First Person

Gratitude for the privilege of an amazing journey

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A group of South Sudanese people gather at an Oxfam food distribution site and share stories with Oxfam America President Ray Offenheiser describing what it was like to flee their homes. Photo: Vanessa Parra / Oxfam America

After twenty years leading Oxfam America’s fight to end global poverty, I have decided to transition from President to a new professional chapter next year.

It has been an honor to guide our organization in tackling natural and man-made tragedies around the globe, as well as in promoting human rights solutions to intractable injustices at home and abroad. As we now put the final touches on integrating and strengthening the $1 billion Oxfam confederation, it is an exciting time for new leadership.

When I arrived at Oxfam America, we were a small $10 million organization with 75 employees. With a few innovative field programs and our annual “Fast for a World Harvest,” we were small but determined. Our strong solidarity work in Central America, Haiti, Ethiopia and Cambodia was at the core of our early contributions to the Oxfam confederation. There were no grants from major foundations, no website, no celebrity ambassadors, and no campaign or humanitarian staff. But despite limited resources, we were a leader in building the indigenous organizations of the Andean region and Amazon basin. We launched a modest US program focused on networking among hunger organizations and African American farmers in the US South. And we were at the early stages of building our program with the feminist organizations in El Salvador which led to the creation of innovative work on violence against women.

Today, we are more than eight times that size—evidence that our mission is critical to American individuals and significant American foundations that want to make a difference in the world. We have developed effective programs around the world—ones that empower women, build agricultural capacity, keep mining and other extractive industries in check—all while saving lives in humanitarian crises. And we have played a crucial role in building Oxfam into an influential actor within the US as well as a recognized global brand.

We have changed many lives—through relief work, long term programming, and powerful advocacy—and I’m so proud of that. I recall staring up at Serbian machine gunners in the hills along the Kosovo-Albanian border with our Oxfam humanitarian relief team in 1998 as refugees from Kosovo streamed across on tractors and oxcarts loaded with family members and all of their belongings. Other visits to Oxfam programs over the years, including recent trips to South Sudan where we are assisting victims of conflict and Lebanon where we are working with Syrian refugees, have brought me face to face with extreme human suffering once again. They reminded me of all our critical efforts to help those in need.

I recall a meeting with the President of the World Bank in the late 1990s who told us that we needed to call off our African debt relief campaign because we would bankrupt the international financial system. But he later came to our offices to thank us for the leadership we showed in driving this issue to resolution which restored health and education services to millions of families across Africa. And I recall a luncheon in NYC with executives from major pharmaceutical companies who attacked me for Oxfam’s fight against their pricing policies on HIV/AIDS drugs and in support of the use of generic drugs to treat the spreading pandemic. The moment we learned that 29 of these companies had dropped their case against the South African government to stop the use of generics was one of my proudest. It was a victory that opened the way for widespread use of generics across the world. This work has saved millions of lives. It is hard to imagine that any organization but Oxfam could have provided me with more powerful moments. There have been many more. I am grateful for every one of them and to all the Oxfam staff who developed and led this important work over the years and continue to do so today.

Indeed, I am honored to work with extraordinary colleagues who are taking on many of today’s profound challenges with deep passion. From responding to the world’s tragic humanitarian crises such as those in Syria, South Sudan, and Yemen, to exposing the impact of inequality on poor people both in the U.S. and abroad, and exploring new areas for innovation and good public policy to take on climate change, we are making a difference. Yet, there is so much more to do, and I look forward to helping a new leader take the reins of this remarkable institution.

My tenure with Oxfam has been rewarding far beyond my expectations. It is a rare privilege that one is given the opportunity to build an organization with such a far-reaching and compelling mission. While I inherited a rich tradition of field and advocacy work at Oxfam, it has been exciting to see it grow some eight-fold, establish a strong presence in Washington, DC, and globally and take on so many major issues across a much wider geography. I look forward to another busy and fulfilling year in service to our mission of creating lasting solutions to hunger, poverty and social injustice and to joining our Board’s efforts to find the next leader to take Oxfam America forward. Facebook Twitter Instagram YouTube Google+