Interview with Oxfam-Director Winnie Byanyima : "The space for civil society is shrinking"

Winnie Byanyima is the first African to lead an international development organisaion. The former Ugandan opposition politician wants to "globalize Oxfam truely". The north-south-attitude shall develop into a south-south- and a south-north-work.

Winnie Byanyima has been the first female Ugandan aeronautical engeneer. She grew up with president Yoweri Museveni, who now leads the country since 1986. She even fought in the bush side by side with Museveni, who was partly raised by her parents. Later Byanyima married the opposition figure Kizza Besigye, who contested three times for the presidency with Museveni. Besigye had to live in exile for years and has been frequently imprisoned. Byanyima was a parlamantarian in Uganda, till the harrassment became to much for her. She worked for the African Union and the UN-development programme. Since May she is executive director of the international charity Oxfam.
Winnie Byanyima has been the first female Ugandan aeronautical engeneer. She grew up with president Yoweri Museveni, who now leads...Foto: Reuters

How does Oxfam find the right partners in the South? I know from several African countries, where building up an NGO is not much more than a means for survival a business. And there are other challenges too.

You have a point there. But we work in 94 countries, and in many of those countries the political space for civil society is shrinking. It becomes harder and harder to operate there. Oxfam has always been a very passionate organization. We really do attract people, who cannot tolerate injustice. We get the right people. We need to address the issue of the shrinking space for civil society in many countries. Maybe we should come together in a coalition of global NGOs and launch a specific campaign on this issue. We need to challenge governments not to close space for citizens to engage. This is the bigger problem for us.

So you get the people you need?

The second area, where we have a challenge is, that the emerging private sector in many countries competes with us for the best people. They come with big resources, they are able to pay for workplaces with modern technology, which we are still grappeling to buy. And of course they pay more. This is a new situation for us. Of course the companies should find the best talents, and how would we send companies away, who do something to fight poverty. But companies will always only be accountable to their shareholders. They will never be accountable to the people. We are in a space, where we support people, to hold these companies and the governments to account. We are in a difficult situation, to establish new relationships to the private sector and holding our ground.

In Africa that shrinking of the political space for civil society began 2008 with the civil-society-organizations-law Ethiopia, which made it almost impossible for NGOs to work there. A restrictive press law and an anti-terror-law, that allows to imprison virtually everybody with a complaint followed. They were the model for many. They had understood something: A civil society that could challenge injustice would be able to challenge a government too. Then it is easy to call them spies, financed from the west, another “colonial force”. And with anti-colonial-tones you still can win elections in Africa.

The Ethiopian law to regulate civil society to shrink the space for civil society they brought after the challenging elections 2005. It has become like a blueprint. Many governments are changing the laws or are making amendments that are similar to that. It is a trend in the whole region. But it is also a trend in Asia. It is disturbing. In Oxfams strategic plan we have six goals. And our number one goal for the next six years is active citizenship, to promote local organisations to claim their power, their rights in their countries. And there we hit a rock, because governments don’t like that. But we are ready for it.

More accountability for resource-contracts

Can a development be sustainable, if the civil society cannot take claim of it?

People need to shape their own futures by telling their leaders, what they want. And the leaders should listen to them. All that promotion of figures: We are getting five percent growth or seven percent growth, just because they are drilling more oil from the ground and taking it to China, India or wherever, to me that is not a sign of progress.

Especially not, when you know, who gains out of oil-, gas- and other resource-contracts.

The UN-Development-Report some two years ago showed that the fastest growing economies were Sudan, Angola and I think even DR-Congo. They were also registering a higher rate of poverty, at a seven-percent-growth-rate. Poverty was increasing. It does not make sense to talk about a rising Africa, when it is leaving millions behind. That is, why I love Oxfam. We challenge that.

It has become more complicated for international NGOs to work in many countries. Their money alone still might be welcome but not what they are asking for like accountability or good governance.

The African leaders become weaned of aid. In many countries new natural resources are found and they are excited about the trade prospects. They are no longer pleading for more aid. But they are not paying attention to the question: Are we getting a good deal for these resources? There is a lot of illicit flow of resources, because part of it is they are corrupt and complicit, not to the benefit of their people. But also there are huge illicit flows of resources they are not able to monitor. The African Union has now set up a panel of eminent persons to take a look at these illicit flows. The head is former president Thabo Mbeki who told us recently, that he is really astounded by what he has seen in the few countries he has visited. Many governments do not know, how much timber is going out of the country, and for how much timber it is paid for.

Like in the Democratic Republik of Congo.

Oil is flowing out, and they cannot be sure, how much really left the country.

Like in Nigeria.

This issue is urgent. We as civil society would want to engage there and give our partners in the countries a voice. Any government is as good as the people. We would like to help to make sure, that the resources are accounted for.

It does not always work. The German development organisation GIZ has helped to set up a data base with resource contracts for example in Sierra Leone, where of course the most sensible contracts never were opened up. Or in Ghana where there a good accountability laws for the oil-money. In the first year people at least could find out, where the money vanished.

We have made a lot of noise about transparency and pushing for laws to have more transparency. And Oxfam has a track record here. We were pushing to the Dodd-Franck-Act in the United States that requires companies from the extractive industries, to declare all their revenues openly. That is great. But Africans now say: Corruption here is transparent. We know who is stealing. The point I am making is: We have also to deal with impunity. It is not only the laws. You need to have some punishments for those, who break the laws.

The next level then would be, to make noise, when the fight against corruption becomes the ultimate political weapon, to discredit political opponents.

Exactly! It is a vicious cycle, hard to break it. But the only way to break it is an active citizenship. To me there are no shortcuts. We have to do it, because this is our theory of change. And it is the right theory. People need to stand up for their rights, their lands, their interests. What we have to do, is to bring in more partners.

It will be an interesting moment, when Oxfam Brazil goes to an African country and helps the civil society there, to stand up for their rights. .

The day we can have our Oxfam India, Oxfam South Africa, Oxfam Brazil supporting civil society in other African countries to challenge, it will be tough to those who hold power. It brings them into the focus of governments in emerging countries too. Oxfam can talk to the governments of Brazil of India or China. They will have to be listened. There is a strong commitment in Oxfam to build up an active citizenship in the South.

Bring the right people together.

Yes, and that is, even with all the digital means of communication still hard. Oxfam will move from the north-south-attitude more and more to the south-south-work. And the south to north work. It would be good, to have a South-African being a senior staff in Germany, talking to the German government. We have an international agenda. We really need to globalize truly.



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