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The ignorance and hypocrisy behind the moral panic over Oxfam

2018 February 20
by Paul Vallely


A quarter of a million poor people paid the price within a few days after The Times published its exposé of parties with prostitutes held by a few Oxfam aid workers in disaster-torn Haiti in 2011. Oxfam’s partner, the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency, swiftly announced it was suspending funding for a joint project which benefits 250,000 people in Iraq, the Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of Congo. A few days afterwards the British government insisted that the country’s biggest international development charity must stop bidding for taxpayers money until ministers are “satisfied” the charity “can meet the high standards we expect”.

A lot is at stake. Last year the UK government gave Oxfam £31.7m, almost 10% of the charity’s funding. More than 7,000 private individuals have cancelled their Oxfam direct debits. Corporate donors have expressed concern. Commentators dramatically describe Oxfam as “on a life-support machine” and “in a struggle for its very existence”. Analysts fear that the scandal could hit donations all across the entire charity sector. But many right-wing politicians are going further, suggesting that the scandal calls into question the very future of the British aid budget which they have long attacked as overgenerous in a time of austerity. Yet the ensuing debate has been characterised by ignorance, muddled thinking, falsehoods and hypocrisy. “It’s a moral panic,” one aid veteran told me, “there is no nuance and no balance in the reaction”.

What Oxfam did wrong – and right

Seven years ago a whistleblower reported to Oxfam’s head office that a culture of bullying, intimidation, pornography and sexual exploitation existed in its office in Haiti. Investigators flew from Oxford and sacked four employees for gross misconduct and told three others to resign. It reported all this to the British Department for International Development, and its regulator the Charity Commission. It even issued a press release about the sackings which was carried by the BBC, though it spoke only of misconduct, omitting the sexual detail. It then established a Head of Safeguarding and created a whistleblowing hotline, onto which allegations began anonymously to be reported. It sent safeguarding trainers out into the field and began listing sexual harassment incidents in its annual public report.

What it did not do was report the offenders to the police, either in Haiti, where prostitution is illegal, or back in seven countries from which the aid workers came. (None were British) . It did not inform other aid agencies of the identity of the offenders to prevent them working elsewhere. And it was slow in giving its head of safeguarding the resources she needed to deal with the level of complaints flooding in to the whistleblowing hotline. Then when the story broke its senior management team were not transparent in their response, allowing the details to seep damagingly out in dribs and drabs. Instead of immediately owning up and apologising, Oxfam’s response seemed reluctant, clumsy and maladroit, with its chief executive, Mark Goldring, complaining that criticism of the charity was “out of proportion”, bizarrely adding that Oxfam workers had not “murdered babies in their cots”. It only drew more withering criticism. Oxfam, one critic said, had become “the Harvey Weinstein of aid”.

Oxfam was not alone in its culpability. It turned out that officials from DfID and the Charity Commission failed to enquire into the nature of the gross misconduct. “In those days DfID were only interested in details relating to fraud and the misuse of their money,” the head of one British aid agency told me. “They have changed the game now.” The #MeToo moment, in the wake of reports of sexual harassment and discrimination in Hollywood, Parliament, the BBC, football and the wider workplace”has brought safeguarding onto their agenda”. As for the Charities Commission, which has had its budget slashed by a third recently, another senior aid worker said, “is largely a passive recipient of annual filings rather than an active watchdog which would have acted if Oxfam’s disclosures had been more detailed”.

Oxfam made serious mistakes. Its peers in other aid agencies accept that. Yet they are also convinced the timing and ferocity of the criticism of the charity is a deliberate strategy as part of a whole attack on aid. Half a dozen senior figures in the aid world told me that Oxfam is being attacked because of its political campaigning. “The Right hates Oxfam because it is a voice for the voiceless,” one agency head said. “It doesn’t just help poor people it asks why they are poor.” Oxfam has, in recent times, criticised benefit cuts, zero-hours contracts, tax havens and asked why most of the globe’s new wealth has gone to the richest 1% of the population. “Oxfam is a target because it speaks out and challenges government policies. Oxfam hasn’t handled all this as well as it could have. But it feels like the attack on them is an ideologically-driven attack. It is designed to undermine the moral authority which is what gives Oxfam its ability to campaign against inequality and dispossession”.

That first Times story – one in no fewer than 50 anti-Oxfam articles it has published over just 10 days – came just as the new darling of the Conservative Right, the prominent parliamentary Catholic, Jacob Rees-Mogg, presented a petition to Downing Street on behalf of a Daily Express ”crusade” entitled “Stop the foreign aid madness” – a sentiment which runs counter to decades of Catholic Social Teaching on aid endorsed by popes Paul VI, John Paul II, Benedict XVI and Francis who has preached “responsibility for the poor and the marginalized must … be an essential element of any political decision”. By contrast the Tory Right wants, under cover of austerity, to slash the aid budget and the commitment enshrined in law by David Cameron to give 0.7% of our national income to help the world’s poorest people. They want the cash to be diverted to the NHS or the welfare budgets.

Perverse politics

This makes little economic sense. To halve the aid budget would save £7bn which would make small impact on the £155bn cost of the NHS or the massive £252bn benefits and pensions bill. Set against that, British aid has contributed to the wiping out of smallpox, the near eradication of polio, the halving of deaths from malaria and has saved the lives of 5 million children each year who would otherwise have died from diarrhoeal diseases.

Of course it’s not really about the figures. Cutting aid is a visceral political instinct rather than an economic calculation for the ideological Right. To them the 0.7pc is the last remnant of the one-nation Cameron project they so despise. It tunes into the Brexit psyche . As one aid agency chief put it : “However much we argue that aid is effective it doesn’t cut through effectively – just as in the Brexit debate it doesn’t work to talk about the economic damage. People have heard those arguments and discounted them.” Brexiteers who say they want Britain to take a greater role on the world stage seem not to see that halving our foreign aid will diminish Britain’s role as a moral actor on the world stage.

Does aid work?

Politics is not the only muddle. There is also much confusion over what they mean by aid. Those on the right love to quote free-marketeers like the Zambian economist Dambisa Moyo whose book Dead Aid claims that aid does more harm than good and has never created a single job. I’ve seen with my own eyes the evidence on the ground in Africa, everywhere from Ethiopia and Kenya to Mozambique and Uganda, which gives the lie to that. Moyo fails to distinguish correlation from causation and generalises from the worst examples – a familiar tactic of the ideological right. She complains that the rich world has fruitlessly sent a fabulous $1 trillion to Africa over the past 50 years – failing to do the maths which shows that this is just $16 a year for each person. Hardly princely.

In any case, the vast majority of development economists insist that, contrary to the assertions of the ideologues, aid is effective. Three decades ago Robert Cassen et al, in their magisterial study Does Aid Work? – which The Economist called “the most exhaustive study of aid ever undertaken” and “the standard reference on the subject” – showed that all serious analysis reveals that most aid succeeds and obtains a reasonable rate of return. The average return on aid investments in Africa exceeds 20%, the World Bank says. (Curiously Moyo and many of her fellow doubters never even refer to the Cassen study). Ten years ago Cassen’s work was brought up to date by Roger C. Riddell with another massive study, Does Foreign Aid Really Work? which came to much the same conclusion – that between 75% and 90% of project aid does work, though it could be done much better, and that in general aid does make a positive contribution to economic growth and reducing poverty, though it is often hard for it to reach the very poorest people. Britain’s aid is particularly effective and well-targeted, according to Owen Barder of the Centre for Global Development.

Most recently a study by the World Institute for Development Economics Research, which surveyed all peer-reviewed academic research on aid and growth published since 2008, reported that the evidence that aid boosts economic growth is itself growing rapidly. The Economist, long sceptical of aid now agree that most evidence shows that aid boosts growth. And the Brookings Institution, America’s leading think tank, says that pointing to failed aid projects – of which there are plenty – and extrapolating that therefore aid generically doesn’t work is like pointing to companies which go bankrupt and saying that proves private investment doesn’t work. One of its senior fellows, Steve Radlett, concludes: “There is lots of evidence from independent research showing the positive impacts of aid on development and raising living standards. As this evidence has grown in recent years… the major debates about aid have shifted from the outdated “does aid work” to much more helpful questions about how aid mechanisms could be strengthened further and how they should evolve in a rapidly changing world”. Aid is not enough, of course. Long-term development also depends on strong economic, civic and political institutions – and on peace – but aid helps significantly

Local and international values

Those who object to development aid often say they have no problem with humanitarian emergency relief after a disaster, which constitutes only 10% of total aid flows. It’s ironic, then, that they are now seizing on humanitarian relief on Haiti as an example of aid failure. The complaints about the behaviour of handful of Oxfam employees proceed on the same basis – by extrapolating the exceptional and hinting that it is commonplace. A scandal is a scandal precisely because it violates the usual norms, not exemplifying them.

The current debate fails to take account of the differences between relief and development. Inside Oxfam there are four different cultures rooted in its centres of operation: emergency work, long-term development, advocacy and fundraising. Each requires a different skill-set and creates a different value-set. Fundraisers are always keen on using sad pictures of desperate children. Development workers, fired up by a more optimistic vision of partnership and empowerment, want the opposite. (Oxfam’s pioneering work on gender in development comes from that latter group). Those in the advocacy unit are political. Those working in relief have a distinct go-getting macho approach.

As one veteran aid worker put it: “Operational people in emergencies are very much ‘Cut the crap you snowflakes, we’ve got to get this done’. In disasters and conflicts you do sometimes need a more testosterone-loaded approach. You’re dealing with warlords, crises and corrupt officials”. Mike Jennings, of the School of Oriental and African Studies, says that bad behaviour is far more likely to emerge in chaotic, lawless, violent emergency situations: “You have extremely vulnerable people… and a few people who are effectively controlling access to resources, or have huge amounts of power. Whenever you have those inequalities and variances in power, you have scope for abuse.” But it can be tricky to bring in a soldier who has been a logistics expert in the army and expect him to leave his soldiering culture behind. This is the brand of aid workers who behaved so badly in Haiti. Finding ways of getting them to embrace the gender models of their colleagues who have been pioneers in the role of women in development is a key problem for Oxfam.

In development work the aid sector is moving to a “localisation” model, empowering local people to do the work which was once done by expats. Emergency work is adopting that approach only more slowly. “The old model of the white saviour coming in to help the poor blacks is a mentality which remains seductive,” said Chris Bain, the head of Cafod. “We’ve got to move away from that. From day one of a disaster you can either build local capacity or undermine it – and disasters are an ‘opportunity for change’.”

Yet localisation throws up different problems, of culture and of embracing internationalist values which may be alien to it. The academic Mary Beard got in trouble for venturing onto this turf recently; she was condemned on Twitter as a subtle racist and neo-colonialist after observing “how hard it must be to sustain ‘civilised’ values in a disaster zone” and later adding “I am amazed that after decades of Lord of the Flies being a GCSE English set book we haven’t got the point about the breakdown of morality in danger zones!” The internationalisation of Oxfam has empowered people in the south, said one former Oxfam executive, but there is a downside; it increases the complexity of relationships; and it can create problems with the import of local cultures which can be out of sync with those of a contemporary international organisation with its root in the latest developments in Western values. As the writer and activist Michael Edwards puts it: “There are no saints in the global South either”. Oxfam has said it ran training courses in high-risk countries in 2014 “to help our staff know what is acceptable and what is unacceptable behaviour.”

Sexual confusion

The third area of confusion is over sex. The central row in Haiti was over the use of prostitutes. But it has become muddled with the issue of the sexual harassment of female Oxfam employees by their male colleagues. Social mores shift on such issues. Oxfam’s policy on the use of prostitutes by aid workers was drawn up in 2006 when the dominant development issue was human rights. It said that the organisation would “strongly discourage” their workers from paying for sex but refusing to ban staff from using prostitutes saying it would “infringe their civil liberties”.

In today’s more puritanical MeToo culture such a stance is easily mocked. But a senior female aid worker, with 25 years experience in the field, insists that in practical terms the 2006 policy “is still total common sense”. She adds “if an aid worker on his weekend off wants to go to the capital and visit the red light district it’s not for me to complain, so long as it’s legal and there are no underage people involved”. But in Haiti one male Oxfam worker had sex with the sister of an aid recipient: “That is unacceptable; it violates a relationship of trust, like a teacher having sex with a pupil.” And, as was made clear in questions to Oxfam executives at the Commons Select Committee on Tuesday, in a disaster zone some believe that everyone in the region is a beneficiary in the widest sense. Not everyone agrees; though some insist that prostitution is always exploitation others argue it can be a deliberate choice and therefore consensual. Attitudes vary from one country and culture to another, as does the law.

The issue of sexual harassment is related, but distinct. Ironically a major study by Tufts University on the sexual assault of aid workers shows that Oxfam is “universally” regarded as having the best policies on prevention and protection on sexual harassment. “We took our policies straight from them,” the head of another agency told me. Dr Dyan Mazurana, who conducted the Tufts research, said that the changes introduced by Oxfam after the Haiti incident – of a whistleblowing helpline, a dedicated safeguarding team and a policy of publishing data on allegations made – put Oxfam in the pioneering forefront. Ironically, she said, “once you get better reporting and investigating mechanisms in place, and people have confidence to use them, the reports are going to go up”. Seven Oxfam country directors were investigated on “safeguarding allegations” and the charity handled 87 allegations of sexual exploitation by staff in 2016-17. But for Dr Mazurana all this is a sign of progress. Of the 87 allegations, 53 were referred to the police and 33 were investigated internally with three quarters of those being upheld and resulting in disciplinary action. At the Select Committee on Tuesday the Oxfam CEO revealed that 26 more complaints have been made in recent days.

“The puritanical language around – all this talk about things being repulsive and disgusting – is revealing,” one seasoned aid worker said. “It’s part of a black-and-white view which puts aid agencies on a pedestal as people only ever do good things.” Another observed: “There is a temptation to see aid workers as secular priests, people with a high moral tone and higher standards, but we are just human like everyone else. Are people seriously saying that aid workers must become like secular monks who have to be celibate?” It may well come to that.

Moral leadership

That is not quite what Penny Mordaunt, the current Secretary of State for International Development, meant when she announced she has suspended new funding to Oxfam until it demonstrates that is capable of exhibiting “moral leadership”. That notion brought a wry smile to aid workers like Maggie Black, the author of the official history of Oxfam, who pointed out the irony of a demand for moral behaviour from a government which supplies the “made-in-Britain bombs” currently raining down on Oxfam’s work with the poor people of Yemen. Nor does it seem consonant with the corrupted vision of development articulated by Ms Mordaunt’s predecessor, Priti Patel, who was humiliatingly sacked in November after secretly discussing a deal to pass British aid money to the Israeli army. Ms Patel told The Times that she would no longer contribute to Oxfam – only for it to turn out that she had no direct debit to cancel. It was typical of the bad faith which has characterised much of the debate around the Haiti scandal.

Such double standards explain why failures of aid always seem to lead to a call to cut aid rather than reform aid. Failings in health or education do not bring calls to close the NHS or spend less on schools. Sexual harassment in Parliament or in the army does not prompt anyone to suggest abandoning those institutions. After Harvey Weinstein no one said we should shut down Hollywood and stories about predatory paedophiles in football have not made fans drop their support for Manchester City. Why, when it comes to aid, are some people so determined to throw the baby out with the bathwater? Last year Oxfam provided emergency support for 8.6 million people hit by conflict and natural disaster. Surely that is worth preserving.

An edited version of this piece appeared in The Tablet on 23rd February 2018





2 Responses leave one →
  1. Trondo permalink
    March 10, 2018

    This is certainly the best article on the ‘crisis’ I have read since the news broke. Clearly marks out the different topics and explains them well to the diverse range of people seemingly interested in the topic. I hope this can be read by many. Excellent work.

  2. Jake Ross permalink
    March 11, 2018

    It’s good to hear this issue discussed in these terms, and I agree with the majority of your arguments and evidence, but I am not convinced you’ve quite landed up where we in the aid industry need to reach. One problem is that bad people are not necessarily wrong about everything. I don’t think I have ever heard anything come out of Jacob Rees-Mogg’s mouth that I agree with, still less the cynical media campaign against 0.7 GNI spent on UK aid. But that does not detract from the principle ‘first do no harm’ for all professional occupations including humanitarian assistance and development programming. Yes their campaign stinks of rank opportunism—not to mention hypocrisy in the habitually immoral political and media classes—but nevertheless we really do need to ask ourselves whether we have done, and currently are doing, enough to protect vulnerable people from exploitation in the course of our work. Now is the right time to re-set our organisational cultures everywhere. Personally speaking, I would not say it’s unreasonable to require, even or especially of a testosterone-laden former sqaddie, “This is where we draw the line on treating everyone inside and outside our organisation with respect. If you want to work for us, you adhere to our code of conduct to protect your colleagues, the communities we assist and our own reputation, or face the legal and career consequences.” (And/or try recruiting more from the increasing ranks of women formerly in the professional armed forces!) [All views my own alone.]

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