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Blog Action Day 2008: Interview with Stuart Fowkes of Oxfam

As previously mentioned, today is Blog Action Day 2008. The central issue to focus upon and to progress the conversation in this year is global poverty.

I don’t know a great deal about global poverty, but I know someone that does. He has graciously agreed to be interviewed by me.

As well as being a friend of mine, Stuart Fowkes is the Online Press Officer for Oxfam. In his own words, this means “I spent my time thinking about online media, blogging and social networks, and the best ways of using them to help us fight poverty.” In addition to this, he also co-organises the music festival Audioscope – now in its 8th year – which raises money for Shelter.

Q: Firstly, thanks for agreeing to be interviewed. To kick things of, could you explain to those that aren’t aware who Oxfam are and what they do?

The standard phrase is that Oxfam is ‘an international agency working with others to overcome poverty and suffering’. That probably doesn’t get across the massive range of work that we actually do. The ‘business end’, as it were, is our programme work, which goes across 70+ countries and takes the form of everything from emergency relief (water, sanitation, shelter and food relief) through to health and education programmes.

We also campaign on a huge variety of issues – the inequalities of the global trade system, provision of health and education in poor countries, climate change issues, debt and aid, and so on. The best-known of these include Make Trade Fair (y’know, Chris Martin and all that) and Control Arms, and we’re also behind the scenes at things like Live 8.

We also have a massive trading operation – comprising of things like Oxfam shops (that glorious national institution) and the Oxfam Unwrapped gift catalogue (buy a goat for Xmas- send it to people who need it) – and run fundraising events like the Oxjam music festival and Trailwalker.

Having just written all of that, I’m not surprised that people aren’t necessarily aware of everything we do. But each thing is as crucial as the other.

Q. Specifically looking at global poverty; what major initiatives have Oxfam set up to help combat this?

Campaigns such as Control Arms and Make Trade Fair have had a massive impact on policies and systems worldwide. In a humanitarian emergency like the Asian tsunami, we’re there providing water, shelter and those things most urgently needed to save lives. Across our programmes, the range and scope is almost too wide to write about – funding long-term work worldwide to help poor people work themselves out of poverty on a sustainable and permanent basis.

Q. As you mention, you participate in and promote Oxfam through social media. Can you give some examples of what you have done to help raise awareness?

We’ve got a new blog section on the website, where we demonstrate the breadth of work we do around the world by offering perspectives and experiences from global staff. We’ve campaigned on MySpace and on YouTube against Starbucks, we’ve mobilised supporters on Facebook around humanitarian emergencies, provided repositories of emergency photos for media on Flickr, and are reporting live from festivals, events and political conferences via Twitter.

Q. What would you say are the major poverty-related issues at the moment, and where would you say the most affected areas are?

For us, the two biggest issues at the moment are probably climate change and the global rise in food prices, which are to a large extent intertwined. It’s the poorest people who are hit first and hit hardest by the effects of climate change, which they had little or no part in causing, and who also have the least chance of being able to cope or adapt – just take a look at some of the effects being seen in sub-Saharan Africa or Asia, for instance. And there are almost a billion people going hungry around the world. For some people, the price of their food has tripled at the same time as they’ve lost 70% of their income due to worsening weather patterns. When you’re spending 80% of what you earn on food and then the price triples, what can you do? Those are the people that we’re there to help.

Q. Is the situation improving or getting worse?

In many ways, the situation is getting worse. The full effects of the economic crisis we’re experiencing now might only be felt further down the ‘food chain’ (as it were) in the years to come, so we will need to help the poorest cope with the aftershocks and feedback loops. It’s the biggest threat to humanity, and also one that western governments still do not seem willing to tackle with the urgency it so obviously requires.

Q. And given the economic crisis, this is unlikely to get better soon?

It will probably get worse before it gets better. Energy that could otherwise be spent developing global solutions on climate change in advance of the COP in December may now be being poured into the financial crisis. And many companies will now put carbon trading and sustainable development aside in favour of short-term cost cuts.

Q. What can we do to help?

Give £2 a month to a charity whose work you respect. Lend your voice to a campaign you believe in. Make a one-off donation to an appeal. Get angry about something and write a letter, send an email or demonstrate. Take your old rubbish down to a charity shop. It really is true that every single donation, signature, email, direct debit or hour spent volunteering is incredibly valuable and will help to save lives.

Q. And of course you are involved beyond Oxfam. Through Audioscope, you have raised over £17,000 for Shelter. Could you explain how this came about, and how Shelter have benefited from your support?

Audioscope is a festival a friend and I set up in 2001 to benefit the homelessness charity Shelter. We strongly support what they do and we know how to put on a gig so we combined the two.

We started the festival with only two guiding principles. We have to love the bands who are playing on their own merits, and we have to make money for Shelter at the end of it. The bands who have played have paid us back for holding these principles dear in lots of ways, but mostly by admiring the charity and wanting to play without taking a fee.

Shelter have not only benefited from getting £17,000, but hopefully by having their profile raised within Oxford. Beyond peripheral media coverage, I know at least two gig-goers who have signed up to a monthly direct debit for Shelter after coming to the show, one friend who did her triathlon in aid of Shelter, and a local band who donated all the profits from a video project to the charity after playing our show too.

And with Audioscope continuing, these benefits will continue to accrue.

Thanks to Stuart for agreeing to this. His blog can be found here.

I’m looking forward to reading the other blogs on the subject (when I’m back at the weekend; this is a scheduled post) and improving my understanding of the issues surrounding global poverty.