Helping Those Who Help at Oxfam, Part 1

By Malcolm Wheatley, ITworld |  Opinion

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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