On the history of Oxfam

01:00 Thu 27th Jun 2002 |

Jodie Day asked: In what year did the first Oxfam shop open

Oxfam dates back to the Second World War. The Nazi occupation of Greece lead to an Allied blockade of that country, with fearful consequences for the besieged civilian population. By 1942 thousands were dieing for want of food and medicines.

In Britain, a National Famine Relief Committee was founded to campaign to allow essential supplies through. One local offshoot, The Oxford Committee For Famine Relief, met for the first time in October 1942. They worked to provide relief not just in Greece but in other theatres of war.

Peace in 1945 didn't end the suffering for millions of refugees and the dispossessed. The Oxford Committee set itself on a course to bring 'relief of suffering in consequence of the war', an objective which quickly expanded to become 'the relief of suffering arising as a result of wars or of other causes in any part of the world.'

In 1947 the Oxford Committee established a base in Broad Street, Oxford. It was used to collect donations. A gift shop was opened there in February 1948: Britain's very first permanent charity shop. (It's still there).

How did things develop from there
As well as dealing with the aftermath of war, there were natural disasters to deal with. A famine in Bihar, India in 1951 prompted the first campaign in a 'developing country'. 1959: The UN's decision to declare 1959 'World Refugee Year' and the international Freedom from Hunger campaign, starting the following year, were important milestones in making Oxfam a household name.

Oxfam I thought they were the Oxford Committee etc etc
As you've noticed, the Oxford Committee For Famine Relief is quite a mouthful. 'Oxfam' was actually their telegraph address (for those of you old enough to remember such things) but became the common name for the whole charity. It was formally re-named in 1965.

By then the charity was expanding overseas, and had also started its 'Fair Trade' scheme - importing handcrafts and goods for sale in Britain with direct, fair benefits for producers in developing countries. An important part of what Oxfam tried to achieve was to improve the image of the world's poor as human beings rather than passive victims.

So the money wasn't just used to buy food
Oxfam were becoming more concerned with longer-term development and ensuring that local people could help themselves to fight their way out of poverty. In the developed world, governments were lobbied to ensure public policy matched the needs of the world's poor.

Where does the money come from
The shops - there are now more than 800 in Britain, staffed by 22,000 volunteers - sell donated items and handicrafts. 'Fair Trade' has expanded over the years (one of the best known products being Caf direct, a collaboration with other alternative trading organisations.

And when disaster strikes, donations come in on top of that - for example in the wake of Pol Pot's regime in Cambodia (1979), in Ethiopia (1984) and central Africa (mid-90s).

Where can I find out more
Oxfam GB is today a part of a wider international movement called Oxfam International. The work continues.

Their website has background information, campaigning tools and much more.

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