Monday 10 December 2018

Greystones resident Jim is Oxfam's ever-optimistic chief executive

David Medcalf talked to Oxfam's CEO Jim Clarken about the quest to end the inequality that allows half of the world's wealth to remain in the hands of an elite one per cent

Oxfam Ireland CEO Jim Clarken
Oxfam Ireland CEO Jim Clarken

First of all, apologies to the proprietors of The Burnaby pub, where this interview took place. The venue in the centre of Greystones nominated by Jim Clarken proved most congenial for the purpose. However, so intense was the conversation that neither Jim nor his interrogator ever quite got around to ordering a drink during the hour it took to complete our business.

Intense is certainly the word to describe the chief executive of Oxfam, a man needs no encouragement to speak about his chosen cause. He does so with a rapidity and a fluency which suggest that he has the facts and the lines of argument forever at his fingertips. Yet the intensity and the conviction which underpin the flow of sweet reason never shades into intimidation or pleading.

His is a long term project which relies on the drip-drip of steady persuasion rather than any verbal battering ram. An hour in his good-humoured company and you may emerge a few steps closer to being convinced that the world could be a better place. That is to say that all the world could be a better place, not just Greystones, not just Ireland, not just the West. Jim's perspective stretches to embrace the workers making trainers in Vietnamese factories and women struggling to feed families in rural Tanzania.

The Friday night crowd swelled in The Burnaby and noise levels rose as customers - the paying customers - greeted pals and reviewed the week's work. It is safe to assume that none of them commenced their chat by saying that they could speak for hours, if necessary, on the Democratic Republic of Congo, as Jim Clarken did. He was also probably the only one present in the pub who can state in truth that he has met Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor, while addressing high powered committees of the United Nations.

Oxfam, founded in 1942 at the height of World War Two, was concieved in England - the original title was Oxford Famine Relief. It persuaded Churchill's establishment that food should be dispatched from the ration-bound UK to deal with a famine in Greece. It seems that the organisation has always been not only a practical provider of support to those who need it most but also always ready with a telling word in the ear of those with power.

Now 76 years later, Oxfam Ireland is one part of Oxfam International, the body of which the Irish CEO is a director. Hence his familiarity with Frau Merkel and the inner workings of the United Nations in New York. The Irish operation stretches to 45 charity shops scatted across the island north and south, as well as other fundraisers.

Most of the work on the ground is carried out by 2,000-plus volunteers though there are also close to 200 paid employees.

The retail network includes Oxfam outlets in Wicklow Town and Bray: 'both very important contributors to the organisation,' as Jim is quick to point out. The shops, with their turnover of €18 million each year, are ultimately his responsibility as head of staff. However, it is quickly clear when talking to him that it is Oxfam's international programme which takes up most of his time and his nervous energy.

Oxfam has a presence of one sort or another in more than 90 countries and pays the wages of at least 10,000 staff, most of them in places far removed from Ireland. One way or another, their task is to improve the lot of people in the Developing World - please note that the term Third World is now considered obsolete. Sometimes, the work is a direct response to an immediate crisis.

Today it so happens that the plight of Rohingya refugees fleeing Burma in poverty stricken Bangladesh happens is top of his list. The job of Jim's colleagues on the ground is to ensure that these displaced people have food and clean water, in order to keep starvation and typhoid at bay in a place called Cox's Bazaar.

'We have built water systems there which cater for 200,000 people - that's equivalent to the population of an Irish city - in a space of weeks. We will stay as long as we are needed.' That list of his is a long one, which stretches to at least 30 crisis hit trouble spots around the world, though most of the rest not as high profile as the Burmese/Bangladeshi upheaval.

Jim reckons that within hours of last year's typhoon in Nepal for instance, Oxfam was busy repairing the damage done after the alarm was raised by personnel on the spot. He explains how the local workers were able to provide indications of what was required although they were present, not to deal with any such emergency, but to promote women's rights and fair conditions for labour.

Which brings us to his knowledge of the DRC - Democratic Republic of Congo - a source of continual concern to those who care about man's repeated inhumanity to man. 'There is life saving work to be done in the DRC all the time because of ongoing conflict,' he says of Africa's most enduring problem state.

Elsewhere, Oxfam's efforts are effected in programmes that are less dramatic and longer term in their intent. The Irish chief executive is an occasional visitor to Tanzania in Africa where the advances made are generally achieved far from the glare of publicity.

There, the guiding principle of development is to find out from people exactly what it is that they need to make their lives better.

A string of global issues bubble up in the course of dealing with local problems, among them climate change, economic inequality, land use, access to education and the availability of health services. He has formed the view that many of these will only be worked through once women are treated with proper respect.

'If you can deliver on women's rights, then you will solve a lot of the world's poverty problems,' he muses. One of his heroes is a Tanzanian lady called Manda whom he rates as one of the most inspiring people he has ever met, thanks to her leadership of the local women's movement.

She helps encourage more girls go to school, a first step to equality and improved life expectancy in one of the world's poorest countries. Similar initiatives in Rwanda, Malawi, Zambia and elsewhere are hauling communities out of extreme deprivation.

Man-made inequality and man-made inequality are phenomena that can be changed and Oxfam adopts a role in advocating such change. When someone buys a Christmas card or a second-hand dress in an Oxfam shop, they contribute to that.

'I am an optimist - you have to be in this business,' Jim muses, looking at a planet in which 800,000 people are blighted by extreme poverty, with less than a couple of dollars a day at their disposal. The optimist believes that there are solutions, though no overnight miracle cures.

He points to how multi-national companies could put a dent in that figure of 800,000 in need if only they would pay just a little more tax in the countries where they make their trainers or their garments for Developed World customers.

He reasons that the billion citizens of the world who go to bed hungry each night are balanced by the billion suffering obesity - in other words, there is no global food shortage, just a challenge of fair distribution.

Jim Clarken, now happily resident in Greystones, is a native of Limerick, brought up in small town Askeaton and educated by the Jesuits. He moved with doctor wife Dee, who works in the town as a GP, to Greystones three years ago and they are happily bringing their two children there.

The 47 year old remains proud to wear his Munster rugby jersey in County Wicklow, though his own achievements as a teenager were more in athletics a track and field than on the rugby pitch. Son of an industrial chemist, he graduated in commerce from University College Galway.

Work managing manufacturing plastics in Clonakilty and steel in Waterford was the logical next step. However, he always had an interest from a young age in world development, perhaps influenced by a child minder who was always looking to help the 'little black babies' - very un-PC but nonetheless heartfelt.

He worked with the Simon Community while in college and talks of how it never made sense to him that children could die of hunger. Eventually he quit the steel firm and went to South Sudan with a Goal emergency response team, supervising health care and water provision for 300,000 scared refugees living in mud huts.

His year in war torn Sudan was life changing, returning to Ireland in 2007 unable to see himself going back into business. When the Oxfam chief position came up shortly afterwards , he was ready to persuade the organisation that he was the man for the job and he retains the conviction to this day.

Bray People