Helping Those Who Help at Oxfam, Part 1

A few hours after the earthquake in the Indian state of Gujarat on Jan.

26, 2001, relief workers from British charity Oxfam International were

distributing food to dazed survivors. It's a response that's impressive

by any standard -- and was possible because such catastrophes are

business-as-usual at Oxford, U.K.-based Oxfam. Half the charity's 3,000

employees work in some 85 countries around the world, fighting poverty

and dealing with the aftermath of conflicts, natural disasters and

famines. As it happens, the charity already had people in the quake-

stricken city of Ahmedabad distributing food to victims of the drought

that has afflicted the region. Although the relief workers' office was

destroyed, the food-aid effort survived.

With a global mission that's never far from the headlines, speed is

critical. When disaster strikes, says Simon Jennings, head of

information systems at the charity's Oxford headquarters, "getting

there a day early can save many, many lives." Often, he adds, "we'll

get a call saying, 'Get a laptop computer and satellite phone ready --

someone's flying out this afternoon.'" And with lives at stake, IT

systems' robustness -- or lack thereof -- takes on an ethical dimension

not often seen in the world of business.

But away from the headlines, Oxfam's systems reflect the distinct

peculiarities of its mission -- not every aspect of which is

immediately apparent. There are the ubiquitous concerns related to

managing a far-flung staff, but also the need for instant -- and

disaster-proof -- communications, not to mention the idiosyncrasies of

fund-raising.

Going to Market

Take the shops, for example. Shops? Yes, affirms Jennings, gleefully

extolling the 17 percent gross margin that the charity's stores manage

to earn in Britain's cutthroat high streets. A charity's funds have to

come from somewhere, and around 15 percent of Oxfam's

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