The case for the defence of Third World aid

Joel Joffe, who cut his legal teeth defending Nelson Mandela, talks to Marie Ryan about his challenging new role at Oxfam

A look of puzzlement briefly furrows the brow of Joel Joffe, the new chair of Oxfam. "I cannot believe that Kenneth Clarke would be willing to dump the world's poorest people in order to achieve tax cuts which would amount to one-tenth of a penny." Joffe's delivery - calm, reasoned and reassuring - conceals the intensity of the emotion he feels.

Recent reports about government intentions to reduce British overseas aid by 12 per cent over the next three years have brought the aid agencies together in protest. The true impact will be more like a 40 per cent cut, says Joffe, since the reduction will only apply to bilateral (country to country) aid; the multilateral aid part of the budget (that pledged to international bodies like the EU and UN) is committed and cannot be cut.

Joffe, who took over the chair of Oxfam's Council of Trustees late last month, is not one to back away from a fight, however. In South Africa in the Sixties, he was one of a small number of white lawyers prepared to take on the cases of the - mainly black - people charged with political offences. Eventually he and his family decided that life in the apartheid state was no longer tenable and it was time to leave. Then in October 1963 Nelson Mandela and eight other high-ranking ANC members were charged with sabotage and fomenting revolution, and Joffe postponed his departure to take on the case as instructing solicitor.

At Mandela's request the strategy employed in the Rivonia trial had two objectives. First, the focus was to be switched from the defendants to the government. The nine men were prepared to accept responsibility for their actions and instructed their lawyers that no witness who was telling the truth was to be cross-examined by the defence. The second objective was to avoid the death penalty.

"They effectively turned the trial around into a trial of the government rather than themselves. When Mandela came into the dock and was asked 'how do you plead?', he said 'I plead not guilty. It is the government who should be on trial, not me.' We focused the trial on the denial of the human rights of the black population and the denial of their right to play a proper part in South Africa's affairs, and the fact that, having tried non-violence for so long, they were forced to resort to violence. And we did manage to save them from the death sentence which, as things have turned out, was very fortunate for everybody in South Africa."

On one of the walls of his 16th century manor house sits a framed testimonial from Mandela, which acknowledges Joffe as a "quiet, courageous man" and his assistance in "all the personal and family problems which have beset us". Joffe gave me a copy of the testimonial with great reluctance; he is much more comfortable talking about the good qualities of other men, such as, Bram Fischer, the defence barrister in the Rivonia trial who was himself later arrested and died in prison. Mr Mandela delivered a memorial lecture in Fischer's honour earlier this year in which he praised Joffe's work on the trial. Typically, it was not Joffe who told me about Mandela's praise but Lord Young, the Consumer Association's founding president.

Soon after the end of the trial his passport was confiscated and the Joffes were issued a one-way exit permit. Arriving in Britain in 1965, he embarked on a career in financial services, joining fellow South African lawyer Mark Weinberg at Abbey Life. In 1971 he, Weinberg and Sydney Lipworth set up Hambro Life Assurance, later to become Allied Dunbar. Within a short time, they established the Allied Dunbar Trust, which fed around 1 per cent of the company's profits into a range of unpopular causes. Charities working in the areas of schizophrenia and other mental illness, women's refuges and carers have all benefited. "I made it a point to look at things other trusts were not willing to support," says Joel.

He encouraged the charitable fund-raising ethos to permeate beyond the trust into the culture of the whole organisation. Sales and non-sales staff set up their own trusts and were encouraged to become involved in community volunteer work, with the result that Allied Dunbar is now seen as setting a benchmark for corporate community affairs programmes.

A passion to see justice done underlies most of Joffe's work, so it is not surprising that he felt impelled to attack some of the worst practices of the insurance industry, and after leaving Allied Dunbar in 1991 he began a campaign for greater consumer protection. Not everyone was delighted. His long-time friend Mike Wilson, chief executive of J Rothschild Insurance, while describing Joffe as "totally unique, with enormous compassion", admits to being less than enthusiastic about the campaign.

Other critics were less restrained. Accusations that he was "a gamekeeper turned poacher" and "biting the hand that fed him" rained down. "One can understand the reaction," allows Joffe, "because obviously I benefited from being in the life insurance industry, but I wasn't saying anything which I hadn't been saying all along."

Lord Young remembers the "electric effect" generated by criticism from someone who knew about the industry from the inside. Joffe's integrity was well known, says Helen Wisner, a consumer affairs consultant (now deputy chairman of the Personal Investment Authority), and it was both his intimate knowledge of the industry and the respect with which he was widely held that made him such a force for change.

As someone who has had a foot in both the commercial and voluntary camps, Joffe sees no conflict between efficiency and idealism and says that this view is shared throughout Oxfam. Staff don't want to work in an organisation that is ineffective, he insists, since they are making sacrifices (in salary terms) to work there. "Their view is that we must be as efficient and effective as we can but at the same time not forget the values which we espouse in the Third World are also relevant in our dealings with staff. When I first came into Oxfam 15 years ago I had a much more doctrinaire view of how one simply transposed wholesale commercial sector techniques into the voluntary sector - and I realised they had to be modified to take account of the environment and culture of the organisation. But that doesn't mean that you have to be in any way less effective."

So how do you know you are being effective? Oxfam's management has decided to introduce a system of performance indicators to measure the impact their programmes are having. Joffe acknowledges that much of the work does not lend itself to easy measurement - "how, for instance, do you measure the impact of a project designed to prevent HIV spreading when it will take many years before you know the outcome?" - but feels they owe it to their donors to ensure their money is being used as effectively as possible.

Joffe argues that running a major charity is more difficult than running an industrial organisation and is full of admiration for Oxfam's director, David Bryer. Profit levels tell commercial organisations if they are successful, short-term results can be built on, there's a clear bottom line. Aid work, on the other hand, is beset by all sorts of political considerations. "You can do great work on conflict resolution and then there's another war and your work is destroyed overnight and you have to start again." Because voluntary sector salaries have artificial restraints on them, you can't reward people according to the quality of their work and so other ways of encouraging better performances have to be found.

Listening to Joffe, it's clear that he sees the values of Oxfam's donors as diametrically opposed to the Government's. Where the Treasury wants cuts in overseas aid, the public is giving more than ever in the face of appalling suffering in places such as Rwanda and Bosnia. "Donor fatigue is a fiction. People in this country want to help people less fortunate than themselves. The greater the need, the more they give."

British aid is currently only 0.31 per cent of GNP, way below the UN target of 0.7 per cent to which the Government has committed itself. Unfortunately, the proposed cuts mirror a worldwide trend among the wealthiest countries towards aid reduction.

But it is not all bad news on the development front. Recently James Wolfensohn, an Australian-born banker, was appointed president of the World Bank. In the few monthsWolfensohn has been in his post, Joffe has seen a rare willingness to listen to the views of non-governmental organisations. Wolfensohn has also been the prime mover behind proposals to allow many of the world's poorest countries to write off some of their crippling multilateral debt - proposals which are yet to obtain approval.

"This is an enormously exciting appointment, one that could make a great difference to the developing world. Wolfensohn actually goes and talks to people on the ground. He says you can't impose things on the poor, you actually have to listen to what they have to say."

Oxfam's impact on poverty is always going to remain a drop in the ocean compared to that of even the most minor change in World Bank or International Monetary Fund policy, but Joffe has no doubt that Oxfam's work makes a real difference. "If you look at our projects you'll see how people are being empowered to improve their lives with the support and advice of Oxfam. But for our presence in many of these countries, things would be significantly worse."

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