Oxfam visits Queen’s

Canadian director urges students to educate themselves

Robert Fox is out to change the world and he makes no buts about it.

Fox, executive director of Oxfam Canada, was at Queen’s on Thursday to speak about women’s rights, poverty, free trade, fair trade and how global trade is skewed in favour of those who have power.

In an interview with the Journal, Fox said it’s vitally important for students to educate themselves about these issues and to take action.

“Development is controlled by those who already have power,” he said. “What students need to know is that it’s not inevitable; in fact, it isn’t acceptable.

“If they’re not outraged about what’s happening on this planet, they’re not paying attention.”

Students, as well as all global citizens, need to look at development much more critically, Fox said.

“A lot of Canadians see Africa as a sinkhole into which we pour money. If you look more objectively, Africa is a pot of gold from which dynasties and empires and colonies and companies have been sucking billions of dollars of value for centuries,” he said.

“If Africans had more control over African resources and African development and Africa’s future, the prospects for Africa would be much more positive.

“We really need to look at those who have power and how they’re using their power and how they’re abusing their power.”

Climate change and global poverty can’t be viewed as disparate issues, Fox said.

“At the end of the day, we have to look at whether the cost to the planet of the fact that a T-shirt you’re wearing is made in China rather than Napanee is sustainable,” he said. “In a supermarket in Nicaragua they have Nicaraguan butter, Irish butter, Danish butter … that cost less than Nicaraguan butter.

“We’re subsidizing products in the North and export that product--it makes it impossible for Southern farmers to survive. … That in itself is obscene, but when you consider the cost to the planet of refrigerating one pound of butter from Ireland in order to sell it in a tropical climate … ”

Fox said developing countries like India and China should be held accountable for the pollution they create, but that shouldn’t leave other, more wealthy states off the hook.

“To say that we’re not the problem--‘it’s the new kids on the block’--that’s not acceptable,” he said. “I’m very concerned about the strategy for development that is being used for major countries in the South, but they still consume a tiny portion of the world’s resources per day, per capita, compared to what you and me consume, so we should be applying to our reality.

“I think it’s critical that they do [adhere to environmental standards], but I think we need to demonstrate the leadership through our actions. It’s a little rich for people in Canada or the U.S. to criticize the factories of China when most of the goods we produce, we make there and we want them made there because it’s made cheaply.”

A big part of the task of tackling poverty is working with women and enabling them to hold their governments accountable and demand better public services and infrastructure, Fox said.

“Women, number one, are right now those who are systematically oppressed—70 per cent of people who earn less than a dollar a day are women,” he said. “Decisions are made by men from the perspective of men and advance the interests of men. The decisions are ill-informed, ill thought-out or, in many cases, self-interested. … It’s the women who actually know how the country works.”

Fox added that development initiatives that engage women tend to be more successful than those that don’t.

“One woman we worked with in Zimbabwe, she was raped at the age of three; she was orphaned at the age of six. She has set up a network of drop-in centres where young girls can go … to get support and attention,” he said. “Those are girls between eight and 12 years old.

“They rewrite the words to rap songs so they don’t talk about booty--they talk about what they want to do with their life.”

This organization, part of a global network fighting against gender-based violence, is also working towards changes in rape and gender violence legislation in Zimbabwe, Fox said.

Oxfam tries to put a lot of emphasis on local capacity-building in its development initiatives, while also taking into account global implications, Fox said.

“Our advocacy is rooted in the day-to-day dynamics of people,” he said. “The work in the ground isn’t pretending it’s in a bubble and that we can change everything in one village.”

Fox said there are contradictory signs as to whether social awareness is increasing or not.

“There is growing awareness around issues like climate change, but at times I think there is more concern about polar bears than about the fact that there are people in Africa today whose lives are at risk from climate change,” he said.

“People care about where their clothes comes from, but at the same time … if that mango isn’t the size, shape, colour we want, we won’t buy it. So what that does is it encourages Monsanto and the huge companies to sell the recipe for herbicide and pesticide … so that we have the perfect mango.”

There’s still room for people to be optimistic, however, but students have an obligation to actively work for change, Fox said.

“There are lots of things students need to do: they need to be good global citizens and that involves being an aware consumer, consuming less and consuming fair, and it involves being an informed elector and holding politicians in this country to account,” he said. “It’s important they consider the global dangers of what they do day to day because they don’t have the luxury of [saying], ‘This is someone else’s issue.’

“This has a big impact on their lives and that impacts people daily.”

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