Champion for change: Interview with Danny Sriskandarajah

7th December 2020

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Kirsty Simpson

Oxfam GB CEO Danny Sriskandarajah speaks to Kathryn Manning about the need for strong accountable civic institutions and brave ideas to counter COVID-19, social injustice and climate change

Danny Sriskandarajah is not a person to baulk at a challenge – or 10. He became CEO of Oxfam GB in January 2019, in the aftermath of a staff misconduct scandal in Haiti that threatened to spoil the 80-year-old charity's reputation. Two months later, Cyclone Idai – the southern hemisphere's worst-ever tropical cyclone – hit, highlighting the fact that Oxfam's humanitarian work is becoming inextricably linked with the climate crisis. This year, the COVID-19 pandemic has joined the fray.

Sriskandarajah's career has already taken him through a number of important civil society roles. After a masters and PhD in international development as a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University, he became the youngest-ever person, and first non-Briton, to lead the Royal Commonwealth Society as director general from 2009-2012. He was then secretary general of Civicus, a global alliance of civil society organisations.

Sriskandarajah's personal history goes some way to explaining what instilled his drive for activism: he was born in Sri Lanka and his parents left the country to pursue education – but didn't return because of its brutal 25-year civil war..

He has always been aware that he escaped the fate of those left behind.

“I was conscious of what happens when inequality and discrimination wreak havoc on a society, and also of the importance of individual political activism – citizens standing up and fighting for peace or reconciliation,“ he says. He describes his political worldview as being influenced by his parents' reading matter, “a mashup of New Internationalist and National Geographic.“ He was also inspired by David Attenborough, although there was no terrestrial television in Papua New Guinea, where he spent part of his childhood. “I remember the excitement of getting Life on Earth on a bootleg VHS tape and watching it over and over again,“ he laughs.

We are speaking as a second lockdown has been announced in England, a vaccine has just been discovered, and the US presidential election is in its final hours. There is a feeling of possible global reset. “I think this is a moment in history where we need strong civic institutions,“ Sriskandarajah says frankly. “I don't trust the state or markets to deliver a fair and more sustainable world. Time and again it's been citizens coming together to drive progressive change, and this feels like one of those moments.“

“We try to relieve poverty and injustice, but we are also there to address the drivers of that – to change systems, to change policies“

Walking the talk

For Oxfam, a global organisation with a reach of more than 22.2 million people, resetting has been a learning process – one that has involved reflecting on its failings in Haiti. “It's important that organisations working in international development, where there are huge imbalances of power, do what we can to minimise and address the abuse of power,“ Sriskandarajah says. “My pitch for this job was, 'I'm going to help you learn the lessons from the safeguarding scandal, but also reimagine what a large internationalist network like Oxfam can be for during the rest of the 21st century, and help you become a better fit-for-purpose organisation'.“

His work has included adapting Oxfam so that it plays a role in combatting climate change. The organisation's humanitarian experience has been put to good use in connecting poverty and climate justice and positioning both at the heart of its strategy. Sriskandarajah recalls being involved in the negotiations leading to the UN Sustainable Development Goals, watching as it became clear that poverty, inequality and sustainability are inextricably linked. “Reducing poverty is going to be pointless unless we address climate breakdown,“ he says. “The link is about climate justice and inequality. Poverty exists not because of scarcity, but because of how resources are distributed.“

He also wants to 'walk the talk' on climate impact. Oxfam GB has targeted a two-thirds reduction in climate emissions by 2030 and net-zero carbon emissions by 2045, without offsetting. It has already reduced its emissions by 35%. “We are already trying to incorporate a climate lens into most of what we do,“ he explains.

First aid

Oxfam GB is a member of a global alliance that operates in 90 countries, and this position has given it close-up experience of the damage that climate change can cause – as seen during the recent devastation caused by Typhoon Goni, in the Philippines. “An organisation like ours, grounded in humanitarian experience and expertise, spends a lot of time not only delivering relief and aid, but also building back better, so farmers in climate-vulnerable bits of the planet are getting assistance and advice to be able to build more resilient livelihoods,“ Sriskandarajah explains.

Oxfam also helps with climate adaptation; alongside its more traditional humanitarian work, such as providing clean water and responding to floods, it is working with partner organisations to replant mangrove swamps and help farmers adopt sustainable practices. However, a recent report from the charity showed that only 14% of global climate finance is going to the least developed nations – and just 2% to small island developing states that are being hit hardest by the climate crisis.

“We've been doing a lot of work on climate finance to highlight the contradictions, the hypocrisy and the inequities in the promises being made by world leaders, especially northern governments,“ says Sriskandarajah. “It's a tragedy that so little goes to the poorest countries, especially small island developing states that have done the least to create the problem.“ Oxfam is using its social and media networks to raise these issues, taking its large masks of leaders to events such as G7 meetings. “We've got Boris Johnson, Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel. We're there because we want to catch the attention of our leaders and policymakers.“

Another approach is related to Oxfam's own practice. In the UK, its Wastesaver programme recycles 12,000 tonnes of donated clothing a year, making it the country's biggest such recycler.

“1% of all clothing is thrown away every year,“ notes Sriskandarajah. “Part of the social enterprise is to be an ethical disposer of that clothing.“

The organisation has launched successful campaigns such as Behind the Barcode, examining the ethics of retailers' practices, and Second Hand September, which challenges people not to buy any new clothes for the month. It also uses its retail network to talk about sustainable consumption. The aim is to change consumer behaviour, especially in the global north. “In the UK we each buy 26kg of new clothing every year – double that of the Italians or the Germans,“ says Sriskandarajah. “If ever there's a country addicted to fast fashion, this is it.“

COVID-19 makes the issue more desperate. Oxfam estimates that more people will die of hunger this year than from the disease itself, as a result of the disruption it has caused. “In our globally interconnected supply chains, every time a clothing company cancels its orders in Bangladesh or Cambodia, those people are left unemployed and without a safety net,“ he explains.

“This is the greatest ever wake-up call to humanity about how deeply interconnected we are. No one is safe until everyone is safe. That's what the pandemic reminds you.“

“Reducing poverty is going to be pointless unless we address climate breakdown“

Wholesale change

Sriskandarajah is inspired by Oxfam's early years. The charity was founded in 1942 by individuals raising resources to end famine, especially in Nazi-occupied Europe – but they also campaigned to the Churchill government. “To me, there's a dual role that organisations like ours serve,“ he says. “We try to relieve poverty and injustice, but we're also there to address the drivers of that – to change systems, to change policies.“

Oxfam is still fulfilling that role, even providing a prophetic report on the $11trn a year global value of unpaid care work in January 2020, two months before COVID-19 hit. Another example is its recent report showing that the carbon emissions of the world's richest 1% are more than double those of the poorest half of the world's population put together. “It's stark to see the parallels between wealth inequality and emissions inequality,“ says Sriskandarajah. “It's a worrying indictment of how the global economy has created vulgar levels of economic inequality and driven this climate injustice.“

He would like to see an increase in wealth taxes and new carbon levies on luxury items. “Only 4% of all world taxes come from some form of wealth tax – yet we know that not only is a lot of that wealth born out of extraction, but also that inherited wealth is deepening inequality.“ He finds it “almost distressing“ to see the huge profits being made by companies, “especially in the COVID-19 era, when so many businesses and people are struggling.“

Oxfam has suggested a windfall tax on companies that have done well out of COVID-19, circulating the statistic that if Jeff Bezos gave every one of his 860,000 Amazon employees a US$100,000 bonus, he'd still be richer than he was before the pandemic. “All power to Amazon in terms of its entrepreneurial spirit, but this is an opportunity for us to think about how shareholder capitalism works, and to create tax systems that give us a chance of creating a fairer economy and a greener world,“ says Sriskandarajah.

Once in a lifetime chance

Does Sriskandarajah feel that, under the pressures of COVID-19, it is falling to civil society to do this work, rather than government and public services? “What I see happening now is that it is civil society's additional role to lead systemic change,“ he says. He thinks some of the best civic action is on divestment, such as the Divest Invest campaign in the US. Oxfam supports the Make your Money Matter campaign, which aims to convince pension funds to actively divest from companies that don't live up to the triple bottom line concept.

He is also attracted to the ideas found in Kate Raworth's book Doughnut Economics – the first draft of which was coincidentally written while Raworth was working at Oxfam. “Kate frames the fundamental shift needed in economic life, and the idea of a social floor and an environmental ceiling.“

“I've never faced an opportunity as great as this to be able to reset“

Sriskandarajah also believes it is time to change the shareholder-first, short-term capitalist model. “We need a regulatory environment involving new rules, with greater collaboration. This has to be the generation that delivers sustainable growth, a just transition or a Green New Deal. If historians aren't writing about this in the same way that they wrote about the New Deal or the Marshall Plan, it will have been a complete lost opportunity – a tragedy.“

He says it will come down to brave conversations, good allyship and the idea that “evil happens when good people stand by and do nothing“. “Certainly in my life, I've never faced a disruption as great as this, but I've also never faced an opportunity as great as this to be able to reset,“ he says.

“What a tragedy for the human species if our generation of humans, which is waking up to the reality of economic inequality, climate breakdown and now COVID-19 impact, doesn't do something adequate to respond to these huge existential challenges that people and planet face.“

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