Few know Oxfam and its work better than Meyer Brownstone. An influential part of Oxfam Canada for the last four decades, Meyer joined the fledging organization in 1967 and became the chair of the Ontario region. He soon became the chair of Oxfam Canada, and during his 17 years at the helm, helped to form the constitution of Oxfam International. Over that period he stressed the need for Oxfam to go beyond its original charity status to recognize both development and the problem of “political poverty” asmajor steps towards equality.
Since then, Meyer has used his educational and professional background to contribute to development policy and advance Oxfam’s work in Canada and abroad. Today, he is the chair emeritus of Oxfam Canada and sits on the Ontario Regional Steering Committee.
Meyer is always moved to put his ideas into action. Another important way he contributes to Oxfam is as a donor and advisor to the Oxfam Canada Johanna Oosterveld Fund for Southern Africa, where he helps raise money in memory of a fellow board member, Johanna Oosterveld who died in 1994. The Fund currently supports innovative programs in Zimbabwe making connections between HIV/AIDS transmission, gender-based violence and the struggle for women’s rights and equality.
In all his work, Meyer with a doctorate from Harvard University, with a joint degree in public administration, economics and political science, as a professor with the University of Toronto and York University, and as acabinet advisor and deputy-ministerin Saskatchewan with the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation ( the CCF which eventually became the New Democratic Party) has applied his knowledge and expertise in the pursuit of ending globalpoverty, hungerand inequality.
Through his work with Oxfam, Meyer focused on liberation processes mainly in Latin America and Africa, and headed several commissions on first elections in countries including Nicaragua and Mozambique and the first universal elections in South Africa.
In 1986, Meyer was awardedthe Pearson Peace Medal for his outstanding contributions to international understanding and cooperation.
At the same time, Meyer workedwidely as a member on government committees,(e.g. Tanzania’s Presidential Committe on Decentralization,as the director of research in government(e.g. research supervisor RoyalCommission on Biligualism and Biculturalism)and educational institutions (e.g. evaluation of Univesity of Guelph’s programme in Indonesia), andas a UN expert in Jamaica, where he spent the better part of a year doing a report on the decentralization of local government that ended up being `too radical for the government. (but publishe some years later by the Michael Manley government)
Over the years, though, Meyer’s focus has always remained with Oxfam. It was through his work here that he gained his most valuable experiences.
`I did a lot of visiting to refugee camps in Central America, Honduras and other places, and I was greatly enriched by being with those people and listening to them and I was beginning to understand a lot more about the world than I had before, he said.
`The growth of Oxfam, and its importance as an international body was a different kind of appreciation that I derived from Oxfam. Fundamentally, I approached it as always being basically informed by humanitarian values. And you can’t advance those without really understanding the problems and the people and the context in which their difficulties are occurring.
`That kind of summarizes the values of being in Oxfam for me, that I learned about human values andpeople and to respect the diversity, and to work with it rather than imposing our homegrown values and practices or the agenda of neo-liberalism and corporate domiantion.”
Not all of Meyer’s experiences have been positive ones, however. The persistence of “virtual apartheid” in South Africa was one of his more `disappointing experiences.
`Of course we’d fought with South Africa for many years, and finally when white dominance was eradicated, the country chose to join the international community by subscribing to the practices and values of new liberalism, and the result is that effective apartheid is still alive and well.
But his disappointments are not without their own lessons.
`I’ve learned that underlying problems can not be solved by superficial antidotes like having free and fair elections, many of which have not been either free or fair. I’ve learned that a better world can only be achieved through a much more fundamental transformation of our society, not simply with superficial kinds of changes.
`But I’m very hopeful, because the things that I have witnessed, which Oxfam has always supported, is the empowerment of civil society and classless movements. There are now thousands of those around the world, small but very effective in creating social and economic situations that are really transforming their societies on the basis of equality, particularly gender equality, and humanitarian values. Not through state action or state action alone, but civil society. That’s always been a focal point for Oxfam.