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October 17, 2000

Civil Society and NGOs
Raymond Offenheiser

Calvin College will host Raymond C. Offenheiser (left), president of Oxfam America, for a free public lecture on Thursday, November 9 at 8:15 p.m. in the Commons Lecture Hall. The title of the talk is "Bearing Witness for Justice Through Development: Challenges for Faith-based Development in an Era of Globalization."

Oxfam America is a Boston-based international not-for-profit agency with a $24 million annual budget used to address the problems of poverty and injustice around the world.

The talk will kick off a conference called "Will Civil Society Save the World?" a three-day conference on whether the key to development is the promotion of civil society.

"We're thrilled to have Raymond Offenheiser as our keynote speaker," says conference director Roland Hoksbergen, a professor at Calvin and an expert on non-governmental organizations (NGOs). "He has been president of Oxfam since 1995 and not only brings his administrative background and expertise, but also the expertise he has gained as a result of working in countries around the world."

As an expert in South Asia and Latin America, Offenheiser brings specialized experience in rural and agricultural development and, more importantly, hands-on experience working with some of the world's most pioneering and innovative grassroots movements and non-governmental organizations (NGOs). From indigenous peoples' and rubbertappers' organizations in the Amazon Basin to the now-famous Grameen Bank in Bangladesh, Offenheiser has worked on projects of community-based resource management, credit and enterprise development, human rights and local governance, reproductive health, culture, and international security and cooperation. In his role as Oxfam America President, he also sits on the executive steering committee of Oxfam International, the confederation of 10 Oxfam organizations around the world with collective annual revenues of $350 million and program work in some 120 countries.

Offenheiser has represented the interests of this international body in meetings with such influential global policymakers as World Bank President James Wolfensohn and UN Secretary General Kofi Annan. And he is a frequent speaker on the subject of the evolving challenges facing the field of humanitarian assistance and the transnational NGO movement, two areas at the heart of the Calvin conference.

"Our conference is intended to help Christian development theorists evaluate the role of civil society in the promotion of Third World development," says Hoksbergen, who spent his last sabbatical studying NGOs in Central America. "We have a long history in this country of civil society; in fact, one definition of civil society is voluntary people's organizations acting collectively to serve a public purpose. We have everything from Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts to the Sierra Club to churches that fits that definition.

"But other countries often don't have that history of civil society. One of the things NGOs are trying to figure out is whether doing good development work really means promoting or strengthening civil society. Some people believe civil society is the answer we've been looking for, while others contend that civil society is just another Western recipe for a quick fix that fails to address cultural and historical differences."

Such issues are important for everyone involved in development, but especially important for people of faith, who, traditionally, are highly active in promoting Third World development."

Thus the Calvin conference will feature representatives from such faith-based NGOs as the Mennonite Central Committee, World Vision International and the Christian Reformed World Relief Committee. The conference also will feature people from The World Bank, Washington, D.C.-based Center for Public Justice and The Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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Contact Phil de Haan.