Effective altruists love Randomized Controlled Trials, Disability Adjusted Life Years, Quality Adjusted Life Years, and outcomes they can measure with relative precision, and so do I. For this reason, advocacy organizations and other charities with hard-to-measure interventions are underrepresented by both GiveWell and The Life You Can Save.
Oxfam is a notable exception on The Life You Can Save’s list of recommended nonprofits. Oxfam does support delivery of many tangible types of assistance, like latrines, clean water and shelters, but these are often supplied opportunistically, and a significant portion of their work involves services that are much less tangible and measurable, like advocacy and awareness.
Recently, I had the privilege of interviewing Abby Maxman, President & CEO of Oxfam America. The interview with this dedicated, knowledgeable, and thoughtful career professional led me to confront my conflict regarding interventions where measuring impact is relatively easy versus those where it is much more challenging.
Maxman has spent an impressive 30 years working in the field of international humanitarian relief and development, from starting out as a community development and agriculture worker in southern Africa in the 80s to working in post-genocide Rwanda and many other places since. She says that what led her to Oxfam “was coming to a poverty and aid organization that was rooted in on-the-ground work and also has very strong commitments and engines fueling the policy and advocacy campaigning side of the work. Because I believe from my own experience–and Oxfam’s approach shows– that that is the way to make real impact at scale and get at the underlying causes.”
I asked Maxman to explain why supporters should donate to Oxfam when they are not always able to demonstrate what each dollar will achieve in the way that most of our other recommended charities can. “Something I want to underscore,” Maxman replied with passion, “is that the direct link between poverty and advocacy and aid is so strong.” “What is critical,” she added, “is getting at the root causes of poverty, vulnerability and inequality that are keeping people poor and causing incredible amounts of suffering and not just the symptoms.” These aspects of Oxfam’s work, she notes, may not lend themselves to the same measurements that other interventions do, but they are no less critical, and are arguably even more so in terms of lasting impact.
Maxman elaborated: “Even when you look at specific health outcomes, or any kind of outcomes, there are often systemic issues. Fighting those effectively for sustainable impact at scale requires a multi-pronged approach: saving lives in disaster and alleviating suffering through direct assistance or (preferably) supporting local actors; helping people build better futures for themselves; looking at the approaches for resilience; looking at some of the systemic issues, such as lack of access; and the policy and advocacy piece that takes things to scale.”
Oxfam in Yemen–A Multi-pronged approach
A prime current example of Oxfam’s multifaceted approach has been their work in and for Yemen, where the United States-backed Saudi coalition fight against the Houthi insurgency has reportedly contributed to the deaths of 85,000 children, to a cholera epidemic, and to 15.9 million people caught in the devastating hunger crisis. Oxfam’s interventions have included considerable direct humanitarian aid, as well as over three years of lobbying congress to change U.S policy in the region. In the wake of journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s assassination and President Trump’s response, Congress is finally considering measures that could positively impact U.S. policy, notably the bi-partisan Senate vote in favor of using the War Powers Measure to end U.S. involvement in Yemen.
Maxman believes that this type of multi-pronged response is necessary to address both the structural-causal factors that lead to humanitarian crises and their devastating effects. But the direct impact of advocacy/lobbying is very difficult to measure. Has Oxfam’s persistent voice in the media, with supporters, and on Capitol Hill helped nudge Congress? If it has contributed even a little, it could be thought to have had a massive impact on U.S.policy and on saving lives. (You can see a short, informative video about the yemin crisis and Oxfam’s work there here).
Other Recent Oxfam Highlights
When asked to touch on a few current Oxfam projects that she’d like to highlight, Maxman shared these examples:
Here, like Yemen, Oxfam is using a multi-pronged approach. This is only the second time in Oxfam’s history that they have responded to a humanitarian emergency in the U.S., and they did so, Maxman explains, “because there were significant gaps and unmet needs and we saw a responsibility and an obligation to be helping. So we have been providing relief as well as using our voice and influence in Washington for critical things like equity in the distribution of FEMA grants.”
Campaigning for natural resource justice with extractive industries: In Zambia Kenya, Ghana and Peru, says Maxman, Oxfam is “defending community rights and standing in solidarity with those impacted by major oil, gas and mining projects. We are working to ensure resource-rich countries benefit from the wealth under their feet by challenging the vested interests, secret deals and other policies that harm the poor.”
Savings for Change (SfC)
This program, which TLYCS founder Peter Singer wrote about in The Most Good You Can Do, has, explains Maxman, “helped hundreds of thousands of women across multiple continents save more than $55 million dollars and invest those funds in ways that have assured improvements in the health and livelihoods of their families and their communities.” Oxfam has conducted randomized controlled trials in Mali that, says Maxman, “found a number of health and welfare benefits around those increased savings as well as around women’s increased voice and choice at the household level.”
This new campaign (that Peter has also written about), which follows on Oxfam’s Behind-the-Brands project, looks at the supermarket supply-chain and the poor treatment of workers, especially in the seafood industry. Oxfam keeps a scorecard on the degree to which 16 global supermarkets, six of which are headquartered in the U.S., are addressing this issue.
Oversight, Accountability and Applied Learning
A high priority for The Life You Can Save’s charity selection criteria is top-level accountability. This essential aspect of an effective organization is of particular concern in relation to Oxfam in light of past misuse of funds in Haiti by Oxfam Great Britain staff, including sexual misconduct. As part of the answer to how Oxfam approaches such issues, the organization has a page on their website with information about the Haiti case and updates on measures that have been and are being taken to address what occurred and to ensure that such abuses cannot recur.
As an extremely large organization, how does Oxfam approach accountability? Says Maxman, “As a development organization, Oxfam is accountable not only to our donors, but also to the people on whose behalf we work—the people at the center of our programs.”
Maxman explains that Oxfam’s LEAD (Learning, Effectiveness and Accountability Department) team is dedicated to ensuring that all long-term programs, major campaigns, and key innovation projects have testable, evaluable theories of change and high-quality monitoring, evaluation, and learning systems.
“As a practice,” Maxman elaborates, “all Oxfam programs assess a situation prior to intervention, establish baselines and conduct monitoring and evaluation of program outcomes. We make use of multiple research methods to understand both quantitative and qualitative changes affecting people. We collaborate with our partners and community members to carry out annual impact reviews that interrogate various forms of evidence in order to make sense of changes and make appropriate adjustments to our strategies.”
Maxman says that Oxfam is committed to making all of their evaluations available to the public and they evaluations are published on Oxfam’s Policy and Practice website. “Public retrospection, reporting and learning,” she says, “are critical to our social accountability, and essential if we are to make relevant and lasting changes in people’s lives.”
Message for EAs: Place Value on Advocacy and Flexibility as well as Metrics
To round off our conversation, I asked Maxman if there was anything else she’d like EAs to keep in mind when considering where to direct their charitable dollars. She said there are two main points she would emphasize. One, as noted above, is the the direct link between poverty and advocacy. The other is “flexibility.” Much like for-profit entities,” says Maxman, “non-profits need to have flexibility to pilot innovative programs that have a level of risk involved–the risk of failure. Risk-taking is essential for learning, for growth, and to be able to pivot. It always results in better programs and more powerful results and interventions that evolve in accordance with contextual needs. In our assessments of organizations, if we don’t allow space for failure, we don’t allow space for progress and applied learning. I know that people like to have their funding tied to “the life you are saving,” but how we continue to evolve as a sector to be effective in the very complex work of fighting not just poverty but the underlying causes of poverty and vulnerability, is also understanding the importance of investing in nonprofits’ capacities for research, development and innovation.”
For information about reports regarding Oxfam and sexual misconduct cases in Haiti, you can find updates here.