In a talk aptly named “Inequality and the Injustice of Poverty” on Tuesday night, President and CEO of Oxfam America Abigail Maxman challenged her audience of around three dozen students and professors in Kresge Auditorium to consider the challenge that these two forces pose today.
“The gap between the richest and the poorest has reached levels we’ve never seen in modern history,” said Maxman. “The country in which you are born, and the family into which you are born, determines your life in more ways than ever before.”
Originally founded in 1942 as the Oxford Famine Relief Committee, Oxfam is an international organization aimed at eradicating global poverty. One of Oxfam’s key tenets is that poverty arises from a violation of fundamental human rights: people are denied access to food, education or a living wage. Under this framework, poverty isn’t simply an economic problem—it’s a social injustice.
“Poverty is not inevitable. It’s a result of human action and inaction,” said Maxman. “We know we live in a world … where there is enough resources and food for everyone to have a decent and safe life. Yet, today we find that resources are concentrated in the hands of just a few.”
Maxman spent much of her talk addressing the impact of economic inequality on poverty and how the focus on economic growth has left many behind.
“Here, as [is the case] elsewhere in the world, as government revenues decrease because of tax breaks for the wealthiest people in powerful corporations, what gets cut? Social services, public services, health and education of the least fortunate suffer most,” she said. “Millions of people are one doctor’s bill away from falling into poverty.”
Poverty and inequality are complex issues that will be difficult to resolve—that’s why Maxman’s work at Oxfam emphasizes humanitarian assistance, educational and vocational programs and government advocacy. With this multifaceted approach, Oxfam tries to fight poverty and inequality on all possible fronts.
BSG Chair of Student Affairs Ben Painter ’19, who helped organize Maxman’s visit, felt that her perspective and work was rarely represented on campus.
“I just wanted to bring her to Bowdoin so students can hear about her career and get inspired and learn from her,” said Painter. “I’ve never seen, at least in my time here, someone who works in the international development or humanitarian aid sector come to Bowdoin and give advice to students that might be looking into that field. I thought that this was a meaningful opportunity for students to get that exposure.”
Before the talk, a group of 15 students met Maxman to learn about her career path and receive guidance about entering the nonprofit field.
Students who attended said the talk was a success and gave them the rare opportunity to learn firsthand about the humanitarian and developmental sector.
“It’s really important to stay informed, not only about global issues and what people are doing [but also how] to tackle them,” said Tessa DeFranco ’21. “And I think it’s really important for us, as privileged and educated students, to understand where we fall and where our responsibilities lie.”