This guest blog is by Dr Dhananjayan Sriskandarajah, Chief Executive of Oxfam Great Britain. In this piece, Dhananjayan shares how the repercussions of the conflict in Ukraine are being felt around the world, how some development priorities are drifting, and how civil society can take action to tackle poverty and the inequalities that cause it.
As the crisis in Ukraine escalates, I believe this is a moment for those of us working for social impact to make the case for values-based action that ensures we meet our responsibilities not just to Ukrainians whose lives are being torn apart by conflict, but to all vulnerable communities.
Repercussions of the conflict are being felt thousands of miles away, in the shape of soaring food and energy prices. The rise in the cost of living is hurting many low-income families across the UK. In countries like Yemen, Somalia and South Sudan, sharp increases in essentials will come as a devastating blow for people already on the brink of starvation.
Amid intense and justified concern for those fleeing Ukraine, it is critical to press leaders to protect the human rights and dignity of all refugees, regardless of skin colour or country of origin. ‘The difference in treatment hurts so much’, says a young Syrian refugee who was beaten by border guards in Poland. The same could be said by an Eritrean held in a camp in Greece.
Lifelines becoming frayed
Two immediate priorities come to mind: urging governments to expand safe routes for all those seeking sanctuary and to ensure support for Ukraine is additional to existing aid budgets.
The UK government’s £25m donation to the Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC) Ukraine humanitarian appeal is welcome and its pledge to reimburse families who house Ukrainian refugees is an important start. However, in a context of a reduced aid budget that is also under pressure to fund covid vaccines, it’s vital that such support is not at the expense of other lifelines becoming frayed. There are growing concerns that development priorities such as climate action and conflict prevention could be dropped.
In Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia and South Sudan a deadly mix of conflict, climate change and covid has caused widespread hunger, but UN relief efforts are woefully off-track, currently just 3% funded. In Yemen, malnutrition is rife after seven years of a crippling war that has depleted people’s resources, yet two-thirds of major UN aid programmes in the country have been reduced or closed due to lack of funding.
Boosting people’s ability to thrive
Taking a step back, this situation should be a wake-up call to redesign how resources are distributed. Of course, budgets are finite and making tough choices is part of government. But it’s also true that poverty is political. People aren’t going hungry because there isn’t food available; it’s because it’s too expensive for the millions on desperately low incomes. There’s no shortage of evidence about how to boost people’s ability to thrive, in the UK and elsewhere, from living wages to adequate social protection and investment in public services. This is the time for leaders to get creative about how seized assets from oligarch mansions and super-yachts could save lives, tackle inequalities and be invested in a low-carbon future.
There’s huge scope to reform an economic system that allowed the world’s ten richest men to double their fortunes during the first 22 months of the pandemic, while 99% of us became worse off. I believe that civil society has a pivotal role to play to build and can amplify the public mandate for action to tackle poverty and the inequalities that cause it. We need to restate the case for an approach underpinned by fairness and solidarity that would see tax dodging loopholes plugged, a crack-down on profiteering, and the introduction of more progressive taxes on wealth, capital and luxury carbon. If not now, with extreme wealth in the dock and the costs of essentials rocketing in the UK and around the world, then when?
For me, our sector’s power comes from our ability to forge links and offer ways for people to engage with causes they care about. In my experience meeting big-hearted volunteers in Oxfam shops around the UK, most people want to do their bit to help others. Just look at the Cities of Sanctuary across the country, where communities self-organise to welcome refugees and others seeking safety. Or the DEC appeal for Ukraine that raised £200m in a fortnight to provide assistance like food, water and medical treatment.
This compassion isn’t new. It is no accident that many large British NGOs like Oxfam and Christian Aid were founded during WWII, based on a solidarity that stretched beyond borders. Those of us working in civil society now have a responsibility to find new ways to harness that internationalist spirit, to help redraw the rules to deliver our collective vision of a fairer and more sustainable world.