• home

    Collaborating with an Advocacy NGO


    © International Trade Centre, International Trade Forum - Issue 2/2006

    © OXFAM/ Tineke D'Haese
    Cotton pickers work in Santa Cruz, Bolivia. Oxfam supports cotton producers by helping to establish national and regional producers' organizations and strengthening their capacity for advocacy and negotiation.

    Oxfam is a major non-governmental organization in trade policy debates. It also has a role in local trade development. What kind of collaboration is possible with an advocacy NGO? Natalie Domeisen and Peter Hulm of Trade Forum spoke to Céline Charveriat, head of Oxfam's trade office in Geneva.

    Q:Oxfam's campaigning for fairer trade rules and your emergency work are well known. But you are also heavily involved in ground-level work on trade and business development. What are these activities?

    A: The purpose of our programmes on the ground is to help vulnerable and poor people build more sustainable livelihoods. For instance, we work directly with small farmers' coffee cooperatives in the developing world. Through funding and training, we help raise capacity to access markets on better terms. As part of these activities we consider fair trade products as a very important tool for cooperatives to differentiate their products and improve quality, as well as to understand marketing and how the supply chain works.

    Q: What major challenges do you face?

    A: We are currently reviewing our "five-year plan". There is growing demand for us to go further in helping developing countries with trade policy at the national policy level. One reason is that policy-makers know that organizations like Oxfam are progressive and trust their advice. What's on offer in traditional channels is not always sufficient or adequate. It is not enough just to train trade negotiators, for example, or to argue generally for freer trade. One clear example: developing countries were promised a detailed assessment of the implications of the Doha Development Agenda on their industries, but there is still no country-by-country analysis of its impact.

    So the demand on us to offer more training and provide policy analysis is enormous, but is this really Oxfam's role in trade development? The humanitarian side of Oxfam has faced the same pressures: since the 1970s some emergency NGOs have found themselves asked to provide essential health services. In trade, the trend now is to ask us to provide essential services too. They ask questions such as, can you propose a new label for textiles? Can you advise us on how to build a generic pharmaceutical industry? Can you help us develop a coffee trademark?

    Even if it is tempting to try and fill this gap, we do not have the capacity to do so on our own. Moreover, our long-term priority is to build capacity of NGOs and trade union groups in developing countries - not governments. To ensure pro-development outcomes, it is crucial for civil society to be able to demand a pro-poor trade policy at home.

    Q:How much do you work with business?

    A: We have been collaborating with business for a very long time. Sometimes this is through funding from business for projects, but we are much more interested in working with corporations to promote improved business practices. For instance, we produced a report together with Unilever on their practices in Indonesia. In other cases, we put pressure on companies through public campaigning. For instance, we have criticized the pharmaceutical sector for pricing antiretrovirals out of poor people's reach in most developing countries. It is a question of finding the right approach. We are certainly not anti-business, because we know that developing countries need a vibrant private sector. But we think that the private sector needs to do much more to promote development and that it is good business to do so.

    Q:Why is Oxfam involved in the WTO debates?

    A: We launched our "Make Trade Fair" campaign because we thought that world trade rules were rigged against the interests of the world's poor. As a result, the potential for trade to help people get out of poverty was completely undermined. Some governments in developing countries have also asked Oxfam to help them with WTO issues. They do not feel they get enough information to keep up with the negotiations and need political and media support to put development issues at the forefront of the Doha talks.

    But we are not concerned just about WTO rules. The regional and bilateral trade agreements are also causing us concern because of their adverse impact on development. For example, we see WTO flexibilities on access to medicines being undone by regional and bilateral agreements. Then there are the "orphan" issues such as investment rules, anti-trust, taxes, etc., which are very important for development, but are not even discussed at the multilateral level.

    Q:Oxfam's campaigning style for the general public - such as the celebrities and milk surplus photos - is criticized privately within the trade community for its simplifications. How do you meet such criticisms?

    A: I reply with my own challenge: what are you doing to educate the wider public about trade? Public education on trade and development is crucial but it is not easy. Governments and international organizations aren't doing enough of it. This is why protectionism and mercantilism still prevail. Only 2% of the Dutch public, for example, know what WTO is. What trade experts don't sometimes grasp is that reports full of statistics are important to inform the trade community but fail to raise the attention of the wider public. If you want to raise public attention about such a complex issue, you have to come up with simple, striking and engaging messages. The key challenge is to energize people to act and make them realize that they can make a difference by making different consumption, investment and political choices. Fair trade products are one very useful educational tool that we use. The fair trade concept will never completely replace mainstream trade channels, but it helps consumers understand how supply chains are working and what is going on in developing countries, and empower them to do something it. But we need to go beyond the fair trade niche to see global change happen, for instance with regard to agricultural subsidy reform, and this is one of the core objectives of our public campaigning.

    Q:You came to Oxfam from the Inter-American Development Bank. How has this previous experience helped you?

    A: I am probably more open to dialogue and collaboration. There are many hard-working, competent and concerned people working within these organizations and there is a lot of expertise from which NGOs like Oxfam can benefit. Having worked in multilateral institutions also helps me understand where people on the other side of the table are coming from, what political constraints they face and what role they can or cannot play in the trade arena.

    For more information about Oxfam, see http://www.oxfam.org/en