Banking on the world's poor


By Mike Kroll


Admit it, you never heard of Oxfam America. Most people haven't. And why would we? According to their own website “Oxfam America is a non-profit organization that works to end global poverty through saving lives, strengthening communities, and campaigning for change.” This is soooo twentieth century. In modern twenty-first century America poverty is history and we all know that the only American help worth exporting is democracy and capitalism. The many ills of the developing world could be easily defeated through the adopting democracy and capitalism, just as reduced taxes a the return to free-market capitalism has turned the American economy around in six short years.

It is no surprise that modern American capitalists would be unfamiliar with American charity abroad. Begun in the midst of World War II the first task of organization's predecessor, Oxfam, was aiding Greek refugees with food, shelter and other traditional forms of relief. The idea was germinated amongst a group of British intellectuals, academics and social activists with a Quaker bent at Oxford University and expanded its operations across post-war Europe. Once the Marshall plan had rebuilt the continent and the European economies were back in operation the group looked toward developing nations of Africa, Asia and South America where it remains focused today.

Oxfam America was begun in 1970 as a response to famine Bangladesh following a tragic cyclone and bloody coup that left tens of thousands of poor homeless and starving. Since early in its existence the group has sought to portray poor people as people little different from you or I but for circumstances beyond their control. Victims of political, social or economic conditions but who deserve to be treated with dignity and respect. Oxfam and Oxfam American became political representatives of many of the people it served withing the international community and in the process became a new model for charities across the world.

What is a surprise is that a group like Oxfam America is employing traditional capitalist tactics in the battle against poverty. The group is bringing entrepreneurship to the poorest people in Africa and Asia where it provides training, tools and capital resources to people creating their own small businesses, most of which are labor intensive. In areas of the world where the normal compensation for labor is minimal Oxfam America is working to help these people become successful businesses and raise their standard of living.

“Our goal is to help fund the transformation of impoverished developing nations into economies that help their people pull themselves out of poverty using their own labor and ingenuity and just a little help from us,” explained Janet McKinley, chair of Oxfam America. McKinley is an investment banker by training and trade, and a very successful one who retired after 25 years to join in the fight against global poverty. After overseeing trillions of dollars in mutual funds today McKinley helps foster micro-finance opportunities for people without access to normal capital funding.

But Oxfam America's focus is on maintaining political and civil rights for people across the world and helping assure they are treated with dignity and respect regardless of their financial station. “People in poverty are people being denied human rights,” said McKinley after receiving her honorary degree from Knox College. “Poverty is a lack of rights and a lack of access to capital and material goods, but in all other respects I don't find these people to be 'poor.' If they are treated with respect and afforded political and human rights and provided the tools and funding opportunities we have found that their resourcefulness and dedication is more than sufficient to help them work their way out of poverty and assure a better life for their families.”

“Oxfam believes that the most cost effective approach is at the grass roots of poverty providing training, tools and opportunities to individuals who create and grow their own small businesses. Micro financing is a proven tool for the world's poor to help themselves and do so independently. With economic success these entrepreneurs create job opportunities for their neighbors far in excess of what could be done by government intervention and in a more sustainable fashion. Economic improvement leads to growing political success and a self-sustaining political environment can eventually be established. One key to Oxfam's success is our believe in utter transparency, that is so important.”

But the mission of Oxfam America isn't just in the third world. The group is also working diligently to assist poor in the U.S. as well. Whether it is insuring that migrant farm workers are not exploited or helping workers fight for dignity and human rights in the workplace Oxfam America is active within the states. The latest challenge has been working to help rebuild America's Gulf coast in the wake of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

“Actions have never caught up with political rhetoric in areas devastated by these hurricanes. And in many cases those government funded efforts to help have not only failed to remedy the problems but created opportunities for unscrupulous businesses to take advantage of poor and undocumented labor across the southeast and Gulf Coast.”

The Oxfam America website describes this effort: “In the absence of a vigorous official response to the disasters, particularly among the poorest communities, Oxfam America launched its first relief effort in the United States. Working through local partner organizations, we have focused our efforts on Mississippi and Louisiana. In the early weeks following the disasters, we provided emergency grants that helped our local partners to distribute an array of relief goods including food and medicine. ...Our program has now evolved into a long-term commitment to help the region rebuild—and not just to its previous condition, but with the goal of providing a more promising future for the Gulf Coast’s poorest residents.”

Janet McKinley is a banker by trade who understands the importance of capital to a successful business and recognized that the absence of available capital is a key factor in the maintenance of poverty. She sees investment in such things as micro finance and small business assistance as paying big returns and she believes you can bank on the results of providing such assistance to the poor be they be in Africa, Asia, South America or Biloxi Mississippi.