First days: My journey to (and with) Oxfam America
Our new president reflects on what led her to Oxfam
Abby Maxman is the president of Oxfam America.
This week, as I step into the role of President and CEO of Oxfam America, marks a pivotal time for me, personally and professionally. My 20 years of work across the international NGO sector have enabled me to work side by side and in collaboration with Oxfam leaders in some of the world’s most challenging places and times – post-genocide Rwanda, Haiti, Ethiopia, the Republic of Georgia, and more. While my career with Oxfam officially starts this week, my history with the organization actually dates back to a high school assembly in 1984, when I first became aware of Oxfam and the response to the famine in Ethiopia. The images that I saw–severely malnourished children and parents–have been indelibly seared into my consciousness. So much so that when I graduated from college, I chose to enter the development world, signing on as an agriculture and community development worker in Lesotho.
I began my journey with high hopes and a brave heart – with a call to contribute positively in the world. I was fueled by a deep desire to fight the insidious injustice of extreme, grinding poverty – something that seemed to be bestowed on people mostly by chance, and where the barriers to overcoming it were huge. I was troubled further by the recognition that where one was born seemed to dictate one’s chances of thriving and realizing one’s rights and aspirations. But it also became clear to me that policies matter – and they are no accident. And that to be effective in the quest to eliminate poverty and injustice requires concerted and multi-dimensional action and smart influence at all levels.
In my early days, I worked in the apartheid era of southern Africa when the HIV/AIDs epidemic was taking hold. The 19-year-old leader of a young farmers’ club with whom I was working fell ill swiftly and died shortly after my arrival, and there were more to come. My path took me to eastern Zimbabwe, during the Mozambique war, and then to Washington, DC, where I sought to understand public policy and the US’ outsize influence in the world. I was in pursuit of knowledge and hoped to find a compatible match for my passion and commitment to combat what seemed to me both solvable and preventable problems. My journey offered me assignments with government and UN institutions, but the pull was strong for me to the world and work of international NGOs. This led me to a long career with CARE, where I led teams across Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean, Asia, the Middle East, and Europe.
More urgent than ever
Today, I have a greater sense of urgency than ever before to right the wrongs I see in the world, for our children and future generations. Nearly 30 years on, it is madness to me that we live in a world that has the capacity to feed more than the current population, but where over 850 million people go to sleep hungry every day; that there is war and political instability that has more people living as refugees or displaced from their homes than any time in history; where famines loom in four countries; where the eight richest men in the world have as much wealth as half of the global population; and where nearly half of the population in many places–specifically women and girls–are denied their most basic rights, freedoms, and opportunities.
Oxfam’s role in the world, and in the United States, is more important than ever. For me, the powerful and active supporters and staff of Oxfam are among this organization’s greatest assets. I have long looked to the advocacy engine and campaigns of Oxfam with admiration and deep respect – bringing on-the-ground experience in more than 90 countries where Oxfam works, to those who make and influence public policy, and have a voice in where and how resources flow. The call to action to speak out for what is right–and fundamental rights of humanity–led me here to Oxfam.
I look forward to taking Oxfam from strength to strength; as an organization that makes essential links between its on-the-ground work and sharp, smart, and high-leverage influencing; as a place for innovation and incubation; and one that speaks out and takes action as a leading and supporting voice for a more equal, just, and prosperous world.
It is with the same level of high hopes and a brave heart that I experienced nearly 30 years ago that I join this great organization and our common cause. My passion, commitment, and resolve are stronger than ever as I join and lead this great global team.
I look forward to connecting with and partnering with you as we build on Oxfam’s strong foundations and create new paths together in the months and years to come.