Centre for African Studies (LUCAS)

Leeds University Centre for African Studies
c/o POLIS, Social Sciences Building, University of Leeds
Leeds LS2 9JT

Tel: 0113 343 5069

LUCAS Schools Project coordinator

Richard Borowski

Oxfam in Kenya, 1963-2002 – James Morris

LUCAS Seminar – all welcome

James Morris (York), ‘The Orchestra on the Titanic? Oxfam in Kenya, 1963-2002’.
Tuesday 2 February, 4-5.30pm (Michael Sadler LG10)


The paper concentrates on Oxfam’s work in Kenya during the first fifteen years after independence. During this period the developmental state was at its most active, with modernising schemes for agriculture and industry common across Africa and much of the rest of the ‘Third World’. Meanwhile, during the first ‘Development Decade’, faith in the state as the primary development actor — and in ‘modernisation’ as the solution to ‘underdevelopment’ — remained strong, even among non-governmental organisations (NGOs) such as Oxfam. The paper discusses Oxfam’s attempts to support the developmental state in Kenya: it highlights how, far from acting apolitically (a charge commonly made against NGOs), Oxfam attempted to influence the government by leveraging its financial assistance and focusing its grants in areas of Kenya that were (and often still are) marginal — in a geographic, political, cultural and economic sense. The evidence presented demonstrates that while Oxfam certainly aided the state in its efforts to penetrate and control areas formerly only lightly governed, it did so precisely because it understood the politics of development in Kenya and wished to encourage the government to lift its gaze from politically clamant populations and to take responsibility for the development of the nation as a whole. Towards the end of the period under discussion — when the organisation realised that many of its efforts in this direction had been unsuccessful — it would begin to work around rather than through the state. However, such a shift also reflected ideological changes within Oxfam as it became enthralled by ideas of conscientisation and empowerment. These concepts would divide Oxfam even further from the Kenya government, which, the organisation feared, was turning the country into an ‘ideologically isolated mountain’ of ‘elitist and corrupt’ capitalism. The paper concludes by discussing the various roles that Oxfam adopted in Kenya during the remaining 25 years of the study, and by outlining the importance of discrete and historicised case studies of NGOs for our understanding of development.

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