CEO Blog

Apr 7, 2014

Apr Rwanda 20 years on


Twenty years ago, the world stood by and watched as over 1,000,000 people in Rwanda were killed in 100 days.  Aid agencies saw what was happening and tried in vain to persuade Western governments to fulfil their obligations and intervene to stop the killing.

Today it is sobering to remember Rwanda and think about what has changed. How is the world responding today to war, conflict and murder? 

In short, are the world’s governments any better than they were in 1994 at setting aside selfish interests – or indeed selfish lack of interest – and acting to protect civilians from war and conflict?

Clockwise from top: Rwandan refugees returning from camps in Tanzania in 1996.  Refugees pass by recently dead left at the roadside, Kitali camp, DRC.  Rwandan refugees in Tanzania collecting grain 1994. Oxfam staff member with water bucket and Rwandan refugees in DRC 1997.  Aid worker treating a head wound in DRC 1997. Photos:  Howard Davies/ Oxfam

At first sight, the signs are not encouraging. While there may not have been systematic killings on the scale of the Rwandan genocide since 1994, extreme violence continues, with hundreds of thousands of people killed, raped or living in terror every year.

It’s now more important than ever to ask how well the world is doing in acting to reduce conflicts around the world.

Some things have gotten better. After ten years of NGO campaigning, an Arms Trade Treaty was agreed last year. The UN Security Council now sets about protecting civilians in its peacekeeping operations, far more than it did. 

But different countries still give arms to Syria’s conflict. Terrible violence in countries such as the Central African Republic still struggle for media attention. Despite the growth in UN peacekeeping very few rich countries donate their own resources to this effort.

And Oxfam faces growing humanitarian challenges because the world is still not as good as it should be at resolving conflicts. 

Above: Oxfam Genocide in Rwanda leaflet 1994. Photo:  Howard Davies/ Oxfam

Oxfam has been with Rwanda since the 1960s and working inside the country since 1982, delivering humanitarian response, water and sanitation, conflict management, human rights and democratisation and sustainable livelihoods projects especially in the aftermath of the 1994 Genocide.

Rwanda is today a country which has turned itself around and is now achieving impressive growth and stability. Yet massive challenges remain, with nearly half the population living in poverty, needing support to create work in rural and urban areas.

Oxfam is having huge success in Rwanda. We work with local organisations to support farmers to grow their own food, open their own small businesses, train other members of their communities in farming skills and create many jobs in rural areas so that they don’t have to rely on us to provide for them. 

Rwanda is a country moving beyond its tragic past to try to build a peaceful future.

The twentieth anniversary of the Rwandan genocide will be a painful moment for millions, especially the Rwandan survivors still trying to heal their shattered lives. 

For the rest of us, it should be a time to remember how much more there is still to be done to protect civilians in every corner of the world, from every kind of atrocity.

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Oct 15, 2013

Oct Budget 2014 a step in right direction for a fairer global tax system


Oxfam has long campaigned for a more equitable tax system that would see ordinary people at home and in developing countries get a fairer deal. We have called on governments to share more information about who owns what and where, along with tightening the loopholes that allow vast amounts of taxable money belonging to wealthy individuals and companies to slip through the net. 

Key to this is greater information sharing and transparency between countries, such as the commitment to global automatic exchange of tax information supported by the new Irish International Tax Strategy unveiled in today’s Budget 2014. Minister Noonan's comments about Ireland being ‘part of the solution to a global tax challenge’ and the publication of the Irish International Tax Strategy are steps in the right direction – provided it is now followed by decisive action putting an end to tax dodging which hurts people at home and in developing countries.

Making sure wealthy individuals and companies pay their fair share of tax would help eradicate the pervasive inequalities in a world where one in eight people still go to bed hungry every night. This hidden money could provide urgent finance for essential public services like health and education both at home and in poor countries.

Above: Ashma Turay and her four-day-old daughter at a vaccination clinic in Ghana. Increased tax transparency would mean that money currently hidden from tax authorities could raise vital revenue for essential public services like health and education both at home in Ireland and in developing countries. Photo: Aubrey Wade/Oxfam

The Government’s commitments to efforts at OECD and EU level to develop a response to aggressive tax planning, along with planned legislation that includes a change to company residence rules to prevent companies from being ‘stateless’ are to be welcomed, though we await more details.

It is vital that poor countries are not left behind in tax reform. The strategy announced today commits Ireland to supporting developing countries to raise their own domestic revenue in ways that are more efficient. This promotion of trade and development will help countries to lift themselves out of extreme poverty, provided these activities are guided by the Principles of Good Humanitarian Donorship and similar principles that maintain a respect for human rights.

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Sep 30, 2013

Sep Another austerity budget would damn future generations to life of poverty


The findings from our recent report on austerity are stark.

Austerity policies across Europe are benefiting the richest 10% of Europeans while forcing millions of ordinary people into poverty. 

And if Ireland and the rest of Europe continue along the path of austerity policies, it will drag between 15 and 25 million more people into poverty in Europe by 2025.

We have already seen the terrible impact of the recession here in Ireland being reinforced by harsh austerity measures by the Government.  Almost 14% of people are unemployed and this rises to 30.8% for young people under 25. The people who are paying the price did not cause this problem.

Above-top: Left to Right: Jim Clarken, Mary Murphy, Orla O’Connor and Nat O’Connor at the launch of the austerity report. Bottom-left: Jim Clarken and Mary Murphy. Bottom-right: Jim Clarken. Photos: Mark Stedman/Photocall Ireland 

Given the early budget in October, it is vital that our message is heard. The report clearly shows that if Ireland and Europe continue down the austerity route we are damning future generations to a life of poverty and lost opportunity.  European and Irish governments must row back on austerity policies now and redirect efforts towards stimulus packages to kick-start the economy, create jobs and improve education and living standards.

There are alternatives to austerity. We’re calling on Irish and European governments to champion a new economic and social model that invests in people, strengthens democracy and pursues fair taxation. Governments could raise billions for public services, such as health and education by increasing tax on the wealthiest, and also cracking down on tax loopholes and avoidance schemes.

Read about our pragmatic and positive alternatives to austerity-only policies in our report “A Cautionary Tale; The true cost of austerity and inequality in Europe” launched in Dublin on the 12th September. 

Summary report, full report, Irish case study.

A big thank you to the experts in social and economic issues who joined me in a panel discussion on the day calling for an end to austerity policies; Orla O’Connor, Director of the National Women’s Council of Ireland; Nat O’Connor: Director of TASC; Robin Hanan: Director of European Anti-Poverty Network; and Mary Murphy: Lecturer in Irish Politics and Society at NUI Maynooth. 

Our intention is to continue work with like-minded groups, to unleash the voices of people against poverty, wherever they may be.

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Jul 29, 2013

Jul We need more women in positions of power


Should we care?

Judging by recent antics in Dáil Éireann, quite a bit. Far too many Irish men and women fought for the right to our own parliament in Dublin, only for us then to exclude a whole section of Irish society. More women in the Dáil should shake up things for the better.

New quotas that ensure women make up 30% of party candidates in the next general election should make sure of this. And the experience of other countries is that this is a pretty good thing.

Countries with women in parliament pass the kind of laws that benefit everyone but are often neglected by men. Take Rwanda, where 56% of all seats in parliament are held by women. In 2009 it passed a law that criminalised sexual harassment, domestic violence and marital rape, moving the issue of violence against women to the top of the political agenda. Compare this with neighbouring Uganda, where a proposed law to stop husbands raping wives was shelved in April. Then there’s DR Congo next door, described by one UN official as the “most dangerous place on earth to be a woman”.

Closer to home, Norway, where almost 40% of seats are held by women, men can take 10 weeks leave when their babies are born. Most share the extra time with their partners, making sure that Norwegian women do not have to sacrifice their careers for families, one of the big factors cutting into women’s pay.

Above: Mary Robinson speaking at the World Climate Summit last year in Doha Photo: The Verb/Laura Owsianka flickr/Creative commons.

But it’s not just in politics that more women would give a boost to decision making. Ireland’s economic recovery could also depend on having more women in business too.

Companies with women on their boards perform better in tough times. According to a study by Credit Suisse last year, they take on less debt and don’t take as many risks as companies pumping with testosterone. Imagine where the Irish economy might be if there were more women in the cabinet room on the night of the bank guarantee?

But women represent just 9.7% of the board members at the top 300 companies in Europe and account for less than 15% of all Fortune 1000 directors.

Norway already requires that all companies have 40% of their boards made up of women. Since they passed the law for this in 1998, studies have shown the presence of more women on boards has led to more focused and strategic decision making, not to mention a good deal less conflict.

And less bluster in Irish board rooms, and the Dáil, would be no bad thing.

Jim Clarken is chief executive of Oxfam Ireland and chair of Dóchas, the umbrella group of Irish development agencies.

Originally published in the Irish Sun on Sunday on 28/09/2013

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Jul 5, 2013

Jul The cracking edifice behind the brands


It is not two months since the collapse of the Rana Plaza factory in Bangladesh, which killed over 1,100 people. But as the New York Times reports this week, inspections of buildings might as well not be happening at all.

Buildings propped up with beams that are cracked and disintegrating are still operating as factories, with workers producing clothes for companies that include GAP. Even though inspectors recommended that the use of one building “be discontinued immediately”, it is still operating.

Construction of high rise buildings can be seen everywhere in Dhaka, but even the Prime Minister accepts that 90 per cent are not built to local standards, let alone international building standards that would be expected in an earthquake-prone country like Bangladesh.

Above: Rescue workers take part in the rescue of the eight-storey building Rana Plaza which collapsed at Savar, outside Dhaka, Bangladesh, 25 April 2013. Photo: Abir Abdullah / Oxfam.

Oxfam is working to reduce the risk of disasters like Savar by working with architects and municipal authorities to improve building standards, and by working with communities to prepare themselves for disasters. With a major earthquake overdue, we are concerned that this terrible tragedy will be repeated on a far greater scale.

The tragedy that was Rana Plaza should serve as a reminder of the story behind the brands we buy. But conditions will not change until consumers choose to buy clothes that are the products of transparent and non-abusive supply chains. Retailers can choose to do the same, and can hold their suppliers to account – not least by ensuring they respect standard safety measures that protect their workers lives.

Until that happens the garment industry will continue to be a dangerous, low paid and exploitative sector where 75% of waged workers do not have a contract and 88% of garment workers do not know what their basic salary is before overtime.

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