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Oxfam America President On U.S. Foreign Aid


Disaster relief has been in the forefront of the news since the Jan. 12 earthquake destroyed parts of Haiti and killed and injured hundreds of thousands of people there. Raymond Offenheiser, president of Oxfam America, will address this issue and other U.S. foreign aid concerns at the Joan B. Kroc Institute for Peace and Justice at the University of San Diego on Thursday, Feb. 25 at 7 p.m. He joins us in studio to talk about proposed changed to U.S. foreign aid.

Distinguished Lecture Series

Feb. 25, 2010

7 p.m., Peace & Justice Theatre, University of San Diego


MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): The earthquake that destroyed the lives and homes of hundreds of thousands in Haiti last month called upon the best humanitarian aid the U.S. and the world could muster. That work, by many remarkable people and agencies continues. But the disaster also gave rise to some questions. Why, after decades of foreign assistance, is Haiti still such a very poor country? Why hasn't foreign aid done more to improve conditions there? Does the way we give assistance to developing countries need to change? According to my next guest, the answer is yes. Raymond Offenheiser is president of Oxfam America, and it’s a pleasure to welcome you to These Days. Good morning.

RAYMOND OFFENHEISER (President, Oxfam America): Nice to be here, Maureen.

CAVANAUGH: What is Oxfam America, just so everyone knows.

OFFENHEISER: Oxfam America is an international humanitarian and relief organization that’s been around for about 60 years, was founded in Great Britain as a response to the plight of refugees during World War II, and now there are 13 Oxfams. We work in about 110 countries. We spend about $900 million a year on both humanitarian assistance and long term development aid. And we’re one of the top five or six major response – first responders to these major humanitarian emergencies like the tsunami and Haiti and Darfur and the Pakistan earthquake, most recently.

CAVANAUGH: I think of Oxfam primarily as a place that distributes food but, really, what kind of aid does Oxfam provide?

OFFENHEISER: Well, we’ve been thought of as a hunger organization…


OFFENHEISER: …but paradoxically what we do is we respond to these humanitarian plights and we’re, you know, driven by a commitment, humanitarian values, and what that means is we’re on the ground where people’s lives are in danger. And that might mean distributing food to people who are hungry but actually one of the things we discovered after many years of work in this field was actually in these emergency situations, very often people die not of hunger but from consumption of nonpotable water. So we have become specialists in the whole area of providing potable water in these emergency situations and dealing with sort of the broader public health and sanitation infrastructure that needs to be put in place quickly to ensure that disease doesn’t break out in what is generally a very chaotic circumstance.

CAVANAUGH: So was that your main thrust in providing relief to the victims of the earthquake in Haiti?

OFFENHEISER: Precisely. I mean, one of the things we’ve been doing is we’ve been trying to get to all these affected populations in – where they’re concentrated, around the capital of Port-au-Prince and even in some of the rural areas, and basically trying to get them settled down and build a water and sanitation infrastructure to stabilize their daily lives, and then trying to also provide cash for work to enable people to purchase food. And in some cases, we’ve assisted in the delivery of food to the World Food Program. We’ve helped to organize the food delivery that the World Food Program would bring in.

CAVANAUGH: That’s interesting. I wonder, when you heard about the earthquake in Haiti and – What was the situation like when Oxfam America got on the ground in Haiti? What did you meet there?

OFFENHEISER: Well, every one of these events, these cataclysmic events over the last four or five years, and we’ve seen a number of them now, you’d think that the response that you’re going to have to carry out is going to be the same.


OFFENHEISER: But, in reality, each one is quite unique. In the Haiti case, if you can imagine a city like San Diego but much more compact, much hillier, and much, much more densely populated with an earthquake that’s leveled 70% of the structures. That’s the picture that we ran into. And it, you know, it affected poor communities, it affected rich communities. And what you saw was a devastated infrastructure, devastated housing base, and population basically in the streets, homeless and trying to figure out what they were going to do. One of the big complexities in the Haitian case is that in Port-au-Prince per se there’s very little land where we could locate people safely away from the structures that were already fallen down. And people were very anxious about being anywhere near a structure that could, in fact, fall down. So, for example, in our particular case, one of the things that has happened is we have assisted a large community that entered a nine-hole golf course and basically started to set up tent settlements in that golf course. We took over the irrigation system for the golf course and turned it into a water provision system for the people that are living there. There are now 70,000 people living in that golf course in tents, you know, one after the other and we’ve had to build, in effect, the infrastructure for a small town/city, if you will, to meet their basic needs to deal with basic sanitation, showering, water provision, solid waste removal and so on, and then we’ve had to facilitate with other agencies, food provision and access to medicines and so on and so forth.

CAVANAUGH: I’m speaking with Ray Offenheiser. He is president of Oxfam America and if you’d like to join our conversation, we welcome your call. Do you have questions about the way our foreign aid is used or thoughts on how to make it more effective? You can call us with your questions and comments. Our number is 1-888-895-5727. I want to ask you just a couple of more questions, if I can, about Haiti. When were you last in Haiti?

OFFENHEISER: I was in Haiti a week or so ago.

CAVANAUGH: And what was it like there?

OFFENHEISER: Well, it turned out the weekend that I was there—I was there about four days and I arrived on the – exactly on the anniversary of the quake itself, and it was a very moving three days in the sense that the government had declared three days of mourning for the victims of the earthquake. And, basically, the work that we were doing, you know, with communities was going on normally right, you know, day after day of trying to provide these basic – assist people meeting these basic needs. But the population itself had taken – had paused and they were in the streets going to churches, and they were processing through the streets with banners and carrying green branches, you know, signaling, you know, a spirit of renewal. Churches were filled to overflowing and everywhere you went people were singing. There was music in the air all over the place. And so you had this peculiar sense that this was a country that was, you know, confronting an absolutely monumental challenge of rebuilding but at the same time had sort of crossed a bridge and was beginning a healing process through all sorts of public demonstrations and religious practice and just expression through music.

CAVANAUGH: Now the people of Haiti are expressing their, of course, their resilience and their hope for the future and the aid agencies that came to the rescue and relief of people, including Oxfam America, I mean, there’s entirely laudable. But are there lessons that we can learn about what happened in Haiti about what might be lacking in the way that we approach relief efforts around the world?

OFFENHEISER: Well, I think with each of these events we’ve learned different and new kinds of lessons. And I think one of the important ones that we’ve learned in the past that we’ve been implementing in Haiti, although I think we still have a ways to go to improve it, is when these events occur, there’s a large outpouring of generosity from the international community. The difficulty is when you go into a situation that is pure chaos, your first responsibility is basically to try to impose some kind of order, order to deliver food, order to put in temporary infrastructure, order to deliver basic services, and order to provide security so that people aren’t in any way in danger. And in order to do that well, we’ve got to have coordination mechanisms that are actually in place and are functioning and there’s got to be strong communication among all the actors and what we’ve done and what the international community has done is it has put that responsibility for the coordination with the United Nations with the Office of Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, which basically comes in and sets up the coordination mechanism in these circumstances. Then it’s incumbent upon all of us as actors to basically be part of that structure. And that’s – Within that structure there are a variety of what are called clusters that are organized around water and food and shelter and protection and health and so forth, and all of us who are professional actors in this participate in the clusters where we have competencies, you know, strong competencies and we want to be most active. So Oxfam is a leader in the water and sanitation area and we would probably be present in some of the other clusters as well but the U.N. would look to us to lead in that particular sector and give us a leadership role in that coordination cluster. What happens often in these situations is a lot of other folks come in who they – who don’t normally participate in these events and they don’t know about the structure or they don’t know about the coordination. They’re looking around trying to figure out how to be helpful. They have no communication with the broader process that’s underway, and all you need is a few journalists to sort of find this going on and you end up, you know, with a story that sounds like things aren’t working. That said, I still think there are other issues that have to do with, you know, how fast we can get the basic infrastructure up to meet the needs that people have. And in the Haiti case, you know, initially there was difficulty getting food in and meeting the food needs but the World Food Program stepped up and there was what was called a food surge with support of the international U.N. forces there as well as the U.S. forces to kind of keep people calm and to ensure that there was a very orderly delivery of food. That basically overcame the food shortage problem. We’ve basically met that short term problem and then markets began to reinstate themselves and the nutritional issues began to resolve. It’s been harder to deal with some of the issues of shelter and water and sanitation in part because the populations in Port-au-Prince are so dispersed. Normally we would put people into large concentrations of the sort I described as 70,000 people. In Port-au-Prince, you find 300 people in a churchyard, 200 people in a school yard in another neighborhood. And they’re all up on the hills and all kinds of different places. Many of them are very difficult to get to. You can’t get trucks in there to do, you know, to dig latrines and to put in some of the necessary infrastructure. So we’ve confronted some really tough problems there that even if we’d learned lessons in the past would have been unique to this situation and present really some big complex challenges.

CAVANAUGH: Moving from disasters, because I know you’re here as president of Oxfam America to address the Joan Kroc Institute of Peace and Justice at USD and you’re going to be talking about the larger issue of your vision about creating aid that works. And you, if I understand it correctly, you would like to see a change in the way that the U.S. delivers or manages its foreign aid policy. Let’s start out, how much does the U.S. spend approximately on foreign aid?

OFFENHEISER: The U.S. has spent, if we go back to the Clinton administration, we were probably around $13 to $14 billion and that has gone up with the introduction of the PEPFAR Program under President Bush to provide roughly $5 billion a year for HIV/AIDS funding around the world. We’ve been making – a generous contribution that we’re making to the provision of anti-retrovirals and then another $5 billion that goes through what’s called the Millennium Challenge Corporation, another new entity that was created by the Bush administration for actually providing large block grants to solidly performing governments around the world. So we’re probably in the low-twenties somewhere, $20 billion or so.

CAVANAUGH: $20 billion a year. Now what is it about the present policy that, in your opinion, is not working?

OFFENHEISER: Okay. Well, one of – The thing is, we’ve looked at this process over the years but one of the things I think is maybe, for the listeners, it’s important to understand is, so what’s the framework that the United States uses to operate our whole foreign aid – our foreign aid architecture? And it goes back, as it happens, to the Kennedy administration. In 1961 when Kennedy was inaugurated, he signaled in his inaugural speech that the United States, in the depths of the cold war, was going to lead with its values and it was going to, you know, it was going to be a generous nation and it was going to extend itself generously to countries around the world. And as a consequence of that, what happened was the U.S. Agency for International Development was set up, the Peace Corps was started, the Overseas Private Investment Corporation was started and the programs for aid in Latin America, the Alliance for Progress, were all started on the basis of a speech in March, two months after he was inaugurated, and this moved very, very quickly. That piece of legislation was 147 pages long. Today, we have that original legislation still governing this entire process, hasn’t been reformed since 1961, which was the depths of the cold war, and it’s been amended such that it has about 500 additional pages of, often times, very contradictory sort of material. The problem we also have is that when we started, we had a very – we had one strong agency, we had a strong mandate, control of budget, clarity of authority and a clear strategy. The problem we have today, and this was amply documented in a commission that was set up by President Bush, called the HELP Commission, is we basically got no clear strategy, we have something like 20 to 30 agencies of the U.S. government that are involved in delivering foreign assistance and we’ve got a variety of conflicting mandates and priorities and objectives, you know, that number in the hundreds. So when we are confronted with a major challenge like the global food crisis that happened a year or so ago, we don’t have a clear response for that. And so – And we’re not even clear what agency of our government should respond. So that report that came out under President Bush defined our current aid system as fundamentally broken and dysfunctional and that we needed a new start. And the new start, from our point of view, would involve a couple of basic things: clarifying what it is we want to do, and having a national development strategy for how the U.S. wants to move forward in this area. I think it’s important for the listeners to know that in the Defense Department we have a national defense strategy and it’s done every five years and it clarifies exactly what we want to do and where we want to put our resources. We don’t have that in the diplomatic sphere nor do we have it in the development sphere.

CAVANAUGH: That’s very interesting.

OFFENHEISER: So one of the first – The first orders of business is figuring out what it is we want to do and how we want it, you know, and then secondly, how we want to do it. What are the competencies we want to put in place to execute well that approach and then what sort of structure’s needed. And there are oftentimes, in Washington, these arguments take about let’s adjust the structure before clarifying the strategy and we’re arguing for form should follow function and we should get the strategy right. And then I think the other bits of this have to do with changing our overall approach from one in which a lot of the money that we would designate is currently now earmarked by Congress so if you’re working in a particular country and you’re representing the United States government as an officer of a U.S. aid mission, everything that you are going to do is actually pre-packaged on Capitol Hill irrespective of the context in which you’re working, and that’s created some rather peculiar distortions where, for example, you know, we might be working in Rwanda, which has a 3% HIV/AIDS prevalency rate, very, very low for Africa. But 90% of our aid to Rwanda might be for HIV/AIDS work. Now you might ask should we be working on agriculture, should we be working on jobs creation, should we be working on governance and human rights issues, is there some balance there? But all this is being pre-determined and pre-packaged in Washington. So our recommendation, vision for going forward, is that we should have an approach in which we’re being much more transparent with countries about the money that’s on the table, how much there is and what kind of commitment we’re going to have with countries. And over what time period because the development process is a longer – it involves longer term investments if you’re going to do it well, so clarity and transparency about money, greater focus on investing indigenous capacity in countries rather than sending in U.S.-based consultants.


OFFENHEISER: In other words, a lot of our aid is going through U.S.-based consultants rather than being channeled in building institutions in capacity and country. And third, being willing to surrender a certain amount of control to the national actors rather than having it be exercised from Capitol Hill and from within though it’s a Washington bureaucratic structure.

CAVANAUGH: And I’m wondering, would you also like to see more of a cooperation internationally in strategy for helping developing nations?

OFFENHEISER: Well, there is a actively – there’s a very active discussion going on about aid effectiveness on an international level and there have been big meetings in Africa and in Paris about these questions. And what they focus on is better coordination among international donors, more multilateral approaches where that makes sense, less bureaucratic costs for these developing countries which, in some cases, find themselves hosting, you know, tens if not hundreds of development missions from developed countries to look at their investments that take time away from actually doing the work. And if there’s better coordination and an agreement on, for example, block grants for strategic plans that, you know, with very specific outcomes, then countries can get on with doing development rather than spending a lot of time on, you know, engaged in compliance reporting of one sort or another. So, unfortunately, the United States, within those discussions, is behind the curve. The Europeans and other nations have actually implemented a lot of this sort of forward looking thinking and in our particular case we are, you know, we still have our aid heavily tied, heavily focused on U.S.-based consultants, tied to export of U.S. products, and we need greater degrees of flexibility and greater, if you will, sensitivity to the context in which we’re working and the way we invest in ways that are aligned with the needs of those contexts.

CAVANAUGH: Well, as you must be very well aware as president of Oxfam America, that there – foreign aid in this country has been a hobby horse for critics for years that we spend a lot of money on foreign aid, we should cut the money that we spend for foreign aid. And I wonder if the way that our foreign aid has developed, the way you’ve described it, just sort of growing like kudzu, not with any real direction, isn’t it a way to stop people from maybe looking at the whole thing and saying, well, we don’t want this anyway. Let’s just forget about foreign aid?

OFFENHEISER: Well, I think there’s a couple of, you know, paradoxes in that discussion. One is there’s this sense that United States is the most generous contributor in the world to foreign aid globally. And in fact, you know, we give less than 1/10 of 1% of our budget and we’re actually – we fall 25th in terms of percent of GNP as a contributor nation, somewhere below Greece, I think, and Portugal. So in overall terms, we are – you know, we give the most but in relative terms we’re in 25th place. So the other interesting thing is when Americans are polled on this issue, their impression is, one, that we’re giving much, much more than we actually are. And even if they think that we should give a little bit less than that, they still think that we should be giving proportions that are probably five to six times what we’re actually giving. So that Americans think that this should be part of the way the United States projects its values but at the same time they want to see return on investment. They want to see better outcomes, they want to see success, basically, and I – And, frankly, a lot of what’s motivating Oxfam in this discussion is we think we could get better value for the American taxpayers’ dollar by making the kinds of reforms we’re talking about. And I think the important thing to underline here is that there is a debate going on in Washington about this, there’s discussions going on in the White House, there’s legislation on Capitol Hill and I think the important thing that I think if your audience hears anything about this discussion is, there’s an opportunity to actually support this legislative reform to give us a 21st century development approach. And maybe the final point here is in terms of why development should be important, the United States has a variety of different tools in the way it engages the world. We have our defense tools, we have our diplomatic tools, and we’ve had our development and public outreach tools through public diplomacy and so forth. What has happened over the last two decades or more is our civilian capacity, the capacity in our civilian agencies, our State Department and our USAID on foreign aid institutions, has been diminished dramatically. When it was at its peak and really doing, I would say, highly professional successful work as an agency, USAID had something like 13,000 or 14,000 employees. Today, it has 2500 employees, and we’ve outsourced a lot of this capacity, and similarly in the State Department, there’s been a lot of loss of personnel. And so one of the things – And Secretary Gates in the Defense Department has been very strong on this point, is if we are going to be successful in transitioning from leading with our military in places like Afghanistan and Iraq and actually shifting to a more development focus and a peace-building focus, we’ve got to have strong civilian agencies that can lead on this with the capacity to do it. So because what’s happening right now is the Defense Department and the military is having to take on this role, not because they want to but because they’re – the civilian capacity in the two other Ds, diplomacy and development, are not strong enough to take on the work.

CAVANAUGH: And there has been criticism in the past that perhaps the United States has been a little bit too political in its goals when it comes to foreign aid policy. Would you see what’s going on, the discussions that are going on now in Washington, is that addressing that to any extent? Or is it too optimistic to think that there won’t be these very entrenched political goals in the foreign aid that we give other countries?

OFFENHEISER: Well, I think we would be naïve to say that the U.S. is not going to exercise some degree of national interest in the way it exercises its diplomatic functions, its defense functions and its development functions. And – But I think if we step back a second and we actually ask, you know, what would good development look like and how might it be in the interest of the United States, first of all, I think we need to elevate it as a stand alone discipline with its own sort of set of practices and with its own timeline, which is more long term in terms of vision and put at the center of it poverty alleviation where what we’re focusing on is trying to build stronger, more institutionalized societies where there is, you know, the possibility of an emergent middle class and stronger democracy and stronger recognition of human rights and more inclusive markets and citizen accountability of the performance of their governments. These are all things that are going to build relationships for the United States over the long term that are going to be valuable. They’re going to address some of the concerns we have now about failed states and the role of failed states in creating sort of opportunities versus the growth of terrorist groups and other kinds of non-State actors. So I think that there’s, you know, there’s real opportunities here for us to think about national interests and development in poverty as – and human development as all of a piece and very much in the interest of – the long range interest of the United States and the United States citizens.

CAVANAUGH: I want to thank you so much for speaking with us today.

OFFENHEISER: Thank you for having me, Maureen.

CAVANAUGH: I’ve been speaking with Raymond Offenheiser. He is President of Oxfam. He’ll be speaking about “Aid That Works: Creating a 21st Century Vision for U.S. Development Assistance." That’s at the Joan B. Kroc Institute for Peace and Justice at the University of San Diego tonight at seven. If you would like to comment about anything that you’ve heard on KPBS or These Days, is the place to go. And coming up, we’ll find out what a SpaceUp unconference is all about as These Days continues here on KPBS.

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