Oliver Walston: I should never have offered farm aid to Africa

Oxfam wouldn't take money from supermarkets and thus had to refuse my offer


There are some things it is impossible to dislike. Venice, Bobby Charlton, labradors and Oxfam. Or so I thought until the other day. But now I'm not so sure about Oxfam.

It all began back in 1984, when I asked Oxfam if they would be able to distribute 1,000 tons of wheat which British farmers had raised in response to the Ethiopian famine. Their answer surprised me. It was, in effect, "Thank you, but no thank you." They went on to explain that dumping grain into a Third World country would inevitably damage the local farmers. If, however, we were to offer Oxfam cash, which they would then use for development aid, they would accept it gratefully.

British farmers had just experienced the best harvest they, or their fathers, had ever known. And as if that were not enough, the price of wheat had touched £100 per tonne. Though they would never admit it, they were richer than they had ever dreamed possible. The obscene contrast of bulging barns in England and starvation in Africa made them want to do something more than simply write a cheque.

We eventually found a small charity, War on Want, which was run by a young man called George Galloway. Unlike Oxfam, they had no problems accepting the offer of wheat. Our first load of 1,000 tons actually arrived in Port Sudan before Bob Geldof had even thought of Band Aid. By the time the appeal ended a year later, we had shipped 12,000 tons of British wheat to Eritrea.

On one of my visits to Hull docks, where our wheat was normally loaded, I noticed another ship being filled with grain. I was told that this vessel had been chartered by Oxfam who, it seems, had eventually realised that in a famine it makes more sense to distribute food than to dig wells.

Nearly a quarter of a century passed, during which time George Galloway dressed up as a pussycat, Bob Geldof became a national icon and Oxfam reverted to its traditional function of helping the poorest people on the planet.

As I lay in my bath a few weeks ago, I had a eureka moment. The price of wheat had recently risen one third to £90 per tonne and, as a result, most arable farmers in Britain were feeling slightly more relaxed than they had for the past decade. Maybe now was the time to ask them, once again, to share their prosperity with less fortunate farmers in Africa.

The campaign would be called Oxfarm and would involve my fellow farmers and no paperwork whatsoever. When the farmer sold his wheat he would simply utter the magic word: "Oxfarm" to his grain merchant, who would deduct the price of one tonne and send the cheque to Oxfam.

The same system would apply to livestock farmers and would enable auctioneers to deduct an amount after an animal had been sold. Our only condition would be that the resulting money would not go into Oxfam's general funds but would be ringfenced and used on a specific agricultural project which they would select.

But this time there was to be a wrinkle, about which I was inordinately excited. The supermarkets of Britain today have a distinctly uneasy relationship with farmers. The reason is because their economic clout is out of all proportion to that of the farmers and growers who produce the meat and vegetables.

As a result, the farmers feel faintly resentful and the supermarkets faintly uneasy. It occurred to me that, because of this angst, we would challenge the supermarkets to match whatever funds the farmers gave. If they accepted and all went well, I estimated that we might possibly raise £2m in a year.

This time I knew that Oxfam would be enthusiastic, since we were proposing precisely what they had insisted on all those years ago. No nonsense about tons of wheat; this time we would give them cash to spend on development aid. Which is why I was so optimistic when I e-mailed Oxfam with the proposal.

After a few days the reply came in the shape of a telephone call. The answer was eerily familiar: "Thanks, but no thanks." Their reasoning was as simple as it was surprising. They were unwilling to accept any money from supermarkets and thus, with great regret, they had to refuse my offer.

Had I challenged the crack cocaine dealers or the child pornographers to match the farmers' funds, I could, perhaps, have understood Oxfam's refusal. But to suggest Tesco and Sainsbury and Waitrose are so tainted that any money they provide is dirty money is unjust, unbelievable and (if you happen to be an African farmer) unhelpful.Meanwhile, Oxfam preserves its purity and the Third World pays the price.

The writer is a farmer in Cambridgeshire

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