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The trashing of Oxfam

United Kingdom

Oxfam has to be condemned for the goings-on in its Haiti office in post-earthquake 2011. Without by any means excusing this, I think people could try to understand the context.

Anyone who has worked for an international aid organization in a disaster setting will have come across incidents of immorality or embezzlement, over-mighty behaviour, sexual misconduct and the rest. Shocking though this is, it is not very surprising. These environments are invariably chaotic, lawless, violent and deeply unequal. The people hired to work in such settings frequently have to face down warlords to get access to victims, argue aid convoys through armed checkpoints, risk their lives, and sometimes lose them, in the effort to bring relief to vulnerable people. Those able and willing to do those things often have a go-getting, driven and macho mentality. And this can lead to the creation of a dysfunctional and testosterone-loaded micro-culture.

Of course we would not expect sexual and other forms abuse to be tolerated among aid workers. And once Oxfam knew what was going on in Haiti in 2011, senior executives did their best to sort it out. Culprits were sacked or made to resign. The misconduct was reported to charity regulators and covered by the media – needless to say, not with every lurid detail. New safeguarding measures and improved staff vetting were introduced. With hindsight, they failed to act ‘adequately’, as they have confessed. But to label this a ‘cover-up’ is, in my opinion, grossly unfair.

The 2011 earthquake in Haiti devastated an already excruciatingly poor country, with a degree of brutalized misery in its slums as bad as any I have seen. Few UN, bilateral or NGO agencies rushing in emergency relief performed well. But I believe that the actions taken by Oxfam’s top people to deal with the abuse in their offices and residences once they found out about it were guided by the over-riding need to protect the victimized and avoid damage to programme recipients, as Mark Goldring, the current Executive Director, has explained. The sweeping accusations of a lack of integrity among Oxfam’s senior staff and officers are thoroughly undeserved.

On the side of government – the Department for International Development (DFID) and the regulators, the Charity Commissioners – the rush to condemn Oxfam for poor transparency is breath-taking. Did we hear ex-International Development Minister Priti Patel elbowing in? This is someone recently forced to resign over her own significant failures-to-disclose in a parliament that has failed to deal with its own predatory males. I see a decent organization being trashed for inadequacies in its working culture, in a distraction from events such as the made-in-Britain bombs raining down on Yemen. Sadly, this plays to a feeding frenzy of ‘aid hate’.

In this #MeToo moment, every organization and institutional environment is being scrutinized for sexual predation. The charity sector cannot escape, nor should it. But why was Oxfam in particular singled out for this damaging exposure?

Attitudes towards Oxfam operate as a lightning rod of attitudes towards overseas aid, and aid charities, generally. Because Oxfam is not about something unimpeachable, such as ‘children’ or ‘health’, but embraces within its mission everything connected to poverty from slavery to diarrhoea to climate change, its name is exposed. Oxfam came into being as a dissonant voice on behalf of the dispossessed, and its intrinsically political nature has landed it in hot water many times during its 75 year history.

What seems particularly ironic about this furore is that DfID itself in a roundabout way is not free from blame. Over the past 25 years DfID fuelled Oxfam’s extraordinary financial growth with big ‘partnership’ grants for humanitarian and development programmes. Oxfam’s popularity as a spending vehicle of official UK and EU aid has helped create the circumstances in which, along with other NGOs, it may effectively become the operational arm of DfID and similar donors. To do the work on the ground, teams of itinerant workers are hired on short-term contracts and deployed in the world’s multiplying hot-spots. These conditions are where the micro-culture of aid dispensation is most vulnerable to abuse.

The situation exerts huge pressure on human resources management. Emergency response, especially in sudden catastrophes such as earthquakes, when staff recruitment has to be done at breakneck speed, exerts additional strains. DfID entrusted Oxfam with millions in aid for emergency operations and poverty-alleviation, and were content with the results. Now, following in the wake of the Times’ coverage, and the light it has shone on behaviour on the sector as a whole, DfID has turned on Oxfam and treated it like a pariah.

In the 1990s, Oxfam began to soften its voice in return for a place at the establishment table. The prize – massive extra resources from aid budgets – seemed worthwhile. At the Millennium, there was an international drive, led by the UN, to devote official aid to addressing poverty directly, often through NGOs. Oxfam then enjoyed a golden era of universal favour, their radical championship of poverty reduction supported by establishment and public alike. Their reports on global disadvantage found a place in respectable think-tanks and the World Economic Forum.

That is now changing. UK official aid is now primarily about investment in projects to produce returns for UK interests. Nonetheless, there is deep resentment on the UK political right about the 0.7 per cent aid target and the ring-fenced DfID budget. So official support for NGO anti-poverty projects is losing ground fast. Oxfam’s annual report on the state of inequality in the world, instead of being applauded, was this year labelled Marxist-Corbynista propaganda. And now, with the Haiti debacle, comes another handy pretext to trim Oxfam’s wings.

Bullying, sexism and abusive behaviour has to be eradicated from the charity sector workplace as a priority. But there is no reasonable grounds for the vicious publicity and reputational damage meted out in recent days to Oxfam. The threat of financial loss from DfID and other big donors is real:the Swedish agency SIDA has just cancelled a joint project with Oxfam that was benefiting 250,000 people in Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of Congo. The loss of public credibility for Oxfam is going to affect not just thousands of their beneficiaries, but the whole anti-poverty crusade.

Maggie Black is a writer on international aid and development, author of official histories of Oxfam and UNICEF; also of International Development: Illusions and realities, No-Nonsense series, NI 2015.


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