Joss Saunders: Oxfam

Part lawyer, part campaigner. Oxfam’s Joss Saunders talks to Lorraine Cushnie about fair trade coffee bars, the tsunami and 1,000 lawyers

The job of legal adviser at Oxfam is no ordinary one. Working for one of the world’s largest charities, with operations in more than 70 countries, Joss Saunders needs multijurisdictional knowledge, the ability to keep track of changing charities legislation and the nous to make sure that all the legal safeguards are in place for Oxfam to carry out its humanitarian and development work.

But Saunders has taken on yet another responsibility as a board member for Oxfam’s new chain of fair trade coffee bars called Progreso. Located in two of London’s most fashionable areas, Portobello Road and Covent Garden, from the coffee to the carrot cake, all items for sale adhere to fair trade principles.

For Saunders, the key to the project is that 50 per cent of the coffee bars are owned by farmers in Ethiopia, Honduras and Indonesia, meaning they also get a share of the profits.

Saunders says the bars represent Oxfam’s approach to its work. “We try to come up with innovative ways to relieve poverty and suffering. Progreso is the only coffee shop in the country where the farmers own it,” he explains.

The cafes are also an opportunity to show that fair trade can work commercially, as the cafes are not run as a charity.

Saunders has been working at Oxfam for 10 years. When The Lawyer last spoke to him three years ago, he described his role as preventative, working in advance of any disaster.

However, last year’s Asian tsunami changed all that. The unprecedented levels of money that came in following the catastrophe meant Oxfam had to find a way to ensure that all the money was seen to be accounted for and reached the places where it was most needed. For once, Saunders found himself on the front line. With his and his team’s help, Oxfam set up a new charity in a matter of days – the Oxfam International Tsunami Fund – through which all of the donations were channelled. The process of setting up a new charity would normally take weeks, if not months, but the Charity Commission pushed it through within a matter of days. The 12 international branches of Oxfam were then given different responsibilities, such as distributing food and aid, to ensure there was no overlapping.

Once Oxfam’s workers were on the ground in the affected region, Saunders and his team had to ensure people got paid. However, the charity had recently closed down its operations in Sri Lanka because of the civil war and did not have a bank account. So a helicopter was chartered from Papua New Guinea to bring across all the payloads for Oxfam’s humanitarian staff.

The Make Poverty History campaign has also hit the headlines this year with the events around Live8 providing a focal point for the campaign. Saunders provided support in terms of contracts and event liability.

However, the ubiquitous white wristbands came under some scrutiny when it was suggested that the conditions in which they were made were less than ethical. Saunders, though, is adamant that all the people they contract must adhere to Oxfam’s principles.

“I think there was a lot of misleading information around. Oxfam has an ethical purchasing policy that sets up very strict criteria on working with suppliers, and this purchasing policy is built into all our contracts,” he says.

Away from the headlines, Saunders continues to lobby government along with his counterparts at other UK charities. A recent triumph was to have the promotion of human rights recategorised as a charitable and not a political act. Until recently the promotion of human rights was deemed a political activity, stopping groups such an Amnesty International from gaining charity status.

As Saunders explains: “You could only promote human rights if it wasn’t your main activity, and then it changed so that you could only promote human rights in countries where they were already enshrined in domestic law.”

In other words, notes Saunders: “You couldn’t be a charity that promoted human rights in Burma, but you could be a charity that promoted human rights in Bristol.”

However, thanks to the work put in by Saunders and others, the new charities bill will categorise human rights as a charitable act.

Saunders is not short on enthusiasm for all aspects of his work, but he saves his real excitement for the ’1,000 City Lawyers’ initiative. Set up after the tsunami, Saunders found that law firms were giving lots of money to the tsunami fund. This was surprising, as law firms are not traditional donors. Saunders wanted to know how they could tap into this support on a more practical basis. “The question we asked was: could we get them to do more?” he says.

Working closely with Michael Jones, head of Weil Gotshal & Manges’ London global dispute resolution practice, he came up with the idea of getting 1,000 City lawyers signed up to the charity’s initiative to sign an ending poverty declaration and write letters to the Government. But it is more than just a lobbying platform. Lawyers signed up to the project can actually use their skills in the field. The first goal is to tackle debt. Lawyers are already advising governments on negotiating new loans, defending lawsuits from vulture funds over the repayment of debt and in general using their expertise in a hands-on way.

Saunders’ clearly sees his role as part legal adviser, part campaigner – but he is sure all lawyers have it in their power to make a difference.

“Lawyers shouldn’t underestimate their influence as informed observers,” he insists. “We’re asking lawyers to use the skills they have to help make poverty history.”

For those interested in joining the Oxfam 1,000 City Lawyers initiative, visit
Joss Saunders
Legal adviser

Organisation Oxfam
Sector Charity
Employees 4,500
Annual legal spend £50,000
Legal capability Three
Legal adviser Joss Saunders
Reporting to Finance director John Shaw
Main law firms Blake Lapthorn Linnell, Brookstreet des Roches and Weil Gotshal & Manges