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Oxfam At 75: Important Lessons Learned The Hard Way Are In Danger Of Being Forgotten

A group of volunteers distributing winter kits containing blankets, sleeping bags, rucksacks and boots to refugees in Lesbos, Greece. Photo: Pablo Tosco / Oxfam

Seventy-five years ago on October 5, 1942, a group of 'fanatics, soft-heads and sentimental idealists' (to quote Maggie Black's excellent history of Oxfam's first 50 years) met in the Old Library of the Church of St Mary-the-Virgin in Oxford. They were haunted by the terrors World War II was visiting on helpless civilians and wanted to find a way to help these innocent victims of the total war between Nazi Germany and Churchill's Britain.

Alongside raising money for much needed food, the first campaign of the newly created Oxford Committee for Famine Relief - which later became Oxfam - was to lobby the British Government for a relaxation of the blockade on wartime Greece and other occupied countries - a tactic causing mass starvation of civilians.

The rejection of total war's human suffering by the eclectic Oxford group - including a retired Indian colonial service officer, Jewish refugee from Germany, Anglican cleric and Greek scholar - was controversial, with most of the British public accepting Churchill's "victory at all costs" approach.

Yet, the end of the war and the revelation of its true horrors led to a sea change in attitudes. The 1949 Geneva Conventions outlawed the use of starvation as a military tactic, prohibited the destruction of vital services and required combatants to allow humanitarian aid to pass impeded.

Imperfectly though they may have been applied, the Geneva Conventions and other moves to curb total war such as the conventions on chemical weapons and cluster munitions, the treaty banning landmines and the Arms Trade Treaty have all been major steps towards putting a leash on the dogs of total war. I'm proud that Oxfam had a role in campaigning for the latter three.

The other great advance that Oxfam celebrates - and has played a small part in - is the dramatic fall in the number of people whose daily life is a struggle to survive. In the 1940s, well over half the world's population lived in extreme poverty; today the figure is fewer than one in ten. Progress has accelerated in recent decades to such an extent that the target to halve extreme poverty between 1990-2015 was met five years early.

The story of falling poverty is not straightforward, the rise of China and other so-called BRICS, globalisation of trade and supply chains, improved governance, the end of the Cold War and advances in technology have all played their part. At a time when Britain's commitment to its promises to the world's poorest people is the subject of sometimes frenzied public debate, it is also important to recognise the role of aid in funding the schools and healthcare, bed nets and clean water that make it possible to escape the daily struggle for survival and build a more prosperous life.

The battle against extreme poverty remains far from won; however, as inequality between countries falls, the gap between the haves and have nots within many countries is growing, with the poorest not benefitting from the progress that many enjoy.

One in nine people in the world still do not have enough to eat and just last month it was announced that the number going hungry increased to 815 million people over the last year, the first such rise this century. Extreme and variable weather caused by climate change is part of the problem. Poor countries need help to cope - a message reinforced by the IMF this week.

Conflict is the other major explanation. I recently returned from the Democratic Republic of Congo where nearly 1 million people have been forced to flee their homes this year due to violence and where 1.5 million people are hungry - equivalent to the combined populations of Birmingham and Bristol. For many of them, surviving through hard work and desperation, there could be no optimism.

The idea that 0.7 per cent of our national income is too much to spend on aid would stagger people who simply didn't know where the next meal would come from. If they receive help, it is more likely to come from their neighbours than an overstretched and under-resourced international system.

Yemen, Northern Nigeria and Somalia also stand on the brink of famine, while South Sudan declared one earlier this summer. All are riven by conflicts that Oxfam's founders would have recognised.

I've seen first-hand both the suffering of the civilians on the receiving end of 21st century- style total war and the indifference to their suffering of some of the protagonists. The uncomfortable fact is that despite attempts to hold miscreants to account, such as the creation of the International Criminal Court, governments and rebel groups alike feel increasingly able to target civilians with impunity. Respect for human rights and international law are not areas where we are making the same progress as we are on more practical challenges.

The danger - with Britain focused on Brexit, the EU struggling with its own problems and President Trump threatening his own total war with North Korea - is that the situation will get worse before it gets better.

For example, by continuing to sell arms to Saudi Arabia as it bombs Yemen - a country suffering from destruction that has allowed what will soon become the world's worst-ever cholera outbreak - the UK is undermining the Arms Trade Treaty which it championed on the global stage.

If our leaders are serious about stopping the spread of war and reaching the goal agreed in 2015 -- to end poverty and hunger by 2030 - they need to put aside their narrow, short-term self-interests and look at the bigger picture. You don't need to be a fanatic, soft-headed or a sentimental idealist to worry that important lessons, learned the hard way, are in danger of being forgotten.

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