Oxfam scandal provokes U.K. political debate on overseas aid

(Nick Ansell/PA via AP, archive)(Nick Ansell/PA via AP, archive)

What at first looked like another exposé of serious misconduct at the venerable development and aid charity Oxfam has turned into both a major scandal and a broad, often bitter public conversation in Britain. Recent disturbing revelations about the behavior of some staff of Oxfam while on-station in Haiti has brought into the open a deep division about the place and role of government aid to developing countries.

In plain terms, some people are opposed to this aid while others are sure of the duty of rich economies to support poorer countries. Recent allegations about one of the United Kingdom’s biggest and best-known charities has driven increased demands from some quarters that overseas aid be reduced, if not abolished completely.

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The misconduct, now widely reported and analyzed across most U.K. media, relates the misbehavior of Oxfam’s staff after Haiti’s 2010 earthquake. Some staff members used prostitutes in Haiti and the charity’s premises and vehicles to facilitate their engagements.

Senior staffers at Oxfam have told a House of Commons committee that they are ashamed of the “hurtful” revelations that emerged from a 2011 internal investigation. Nevertheless, the official government regulators, the Charity Commissioners, have launched an investigation into how the organization handled these reports and whether Oxfam was sufficiently transparent in doing so. Oxfam has been suspended from operating in Haiti for the next two months pending a government investigation there.

Senior staffers at Oxfam have told a House of Commons committee that they are ashamed of the revelations that emerged.

America has learned from a source speaking on condition of anonymity that donations to Oxfam from the U.K. general public have dropped significantly. Over 7,000 private donors have canceled their giving, while prominent figures from show business, the media and public life have cut their ties to Oxfam. Notable among these is Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who, expressing deep disappointment, relinquished his role as an Oxfam global ambassador.

The charity’s income is derived from public donations and the agency’s ubiquitous High Street second-hand goods stores, but like other major players in the sector, Oxfam also bids for and receives regular overseas aid funding from the U.K. central government via the Department for International Development. Government overseas development funding is primarily spent in partnership with such experienced and trusted agencies working on the ground. It is this funding that has now come under renewed attack by the opponents of foreign aid.

The scandal continues to reverberate throughout the humanitarian community and has even touched the Catholic Agency for Overseas Development, the church’s relief and development agency in Britain. A Cafod employee, since dismissed, was one of the former Oxfam employees named in the Haiti investigation.

Cafod director Chris Bain issued a statement on Feb. 15. “We are deeply concerned about the recent news reports which have raised disturbing allegations of sexual misconduct by aid workers,” he said. “Now more than ever, CAFOD is committed to a zero-tolerance approach to misconduct breaching our Code of Behaviour, including fraud, abuse, sexual misconduct, intimidation and other acts. We have robust safeguarding and whistle-blowing policies and practices in place, which are regularly reviewed, to ensure that vulnerable people are protected.

“We regularly communicate this to our staff and provide mechanisms for confidential whistle-blowing,” he added. “Our mission to support people to live life to the fullest gives us a moral duty to their care—we will not let them down.”

Allegations about one of the U.K.’s biggest charities has driven demands that overseas aid be reduced, if not abolished completely.

Britain, like other affluent nations around the world, has signed on to U.N. proposals to commit 0.7 percent of G.D.P. to overseas aid, a pledge that Prime Minister Theresa May renewed in January before the Oxfam story broke. In 2013, Britain became the first G7 county to meet or exceed the target; the pledge is now ring-fenced here, enshrined in law. But some opinion-formers hold that the Britain should not give any aid to the developing world at all.

Not every opponent of overseas aid wants it abolished. Many want it slashed, citing instances of poor oversight and corruption or, now, these Oxfam revelations. The Tory M.P. Jacob Rees-Mogg, a Catholic who is known to M.P.s, including himself, “as the honorable member for the 18th century,” allowed himself to be pictured on the front page of the populist Daily Express holding a paper headlined “stop the foreign aid madness.”

Mr. Rees-Mogg, whose father had edited London’s Times before it became part of the Murdoch empire, is sometimes cited as a Tory leadership candidate, therefore potential prime minister, should Theresa May’s premiership end sooner than she hopes. His voice is not the only one calling British foreign aid into question.

Certain staffers at Oxfam apparently believed that undoubtedly doing good and saving lives in the world’s poorest places gave them license to behave in inappropriate ways. The issue is not only about sexual impropriety, nor only about misuse of goods provided by public donations, nor is it only about Oxfam management’s allegedly inadequate response to the revelations; it is about power.

The donor agency has power in the situation of poverty or disaster; the donor nation has power over the impoverished country; and the individual aid worker, though fundamentally generous and giving, still has power over very vulnerable people. Power can rapidly turn virtue into vice, and some have abused this power.

There are and have been serious questions raised about corruption—how much aid reaches the people that the donors thought they were helping? Is too much of it spent on expensive hotels and air travel, or even salaries, for the development professionals?

Power and self-licensing behaviors so often go hand-in-hand. The advice Jesus offered about renunciation of the desire for power has to inform this debate. It is beyond doubt that the vast majority of professionals in this field are honest and generous people. In the field, most will be nationals supported by only a few international professionals.

That a tiny number of expat workers have behaved inappropriately, even shamefully, cannot be the reason for withdrawing all support to the whole effort. There is risk in a self-righteous disgust that, if acted on, would only hurt the most vulnerable people whom these agencies earnestly desire to help.

Rather than issue cries to shut down overseas aid, we could encourage government toward stricter regulation and the agencies themselves toward greater transparency. That aid providers need to be more transparent seems evident, but U.K. citizens also need to examine their responses to the foreign aid question, examining consciences to check for any tinge of xenophobia or racism.

Founded in 1942, as the Oxford Committee for Famine Relief, Oxfam has grown to be an international federation of 19 agencies, employing almost 10,000 staff in around 90 countries.

In the rush to aid survivors, Oxfam was a major player in Haiti. Now it stands to lose at least 32 million pounds in government funding in the wake of the scandal, as the charity is suspended from bidding for new government funding while a review is conducted. Public confidence in one of the most trusted and well-known names in the sector is already badly eroded, and now public confidence in the U.K. overseas aid sector generally needs a boost. But slashing or even canceling overseas development aid to restore that confidence punishes the wrong parties.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Thomas Severin
2 months 3 weeks ago

This is a classic example of "throwing the baby out with the bath water." While the actions of a few employees of Oxfam are abhorrent, it doesn't make sense to then cut off all funding to the organization, as long as appropriate steps have been taken to weed out the guilty parties.
If I genuinely care about those individuals that Oxfam has been serving, I won't harm those in dire need by withdrawing total support.

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