Oxford: Home of lost causes or progressive ideas?

By Rebekah Kennel, B.A. program student.

Insight from Oxford, England.

I’ve been in the UK nearly three months now. I’ve settled in the city of Oxford where the dreaming spires exude the city’s haunting beauty, ancient intellectualism, and sacred atmosphere. It’s easy to think in these nostalgic narratives, Oxford is so beautiful. Though, reviews in the past have been mixed. Here are a couple opinions I find rather concerning:

“Home of lost causes, and forsaken beliefs, and unpopular names, and impossible loyalties!” – Matthew Arnold

“The real Oxford is a close corporation of jolly, untidy, lazy, good-for-nothing humorous old men, who have been electing their own successors ever since the world began and who intend to go on with it.” – C.S. Lewis

Fortunately, for me, I am here neither as a tormented poet or novelist. Nor a student for that matter. It seems odd to place myself in a city where academia permeates the air and not be a student at one of the colleges. I’m here on a five-month work internship with international children’s charity, Viva. My brief experience here has been incredibly formative — international development theories are coming alive, being confirmed and tested.

One of my questions coming here was to observe and measure the effectiveness of faith-based organizations vs. secular charities with similar goals and beneficiaries. Many development organizations target children as their main demographic – and this makes sense, as it is a strategy meant to go up stream and identify systematic issues “killing all the fish” as it were. Consequently, we’ve seen a large number of small non-profits popping up over the past decade responding to the needs of children in their respective communities, but they often lack the skills and support they need to offer those children a more secure future. They have plenty of compassion and commitment, but often struggle without the formal training and expertise their challenging jobs require. So many well-intentioned schemes have gone awry due to poor allocation of funds and vision – so I came to Oxford to find out what people here were doing to fix that.

Viva is a Christian grassroots organization that works in city networks, bringing together service providers, churches, government officials and other non-profits to offer the best future for children across the world. To me, it’s a brilliant model. Sharing resources, a comparative advantage of sorts, to actually change the landscape for children at risk. The model is based on working together to affect a greater result, not just starting up another non-profit that works with the same type of beneficiaries (of which I was mistaken for the other day! I guess things like this come with the territory if you’re the only Southeast Asian in a rural English village).

Like I mentioned, Viva prioritizes relationships with many local churches and uses a Christian faith-based approach to partnerships – this is brilliant because the church has historically always been the number one, immediate caregiver in local, developing countries. Churches will always have legitimacy in local communities that an outside organization may never achieve. Churches were there before foreign aid and will be there after everyone has left. These churches in addition to other indigenous groups are worth investing in for the transformative change many people like myself are hopeful to see.

I’m afraid the same can’t be said for UK churches. I visited one the other day and a lady passed out mid-service — to no one’s concern! The man next to her pretended it didn’t happen and it took nearly 30 minutes for a paramedic to arrive. It was quite the British experience.

In the spirit of optimism, I leave you with a favorable review of this most curious city:

“We were conscious all the time of the strong intellectual life of a thousand years. Despite the modern laboratories, Oxford is still ‘breathing the last enchantments of the middle ages.’” – Sheldon Vanauken


Rebekah Kennel is an International Studies major and an Editor for the Jackson School Journal of International Studies. She also is a contributor to Sense and Sustainability, an organization and podcast devoted to sustainable development. Rebekah will graduate from UW this spring 2013.