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What’s to be done with Oxfam, part 2?

Is it gratuitous to link the scandal engulfing Oxfam with the need to transform NGOs and foreign aid?

Credit: Wikimedia/Chris ReynoldsCreative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 license.

“Tensions between reform and transformation are hardwired into the NGO community and look set to continue, unless or until some large scale shock arrives to force through more fundamental changes—like the end of foreign aid, or the removal of public credibility in the wake of some massive scandal, or a blanket ejection of foreign organizations by Southern governments. But those prospects seem remote.” What’s to be done with Oxfam? August 1 2016.

Well, ‘be careful what you wish for.’ Eighteen months after I wrote these words that “scandal” has come to pass, though exactly how “massive” it is a matter for debate. As allegations of sexual abuse and exploitation by a small number of Oxfam staff in Haiti, South Sudan and Chad, and in some of its shops in the UK have exploded around the charity’s head, there have been many forceful and legitimate demands to tighten up procedures, make reparations and strengthen accountability so that such instances are prevented wherever possible and dealt with decisively when they do happen. ‘Case closed,’ you might say.

Except that critics have used this opportunity to castigate Oxfam, NGOs and foreign aid in much more general terms. What has occurred proves that charities are corrupt and incompetent, they say, that they have no ethics or moral value, and that aid should therefore be abolished. Even friendlier critics like Larry Elliot, Suzanne Moore and Deborah Doane (all writing in the Guardian) have accused Oxfam of abandoning its moral core, practicing colonialism and becoming little more than an international business.

Meanwhile Oxfam itself is in turmoil, offering a delayed, incomplete and surprisingly cack-handed response which goes against its own communications advice and ignores decades of experience in how to handle revelations of this nature: tell the whole truth as soon as you find any evidence of wrong-doing; do everything you can to prevent it happening again; and don’t allow abusers to slink away silently into the rest of the system—regardless of any potential embarrassment, loss of funds or legal complications. Don’t hedge or fudge or offer unconvincing justifications of what you can’t do, and don’t wring your hands in public.

Only one head has rolled thus far in this fiasco, but would you or I have done any better under such enormous pressures? Speaking as an ex-Oxfam manager, I’m not sure I would. And in any case, isn’t it a bit gratuitous to use the pain and trauma of all those involved as a hook on which to hang a lecture about the politics of the international system, or to mount generalized attacks that are largely spurious?

I’ve been a critic of NGOs like Oxfam myself for many years, but I value the international solidarity they can help to build when they are at their best. I’m trying to see all sides of the story and avoid throwing any babies out with the bathwater, so for me the question boils down to this: is there a link between what happened in Haiti and what needs to happen in the aid sector more broadly going forward? If not, we should limit ourselves to addressing the case in hand and its consequences. If yes, there’s a legitimate claim that Oxfam and the others should use this opportunity to make those broader changes, and be held accountable for doing so.

At the simplest and most basic level, abuse and exploitation happen when someone near the top of a hierarchy uses someone lower down who has less power, outside of a system of clear rules and accountability. The fact that this case concerns the hierarchy of an NGO or the aid industry more broadly is irrelevant—unless one believes that Oxfam is staffed by saints or that institutions behave more ethically just because they say so. We know that neither of these things are true, and I’m certain that we’ll hear more evidence to substantiate that fact in the coming months as other instances of abuse come to light in other settings.

In a recent interview with AFP about the Oxfam furor, Mike Jennings, head of the Department of Development Studies at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies, said this:

“Emergency situations are almost a perfect environment for these kind of activities to emerge. 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.”

That’s true, but ‘access to resources’ and ‘inequalities in power’ are not a given. They are formed in particular contexts by human hands, and they can be re-formed in similar fashion. Inequalities in power and resources are what Oxfam and the others were set up to confront and ultimately transform, not just in relations between men and women or employers and employees but throughout society and its institutions—and especially between rich and poor. You can’t secure those sorts of transformations unless you attack their constituent parts at the level of daily practice, and it’s here that the link between the specific and the general becomes a little clearer.

For at least the last 25 years there has been a lively debate about power, aid and NGOs, focusing on the inability or unwillingness of agencies to hand over control and share their resources—as opposed to building their own brands and competing for market share from their fundraising base in the global North, and notwithstanding the recent trend to decentralize some parts of their operations. There are echoes of this debate among the friendlier critics of Oxfam since the Haiti scandal broke. The central issue is that, while NGOs are happy to criticize inequality when it is caused by others—billionaires for example, or the World Bank or multinational corporations—they have not been prepared to face up to the inequalities for which they themselves are at least partly responsible

Those inequalities stem from a failure to build or support indigenous institutions in order to remove the need for any foreign presence, and the taking away of political and intellectual space from organizations in the global South, and grassroots groups everywhere, in the worlds of advocacy, research and campaigning.

If inequality is tolerated anywhere it can be reproduced everywhere; by contrast, if it is honestly acknowledged and dealt with in one part of the system it can act as a spur to confront other inequalities elsewhere. That, it seems to me, is the potential wider significance of what has happened in Haiti. But it’s important to note that reducing inequality doesn’t automatically curb sexual abuse and exploitation. There are no saints in the global South either.

Hence, it is not gratuitous to link yesterday’s horrific school shooting in Florida to the need for gun control across the USA. Specific cases call for a generalized response, not just improved security in one school. In the same way, putting measures in place to curb sexual abuse in one agency or country requires us to look more deeply into the inequalities that lie at the root of the problem, and to address them in a general framework. Although that may sound unlikely in the heat of the current moment, its results could be revolutionary. We may finally get a healthy, ethical and equal-minded movement for international cooperation to confront global problems.

Can its own #metoo moment help the aid industry to question and transform its role in this way? When you face an outside threat to your integrity, and even to your existence, it’s difficult to focus on anything except circling the wagons in order to survive. But the emotional experience of vulnerability—the enforced stripping away of arrogance and defensiveness and inertia—can also create a space for acceptance, an acceptance that things do now need to change.

At the human level we should all feel for Oxfam’s staff in these times, just as we must feel for those who have endured abuse and exploitation at the hands of a very small minority of their number. As the global leader of the NGO community Oxfam has a special responsibility to make sure this opportunity isn’t wasted.  

About the author

Michael Edwards is a writer and activist based in upstate New York, and the editor of Transformation. His website is and his twitter account is @edwarmi.

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