OXFAMExchange, Spring 2011
What if Haiti’s rubble could house its homeless?
Development work is hard to write about. At Oxfam, we try to avoid simplistic storytelling on one hand and impenetrable analysis on the other, because both do a disservice to our supporters and the people we serve. The issues that we face, however, are complex, and effective solutions require careful thought, sustained investment, and hard work. We worry that even our best-told stories may produce the same passivity that TV engenders. Like watching a movie unfold—however fascinating, the characters often seem distant, unrelated to your life.
Take the story of Chanthy Dam (see pg 6); it is a compelling one, but its relevance to your life may not be immediately clear. Oxfam’s work targets not only the symptoms of poverty, like hunger, but the root causes. “Root causes” refers to an interwoven system of relationships. Poverty is about power, and power is about how people relate to each other. Thus, providing only goods—like food— can be counterproductive unless we also help people raise their voices and claim the right to hold their leaders accountable. And Chanthy is doing that: ensuring that marginalized people in the Cambodian highlands recognize the power of their own voices.
I don’t want to underestimate Chanthy’s role or courage, but you and I have a role to play in her story. Those of you who are donors have supported her work financially. But all of you reading this now play a role too. After several threatening incidents, Chanthy admitted, “I did not realize how much I had upset powerful people.” We considered with care whether reporting on her work would put her at risk, but concluded that telling her story—elevating her voice―might be the best way of helping to keep her safe. Most injustice flourishes in darkness.
By reading this, you broaden the circle of those listening to Chanthy Dam. Amplify her voice by sharing her story. In doing so, you acknowledge your role—not as a passive viewer to the struggles of people like Chanthy, but as an integral part of the solution to injustice.