights so generic companies in places like South Africa and India can produce it themselves. If that’s done, the whole world can be vaccinated quickly, otherwise we’ll be waiting until 2024. If we continue on the trajectory we’re currently on, the situation [conquering the coronavirus-19] will lead to two worlds – the vaccinated and those who are not with the real fear that the longer it goes on, the more variants there’ll be. It affects all of us.


“Advocacy is vital,” he continues, “aid alone is not going to solve global problems, you need systems to change; that’s why we’re trying to get governments to change the rules. Politicians tend to listen to the public. People sense unfairness. So, how do you impact a policy change? We have lots of people working in policy and research who understand what can and can’t be done. Our campaigns are multi-layered involving the private and public sectors, and educating people via the media. You also need to look for new allies who you may not have thought were your allies in other contexts.” 




This last point brings to mind the quote from Senator Everett Dirksen: “I am a man of fixed and unbending principles, the first of which is to be flexible at all times.” But it’s not only about letting go of fixed ideas, it’s also about seeing how the same system can work differently in different circumstances. Take crypto currencies for example. While most of us are still trying to figure out whether they’re assets or currencies, the crypto currency Ethereum has already become both in Vanuatu.


Made up of 83 islands, Vanuatu was hit by Cyclone Harold, a category 5 hurricane in April 2020. With entire livelihoods wiped out and communities already under stress with the pandemic, it was essential to get aid to people as quickly as possible, so rather than resorting to the traditional way of transferring cash to those in need, which would have taken up to four weeks, Oxfam used a blockchain payment scheme which allowed funds to be received in a matter of days. 

The technology behind it is really quite simple, at least to explain. It involves a ‘digital wallet’ (akin to a credit card) received by beneficiary households, a smartphone with a pre-installed app received by vendors and an online platform where both are uploaded. Funds are dispersed via the platform and transactions can be monitored remotely and in real time, thus allowing for 100% transparency. It meant people could shop where they wanted and choose what they needed rather than waiting in line for hours for a bag of rice. It also helps the local economy as vendors tend to shop locally too. It gave people choice, and a sense of dignity and goes to show what can be done in the absence of red tape. Plus, it gives crypto currencies a whole new purpose. Oxfam is      now looking to expand this method of transferring cash across countries worldwide.




Like many companies, Oxfam was forced to literally close shop and move its operations online, but I was amazed to hear how prepared it was. “It was hard to close the offices and particularly our shops, but we’d already been thinking digitally. Our multiple digital platforms, including digital fundraising platforms, allowed us to quickly adapt, although in fairness, the teams were extremely flexible and innovative. We had to think about how to campaign digitally and program remotely.      We were lucky our supporters came along with us. Thankfully, we’d produced our global strategic framework over the last two years and it included extreme scenarios including what a global pandemic might do, a bit prescient to say now, but there’d been other viruses that didn’t travel, it was a probability. It was part of a global planning process, detailed across many communities, across many countries.” 


Technology also helped to keep some Oxfam trading activity which went online and led to an unforeseen success. “Our shops are our public face — they’re vital to our cash flow and mobilize people to get involved and participate. When everything closed, we were able to bring some of them online. We also had an unexpected surprise. We have a public event called Fashion Relief —     two days of fashion shows, headed by Lorraine Keane [a well-known Irish broadcaster and journalist] which takes place every year across major Irish cities. But as all events suddenly stopped, we needed to come up with a way of keeping it alive. So, we partnered with Axonista, an Irish tech firm, and not only succeeded in making the event virtual, but created Fashion Relief TV, an ongoing, online shopping channel and a 100% result of the pandemic. It is part of Oxfam’s wider work on climate offering a solution to throwaway fashion and moving us towards a circular economy mindset.” Strange to think that rummaging in your local Oxfam shop is becoming something we’ll speak about with nostalgia, but at least finding a bargain remains part of life as we know it.




Gender equality is another huge area that Oxfam deals with that I wasn’t aware of, which is why I found the description “aspiring feminist” rather curious and why I asked Jim what it meant.  


“Is it OK to say that?” he asked smiling and then continued. “It’s a journey toward equality. If you’re a man, you try to make sure you’re a good ally and play a positive role in the problems of gender justice. Gender justice is one of our core interests and the world still has so far to travel for equality. It’s an important concept at the core of what we believe in and our work. You need to be pro-active and ensure that the world you create provides equal opportunities for everyone.”  


We spoke about the Irish patriarchy, how the unpaid care profession would make up 12% of the economy if it were monetized, “care givers go unnoticed, they’re not valued in monetary form,” how only 22.5% of the Oireachtas (Irish parliament) is women, “our parliament is not conducive to women or men with families,” and how the gender pay gap will take another 40 years to get parity. “At the end of the day, men still hold too much power in the world. But men are victims of the patriarchy, too. There is an expectation of them, how they should behave towards women and if they don’t become part of that, it’s a problem. This is not a north/south, rich/poor thing, it’s everywhere. Violence against women and girls is a global problem (which has also been exacerbated by Covid). We look at the situation in each country context and have programs that engage women and men to not accept violence. In highly patriarchal societies where violence is accepted as the norm, I’ve seen men stand up and say, “I’m not going to beat my wife.” It may sound obvious but when stated publicly, aloud in front of peers, the energy around that can be powerful, people realize there’s another way. Cultural changes and practices take time, but any tradition that subjugates one person over another isn’t worth keeping. We have lots of initiatives, primarily led by women but it’s essential to get men to the table—there are many who want change but don’t know where to start.”


Jim touched on programs in South Sudan where he worked with a local chieftain or “umda” setting up a school for girls, Malawi where communities are supporting girls to stay in school beyond the age of puberty because they see the potential of an educated young woman, and Rwanda, which has the highest percentage of women in government, but we were only scratching the surface of this complex, global phenomena.


Fast fashion, climate change and sustainability also weaved into the conversation, but there is so much to say about them, I’ll keep them for another article. Ultimately, speaking with Jim, has opened my eyes in a big way. The word “charity” has taken on a completely different meaning. Oxfam is no longer just the local charity shop where I can pick up a bargain. My own sense of how I too may be able to facilitate change and equality in this world has been ignited. And I am reassured that anything is possible in the most positive sense of the word. 

About the Author: Born and bred in Dublin Ireland, Tracey spent over two decades working in art galleries and institutions in London and New York and collaborated regularly with art detective Charles Hill on recovering stolen masterpieces from public and private art collections. In 2020 she decided to take off her art world cap, packed her bags and moved to Milan, Italy, where she works as an English teacher, translator and writer.

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