Our July feature comes from Marie-Luise Ermisch of Canada’s McGill University, winner of the History Workshop Bursary to attend our international research conference this month. She writes on the topic of her conference paper: Oxfam’s Operation Oasis: Teaching British Youth about Global Poverty.
Imagine taking a large group of secondary school students to a developing country. Through this direct experience, think about what these youth could learn about the developing world and international poverty. How would this knowledge shape their social and political awareness? This is precisely what Bill Jackson, head of Oxfam’s Education Department from 1962 to 1966, imagined and considered when he started organising Operation Oasis in 1964. His dream came to fruition when, in March 1966, approximately 800 British youth between the ages of 15 to 18 disembarked from the M.S Devonia into Algiers, Algeria.
Operation Oasis was a unique educational tour that, at the price of £49 (approximately £745 today) per participant, offered students a four-day trip to Algeria. The itinerary included visits to cultural sites, such as the Kasbah in Algiers and the Roman ruins at Tipasa and Chercell, as well as a two-day excursion to Djelfa, an oasis town on the edge of the Sahara Desert where Oxfam was supporting irrigated farms and training centres for boys, both run by White Fathers (French Catholic monks). This four-day adventure was the culmination of several months’ worth of learning about all things Algerian, as Oxfam provided participating schools with educational material on Algerian history, geography and culture in the lead-up to the trip.
But how can the success of such an educational adventure be measured? Did the students come back with the passion and compassion that Jackson had hoped the trip would foster? Certainly students gained memories of desert sunsets, Arab hospitality, and White Fathers in billowing robes standing on the border of desert and farmland. Upon their return home, many students increased their involvement with Oxfam or shared their experiences through talks at youth clubs, while others likely just let it simmer in their minds. That said, Ronald Payne, a Sunday Telegraph reporter who participated in the trip, wrote afterwards that having been taught to expect poverty, the youth saw it in places where it was not. Payne was therefore critical of Oxfam’s emphasis on classroom learning and whether it translated into understanding once on the ground (6 April, 1966). Another journalist, this one anonymously writing for The Times Educational Supplement, was even more critical and wholeheartedly argued against the trip, stating that teenagers “tend to be particularly imprisoned within themselves, too self-conscious to share other people’s lives either imaginatively or in reality” (29 April, 1966).
Cynicism of these journalists aside, the students’ overall evaluation was positive and there is evidence the teenagers were moved by what they saw. In a final report, one anonymous participant passionately emphasized that international poverty must be tackled by all, and that one step towards this was by fostering international friendships through initiatives like Operation Oasis. In a recent interview, participating student Linda Hisgett (née Anstey) fondly remembered the trip and affirmed that the hands-on experience of Operation Oasis increased her international awareness in a life-changing way, thus gaining Oxfam a life-long supporter.
Operation Oasis was a daring initiative that was not to be repeated. As such, it highlights how NGOs in the UK sought to incorporate children and youth into their fight against poverty and suffering in the developing world in the 1960s. NGOs characterized the children and youth of the post-war baby boom as energetic and empowered, thus casting them as a resource that could be tapped. With this guiding principle NGOs such as Oxfam attempted to spur children and youth into voluntary action by appealing to their idealism and emotions and encouraging them to use their leisure time to fight the war on want. As a result, NGOs motivated young people to fundraise, volunteer overseas, act as ambassadors for the developing world, build international friendship networks, and campaign for a better world, all on their own time.
Operation Oasis raises many questions about the nature of international development work and how it is carried out in the Western world. If, as many have argued, international development is now a self-perpetuating industry, the very foundation of development work depends on its emotional appeal and its continuous impact on education, culture, politics, and the public imagination. This makes the historical examination of NGO’s relationship with children and youth all the more important as it reveals the potential roots of motivation behind voluntary action.