It’s Oxfam. Again. Some people have been a little confused about our ‘attacks’ on Oxfam. Why would we want to criticise nice people who are trying to do good?
We are interested in the ideas which Oxfam use to understand and explain the problems they hope to answer. Intending to good is one thing. The ideas being to put into practice are another. Here is an example of bad ideas in action,
Oxfam America is proud to participate in an exciting project bringing together artists and activists from around the world, each doing their part to illustrate how climate change is affecting poor communities right now.
Oxfam America’s Climate Change on Canvas project commissioned the following picture by ‘painting activist’, Ashley Cecil.
Announcing the completion of the commission, the groups website informs that,
“I realized that farming is hard these days because of changing temperatures, but it’s often the sole survival for people in rural areas,” says Cecil. “It’s hard to feed a family when you can’t farm.” This struggle inspired one of the painting’s most striking elements: the long trail of dust that streams from one woman’s empty bowl. “I wanted to show that the women are not harvesting crops the way they had hoped,” Cecil explains. “They’re holding a bowl of dust, because this is what they’re left with—burnt, dry dust, dry branches… In other words, what we’d expect to see is not there.”
It is a shame that oil paintings do not carry a bibliography of the research they cite. As we pointed out previously, Oxfam’s claim that climate change is driving the poor in Bangladesh ‘further into poverty’ is not born out by the statistics which show steady increases in agricultural production, yields per hectare, GDP per capita, in spite of climate change.
She believes that Americans need to do more to tackle the crisis, even if it’s just by making small changes to their lifestyle. “The first piece is education,” she says. “Whether it’s though statistics, words, or images—whatever turns on that light bulb for someone, and makes them act.”
It’s hard to understand how a painting explains how a ‘small change in lifestyle’ will positively influence the lives of the world’s rural poor. It won’t hydrate the contents of the women’s bowls. It won’t irrigate their fields.
Oxfam America is just one of many Oxfam International affiliates who will be creating canvases for this project. Similar works of art will travel from all over the world—created by professional artists, unknown artists and members of developing communities—to be exhibited at the UN conference, representing a unified global movement around climate change and poverty. This piece will go to Poland and come back to the US where Oxfam plans to use art as a mobilization tool around climate change in 2009.
‘Art as a mobilization tool’? Just as both Oxfam and Cecil fail to explain how small adjustments to lifestyles are equivalent to a gift of fertility to the soils tended by the poor, they fail to explain how an image can create a positive engagement with a political idea. Can images do that? How?
Images such as Cecil’s don’t’ ask us to understand the complex economic, social and political interactions throughout the world, and how and why the poor are excluded from them. They only ask us to respond to the image emotionally. We are supposed to feel the women’s pain. But in asking ‘how can we make it better?’, we are only really asking how we can make ourselves feel better, so that we can feel and be less guilty. That’s the limitation of ‘art’ depicting poverty as a tool of ‘mobilization’ (manipulation), because that is the limitation of emotional engagement with images.
Cecil and Oxfam are keen to tell you how to make yourself feel better, nonetheless. It’s those ‘small changes to lifestyle’ (though many are urging ‘drastic action’) that are your salvation. Plus, no doubt, a small contribution payable monthly by standing order.
Back to the criticism of our criticism of Oxfam…
It is our belief that Oxfam’s increasingly shallow campaigns reflect the organisation’s difficulty in understanding development and poverty, and the relationship between them. In other words, it seems to have lost its purpose. This is a reflection of a wider political phenomenon, of which the predominance of environmentalism is a symptom. We seem to have forgotten why we wanted development in the first place. It is as if the lifestyles depicted in Cecil’s painting were to be aspired to, were there just a little more rain. Development is a bad thing. It stops rain.
If we were to add a city skyline into the background of Cecil’s painting it might ask a very different question of its audience. Why are people living like that, with such abundance in such proximity? Of course, in reality, many miles separate the two women from any such city, but the question still stands; there is abundance in the world, and there is the potential for plenty more. Yet Oxfam have absorbed the idea from the environmental movement that there isn’t abundance. This changes the relationship between development and poverty from one in which development creates abundance into one in which development creates poverty; it deprives people of subsistence. But really, the city (not) behind the two women could organise the infrastructure necessary to irrigate the parched landscape, the delivery of fertiliser, and a tractor. The field could be in full bloom, in spite of the weather. The two women could be wealthy.
Oh no, says Oxfam. That’s not sustainable.
Why should ‘sustainability’ be Oxfam’s concern? If, as we discussed in the last post, pits full of human excrement are an immediate end to the problems of poverty, why not have an ‘unsustainable’ solution to the immediate problem of poverty? And so on to the next ‘unsustainable’ form of development. And the next. And the next. And the next. Few of us still burn wood in our houses for heat. Yet we didn’t run out of wood. Unsustainable developments on top of unsustainable developments has made the world more sustainable. The process is sustainable, even if the mode at any given instant isn’t.
Oxfam seem to be making a role for themselves where they are able to dictate a mode of existence which is ‘sustainable’. This is a departure from the arrangement in which they were a means to an ends – solving poverty. Now, it seems, the means is the ends. Oxfam’s very purpose seems to be to purpetuate itself – it’s focus on development sacrificied for its own sustainability, the poverty it is responding to increasingly its own intellectual vacuity.A behemoth, searching the dark for its own purpose.
The myth of sustainability is that it is sustainable. The truth is that drought and famine have afflicted the rural poor throughout history – before climate change was ever used to explain the existence of poverty. Limiting development to what ‘nature’ provides therefore makes people vulnerable to her whims. Drought is ‘natural’. Famine is ‘natural’. Disease is ‘natural’. They are all mechanisms which, in the ecologist’s lexicon are nature’s own way of ensuring ‘sustainability’. They are checks and balances on the dominance of one species. To absorb what Hitler called ‘the iron logic of nature’ is to submit to injustice, if famine, drought and disease characterise it. We can end poverty, but not by restricting development. Yet that seems to be Oxfam’s intention. That is why we criticise it.