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The Attack on Overseas Aid: Oxfam crisis

Paul Vallely - The Tablet - Thu, Mar 1st 2018

Winnie Byanyima (left), executive director of Oxfam International, Mark Goldring, CEO of Oxfam GB, and Caroline Thomson, chair of trustees for Oxfam GB, giving evidence before the Commons development committee

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 after that 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”. But many right-wing politicians are going further, suggesting that the scandal calls into question the very future of the 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.”

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 UK government’s Department for International Development (DfID), and to 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 appointed a head of safeguarding and created a whistleblowing hotline, onto which allegations were reported anonymously. It sent safeguarding trainers out into the field and began listing sexual harassment incidents in its annual public report.

What Oxfam did not do was report the offenders to the police, either in Haiti, where prostitution is illegal, or back in the seven countries from which the aid workers came. (None was British.) It did not inform other aid agencies of the identity of the offenders, so they could be prevented from working elsewhere. And it was slow to give its new 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 last week its senior management team was not transparent in its response, allowing the details to seep out in dribs and drabs. Instead of immediately owning up and apologising, Oxfam’s response seemed reluctant, clumsy and maladroit.

Oxfam was not alone in its culpability. It turned out that officials from DfID (who in 2011 were more concerned about fraud and corruption than sexual exploitation) and the Charity Commission (whose budget had been slashed by a third) had failed to enquire into the nature of the gross misconduct in Haiti. But 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, and is part of a wider attack on overseas aid. Half a dozen senior figures in the aid world told me that Oxfam was 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, and tax havens and asks why most of the globe’s new wealth has gone to the richest one per cent of the population. “Oxfam is a target because it speaks out and challenges government policies.”

That first Times story – one in no fewer than 50 anti-Oxfam articles it 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 and Benedict XVI. Pope Francis has preached, “responsibility for the poor and the marginalised 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 per cent of our national income to help the world’s poorest people. They want the cash to be diverted to the NHS or to welfare budgets.

This makes little economic sense. To halve the aid budget would save £7bn, which would make little 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, and 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. Britain’s overseas aid is particularly effective and well-targeted, according to Owen Barder of the Centre for Global Development.

Of course it’s not really about the figures. Cutting aid is a visceral instinct rather than an economic calculation for the ideological right. To them the 0.7 per cent 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 they 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 would diminish Britain’s role as a moral actor on the world stage.

Politics is not the only muddle. There is also much confusion over what its critics mean by “aid”. Those who object to development aid often say they have no problem with humanitarian emergency relief after a disaster, which constitutes only 10 per cent 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 current debate fails to take account of the differences between relief and development. Inside Oxfam there are four different cultures rooted in its four centres of operation: emergency work, long-term development, advocacy and fundraising. Each requires a different skill-set and creates a different value-set. Fundraisers tend to be keen on using sad pictures of desperate children. Development workers, fired up by a 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 primarily political. Those working in emergency 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.” But it can be tricky to bring in a former soldier who had been a logistics expert in the army and expect him to leave his soldiering culture behind. This is the brand of aid worker who behaved so badly in Haiti. Getting them to embrace the values of their colleagues who have been pioneers in the empowerment of women has been a key problem for Oxfam.

In development work the aid sector is moving to a “localisation” model, to enabling local people to do the work once done by expats. Emergency work is also adopting that approach, but 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 can throw up different problems, of clashes of culture and of values. 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. While acknowledging the faults of some aid workers, the writer and activist Michael Edwards points out: “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”.

The third area of confusion is over sex. The central row in Haiti was over the use of prostitutes. But it has become muddled up 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 stopped short of banning staff from using prostitutes, which, it said, would “infringe their civil liberties”.

In today’s #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 there is an argument for saying that everyone in the region is a beneficiary in the widest sense. Not everyone agrees. Some insist that prostitution is always exploitation; others argue it can be a deliberate choice, and therefore consensual.

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. Dr Dyan Mazurana, who conducted the Tufts research, said that the changes introduced by Oxfam after the Haiti incident – 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 chief executive, Mark Goldring, revealed that 26 more complaints have been made in recent days.

Penny Mordaunt, the secretary of state for international development, says she will suspend 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 trying to negotiate a secret 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 anyone 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.

Paul Vallely is a journalist and writer on religion, ethics, and development issues. He has been an advisor to several UK aid agencies, including Traidcraft, Cafod and Christian Aid.

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