Oxfam to close in 18 countries and cut 1,500 staff amid coronavirus pressures

By Peter Beaumont

Oxfam International is to lay off almost 1,500 staff and close operations in 18 countries – including Afghanistan where it has worked for 50 years – after it emerged that the global aid organisation had been bleeding cash during the coronavirus crisis.

The agency has seen its funding model hit by an accumulation of crises.

Still suffering from a fall in donations from the public in the UK because of the Haiti sex abuse scandal, and heavily dependent on its shops in a number of European countries – to the tune of £5m a week – Oxfam’s other sources of funding had also begun drying up.

Oxfam Australia had already made deep cuts earlier this month, while cuts in the UK to Oxfam GB were also foreseen.

Oxfam currently operates in 66 countries and 20 affiliates. It will retain a physical presence in 48 countries, six of which it will explore as new independent affiliate members.

On top of the wide-scale restructuring announced on Wednesday, insiders say they expect more job cuts in the coming weeks, including at Oxfam’s Oxford headquarters.

Oxfam said the move will affect about 1,450 out of nearly 5,000 programme staff, and 700 of its 1,900 partner organisations.

“I would like to place on record my deepest thanks to our staff and the brilliant work they have achieved in helping the people and communities we work with improve their lives,” said Oxfam International’s interim executive director Chema Vera.

He added: “The organisational changes we have announced today, combined with further phases of transformation in the months ahead, will be the foundation for our future over the coming decade as the longer-term effects of this devastating pandemic become clearer.”

As part of the cuts Oxfam will shut down its country offices in Thailand, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Haiti, Dominican Republic, Cuba, Paraguay, Egypt, Tanzania, Sudan, Burundi, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Benin, Liberia and Mauritania.

Although the international organisation had begun a 10-year strategic review in late 2018, the charity finances have been pushed to the brink by the coronavirus pandemic which has shuttered Oxfam shops in the UK, Belgium and Germany and seen fundraising events cancelled.

Sources at the organisation said the announced cuts were seen as a first step to securing its survival but more were expected in the coming weeks and months.

A statement issued by the organisation said the changes would enable Oxfam to be more effective in working with partners and communities to tackle global poverty and inequality and help people to survive humanitarian crises.

It added that Oxfam would be shifting more decision-making power to the global south and re-orientating its teams to work in ways and on issues that are more tailored to their local contexts.

It plans to increase resources to some of these programmes and refocus how each works, according to the different needs of local people. Oxfam will honour its existing commitments to its partners and donors.

Vera said: “Looking strategically at where and how we operate is the essential first step in ensuring that Oxfam can continue to make the best possible contribution to fighting inequality to end poverty and injustice, and to influence for change as effectively as possible. We’ve been planning this for some time but we are now accelerating key decisions in light of the effects of the global pandemic.

“In some countries, Oxfam will have a deeper footprint as we focus our programme resources and strengthen our local partnerships to maximise impact. In others we will focus more strongly on our humanitarian or influencing goals.

“Inevitably, we have had to make some very difficult choices about where we will no longer have a physical presence. This reorganisation will take time to complete. We feel a deep sense of responsibility to the countries where offices will be closed and we will do everything we can to ensure the people we work with will be able to look to the future with confidence. This includes continuing work with partners and allies in countries where there will be no Oxfam office, to support social movements and influence governments and private sector for positive change.

“The coronavirus has made Oxfam’s work helping the world’s most vulnerable people more vital than ever while, at the same time, it is impacting on our capacity to deliver,” Vera added.

“The tough decisions we announce today will allow us to continue making a positive impact on the lives of people living in poverty in ways we believe will be even more relevant and focused than before. It is the blueprint too of how we will usher in changes to the rest of our network to support it, ensuring that the global Oxfam confederation is on a stable financial footing,” he said.

Despite decades of experience in the aid sector, Oxfam has struggled since it was revealed that staff had paid for sex amid the Haitian earthquake a decade ago and failed to properly investigate it. It was also criticised over its response to separate accusations relating to abuse of children in Haiti.

A damning Charity Commission report last year found “serious problems with the culture, morale and behaviour” of Oxfam staff in Haiti at the time, concluding that the organisation had suffered from oversight issues over a number of years.

“What went wrong in Haiti did not happen in isolation,” the report concluded. “Our inquiry demonstrates that, over a period of years, Oxfam’s internal culture tolerated poor behaviour, and at times lost sight of the values it stands for,” said Helen Stephenson, chief executive of the Charity Commission.