x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Oxfam chief seeks to form bonds in GCC

With the financial crisis taking a toll on donations, Barbara Stocking praises the region's foundations while warning of tougher times ahead.

Barbara Stocking, the chief executive of Oxfam GB, says food shortages will be rampant in the coming year.
Barbara Stocking, the chief executive of Oxfam GB, says food shortages will be rampant in the coming year.

The head of Oxfam GB has arrived in the GCC to foster partnerships with Arab philanthropic groups and ensure nearly a billion of the world's poorest people are not forgotten amid the global economic crisis. Barbara Stocking, the chief executive of Oxfam GB, landed in Abu Dhabi on Wednesday as part of a week-long visit that includes the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Bahrain. Oxfam is one of the world's biggest charities and operates in 64 countries but it faces a double challenge from a drop in donations combined with a weaker pound, wiping five per cent or £10 million (Dh54m) from its operating budget.

Ms Stocking praised the role played by Gulf states in alleviating poverty as the poor bear the brunt of the global recession. "We've realised that people in the Gulf and governments in the Gulf have an increasing interest in poverty and the wider world and what their role in it should be," she said. Her visit comes as western aid organisations lower their funding forecasts for 2009 because of sharply diminished donations from Wall Street and the City of London. World Vision, a major American-based charity, has had to call its donor list one by one, while in Britain the government has announced a bailout plan for charities.

"It is almost impossible to go to new people at the moment," she said. "High-net-worth individuals or corporate donors, they look at you as if you are slightly mad if you start asking for money." Ms Stocking admitted the fall in the value of sterling remained the charity's biggest problem. "That's quite a significant amount of spending power you lose in poor countries and that's our biggest loss."

She said she was not in the region to ask for money and called her tour an "exploratory visit" to find out how Oxfam can form partnerships with some of the most well-funded foundations and charities in the world. These include the Zayed Foundation, the Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum Foundation, and the Qatar Charity. "We're trying to build long-term, long-standing relationships with them," she said.

Rulers in the region are interested in linking with partners in the West, as demonstrated by the US$500 million (Dh1.8bn) that King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia donated to the UN's World Food Programme last year and the Dh1.7bn ($463m) that Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, donated to Dubai Cares, which helps children gain access to primary education. "That is a real commitment to helping countries. That is impressive, a real generosity. It shows there is a desire to link into the way the world is working now," she said.

The food problem remains urgent. Although the cost of food has fallen from peak prices last year, it is still expensive and nearly one billion peopleare going hungry, 109 million more than two years ago. Care International, another major charity, recently said Somalia faced shortages not seen since the famines of the 1980s, while in the north of Kenya families were pounding food pellets for livestock to create porridge to feed themselves.

In Gaza, more than half of the agricultural land was destroyed in the recent fighting between Hamas and Israel. Afghanistan will also suffer from food shortages this spring. "There needs to be food security, it would be very good if the states and foundations [in the Gulf] look in those directions," she said. "But unless you understand why it is happening, it's hard to know what to do about it. I'd ask them to look at the basics of what is causing these problems. That will make the aid more effective."

The growing amount of meat consumed by a burgeoning Asian middle class, combined with higher demand for biofuels, meant less land was available for cereals, while factories continued to close down. "The poor will probably be hit by a cut in remittances. Actually $250 billion less will be sent home this year, from a mix of local migrant workers or the families who are working here in the Gulf." hghafour@thenational.ae