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Wednesday, 14 February 2018

I'm still supporting Oxfam

The excitable elements of the Press must be rubbing their hands in glee. This is the news story the more sensationalist of them have been longing for, as have our usual demagogues. On Thursday, The Times produced a critical report on the conduct of some Oxfam workers. It took all of twenty four hours for Jacob Rees-Mogg to be knocking at the door of Number 10 demanding that Britain's aid budget should be stopped. Shome coincidence, shurely.....

The trigger for this frenzy was, of course, the shocking news about sexual misconduct among some of Oxfam's aid workers during the earthquake in Haiti in 2010 and in Chad in 2006. Here were well-paid staff working for one of our most respected charities making use of the services of local prostitutes, some of whom may have been underage, though we don't know that, and all of whom probably lived in desperate circumstances. Some women may have sold sex in order to put food in their children's stomachs. That practice is common across the developing world - and elsewhere - and is inevitably going to increase during a disaster. Wrong that the vulnerable should be taken advantage of, though, dare I say it, the women no doubt appreciated the money.

Those aid workers who were guilty were of course dealt with at the time, within the limits of current procedures. In fact, the whistleblower, Paul Caney, was a high-level official in Oxfam's own Caribbean and Latin American team. He had gone right to the top of Oxfam with his report. Safeguarding procedures have since been revised and tightened up. An old story, therefore, but for some strange reason suddenly resurrected to coincide with Rees-Mogg's bid for power. It is the foreign counterpart of right wing campaigns against homegrown 'benefit cheats'.

Since the story broke a couple of days ago, other international aid organisations have indicated that some of their staff too may have engaged in similar behaviour. Worse, the director at the centre of the Oxfam case, 'let go' without a reference, has since gone on to work for other organisations, including currently, CAFOD. Others implicated may have done the same. Clearly, references are not always checked and some charities had weak management procedures. Charities employ internal disciplinary methods, as they did in this case. The effectiveness and appropriateness of such methods should, of course, be questioned and revised if necessary.

Sad to say, none of these stories comes as an enormous surprise - except, of course, to the pontificating popular press. Sexualised behaviour is prevalent in many of our own European and American workplaces, as recent well-publicised cases have demonstrated. It would be surprising if the aid world were completely immune from similar behaviour. It is common among other expatriates like oil workers, after all. People living in foreign countries and away from their families, particularly those working in challenging cultures and environments do tend to develop wilder social lives than they would be likely to have in the humdrum context of Great Britain. Not good, but not surprising either.

Inevitably, the allegations against Oxfam have broadened in focus as bandwagons have been jumped on. What started off as a justifiable concern about weak safeguarding procedures and the use, seven years ago, of prostitutes from within a vulnerable community led to separate allegations of a male-dominated management culture. Then came reports that volunteer assistants in British Oxfam shops had been propositioned, events dating back four years and dealt with at the time. I wonder if they are the only workers in Britain's retail sector to experience such behaviour?

None of this conduct is, of course, unfamiliar to us, or specific only to the aid sector, as recent events in the entertainment industry, in the political world and in some of our best-known financial institutions have shown. A number of the better quality newspapers are now raising questions about why reports of these really quite old events are resurfacing just now. Are we completely sure it has nothing to do with politicians' leadership ambitions, supported by the rightwing press? It is easy to whip up the anti-liberal brigade in Brexit Britain. Lucky Rees-Mogg, not only does he get a resurrected story like this playing straight into his hands, but also the newly announced support of Aaron Banks, the UKIP campaigner, transferring to him the financial resources once devoted to Nigel Farage. Rees-Mogg is well set to continue to play the moral crusader, confident in the allegiance of his self-righteous supporters on social media, who have never undergone any foreign experience more challenging than a two-week package holiday in Benidorm.

However, let's think about what we are saying here.

People who work for big aid organisations are paid professional workers, like those in all industries, and so they should be. No one wants millions of pounds of charitable donations and government money to be disbursed by unaccountable amateurs without the necessary management skills. Senior aid workers have to control large budgets and manage a diverse range of people. The days when 'good works' were principally carried out by missionaries and volunteers are long gone. These days, senior staff are similar in background and skills to those working for other public agencies, the oil industry or big infrastructure and engineering projects. As senior managers, they bring with them highly developed skills and relevant experience. They are expected to work to high professional standards and be accountable. Many of them have gone on to play significant roles in our public life.

That a few senior aid workers in a small number of foreign settings fail to live up to these standards in their private lives is disappointing but hardly surprising. Their failings makes them little different from their counterparts in private and public organisations elsewhere. A few may be bullies, or use sexualised language or overly-physical gestures. Some may make use of prostitutes, including, possibly, the underaged. No one, however, is suggesting that such attitudes and behaviour are typical of all aid workers in our charities. Nor is anyone suggesting that where workers have demonstrated this behaviour in private, it has had a major impact on their working lives and the service they provide for the poorest. To do so, if unfounded, would be quite unjust.

Nevertheless, you may argue, there is a difference between charities and businesses. Aid organisations are supposed to support the most vulnerable, not prey on them. They are dependent on public funds and private donations. The aid workers paying for prostitutes were doing so with salaries provided by other people's money, as is true of public sector and not-for-profit workers everywhere. It seems as if the monitoring structures within Oxfam may not have been effective. In that case, let them be answerable for this and go through whatever reviews and restructuring are necessary, but let us not start arguing that in that case we should withdraw our aid from vulnerable communities across the world.

Sexual exploitation is all around you in the developing world. Stuart and I remember the middle-aged men bringing young women into our hotel in northern Cameroon. They did not look like young girls, but who could really tell? Were the men aid workers or expatriate engineers? Who knows?

In Kampala, we stopped eating at our favourite restaurant when by 7 o'clock in the evening the prostitutes started trooping in. Even in quiet Lilongwe, I can immediately spot the 'working girls' in my local restaurant. How do I know? The dizzy high heels, the short tight dresses so different from the modest outfits worn by ordinary Malawian women, for whom even knee-length skirts are considered 'short'. These young women sit at the bar, waiting for men to approach them. Most of the men patronising them are white and foreign. Lonely businessmen or charity workers? Who knows?

In what ways is prostitution of this kind different from its counterpart in Scotland? After all, there are 'working girls' in Leith, just down the road from us. Men using the services of prostitutes are rarely if ever prosecuted in Britain, not just Haiti.

For one thing, prostitution in Edinburgh is carried out in relatively unfrequented areas or off the street in a sauna. Girls come out later in the evening and are not obvious in the kinds of restaurants we would go to. Out of sight, out of mind. Yet, we also know that women are trafficked into the sex trade in Scotland, just as they are in the developing world. Some may have their own personal or social pressures, be trying to support a drug or alcohol habit or just trying to help their families to survive. Few prostitutes either here or abroad make completely free choices, except possibly those working in high-end escort agencies.

Even worse than the accounts of prostitution are those of child abuse. When we were staying in the diplomatic quarter of Dhaka, we would regularly see a middle-aged white man in a rickshaw, with a gaggle of children hanging off it. He worked for an NGO, I've no idea which one. Nobody seemed to be addressing the potential or real risks those children faced. They might well have been pimped by their parents. Who knows? However, this is not just the situation abroad. In our own country, the Rotherham cases have demonstrated how authorities can be blinded by cultural prejudices. Many people have been tardy in recognising abuse happening in residential settings here. Why are we, in the country which nurtured and indeed lauded, Jimmy Saville, suddenly expecting safeguarding to be better in disaster-ridden countries abroad,with poorly functioning governments and inadequate communications? How self-righteous we all are!

While current news stories relate to a small number of expatriate aid workers, the conduct of local staff is much more likely to fall below the standards expected. Recent reports from refugee camps in northern Uganda tell of 'ghost' recipients of aid, embezzlement, bribery and trafficking of women and girls. Uganda's support for refugees used to seem impressive. I think it probably still is impressive, but not quite as impressive as we previously thought.

UN Peacekeepers have long been implicated in sexual violence in countries such as DR Congo. The reported incidents are almost certainly a small proportion of the total. Many such peacekeepers come from countries with male-dominated cultures, in which men may consider that they have a 'right' to sex. Such attitudes may influence their behaviour in the countries to which they are assigned.

We would be wrong to assume, however, that the examples given here are typical of all relationships between aid workers and the local population. Many develop normal personal relationships within and beyond their teams, as they might in their own countries, or as do workers in other industries. The majority of such relationships are mutually respectful; indeed, many such couples develop long-term partnerships. Bullying and exploitation are the exception, not the rule.

As you can see, I am well aware of the weaknesses in some of our attempts to deal with some very intractable issues in the developing world. However, they are weaknesses which are typical also of our own society, not just of foreign aid workers. The sloppy journalism which has characterised writing about this topic has been quite shocking in its sensationalism, lack of balance and emotiveness. Some of the anecdotes being shared on Twitter and elsewhere are simply that. Linda Polman's article in The Times following the one by Sean O'Neill's which started all the hysteria, is extremely one-sided, personalised and devoid of concrete verifiable evidence. The anecdotes and stories it recounts in some cases date back twenty or thirty years. O'Neill's article is straightforward tabloid journalism. It appeared 'out of the blue' seven years after the incidents it describes, apparently deliberately timed to coincide with power struggles taking place within the toxic culture of the Tory party.

This is a witch hunt. If aid is cut off, as most of these writers are suggesting, the weakest of our fellow human beings will be the inevitable and main casualties. Fortunately, even in the Tory party, voices of reason are beginning to prevail. Andrew Mitchell has spoken effectively on the BBC and written a good article for the Evening Standard and the 'i', as has William Hague, both of whom know rather more about international aid and foreign countries than Jacob Rees Mogg. Penny Mordaunt, the Secretary for International Development, is refusing to be pushed into decisions by her more extreme colleagues.

This is not to say however, that we should not take such abuse seriously and deal with it when it occurs. When such abuse occurs, however, what is behind it?

Firstly, there is the issue of power and how it is distributed. This is often accompanied by a belief in male 'entitlement', just as in Hollywood. Westerners may be treated with too much deference. Partly this is because they manage the resources. Partly, these attitudes go back decades, to colonial times, when the word of the local district officer or, sometimes worse, the memsahib, often went unchallenged. It is difficult for people to say 'no', particularly if they fear they may lose access to food or support for their family.

Secondly, humanitarian workers experience highly pressurised lives, particularly during disasters. They see a lot of death and suffering in appalling circumstances. The problems they deal with may seem insoluble. Some of them may even, reluctantly, have power over life or death, particularly if they have to ration scarce resources. Sometimes workers may have to select those children who will benefit from supplementary feeding while turning away those whose fate is already sealed. In so doing they may have to ignore the pleas of desperate parents. Such workers almost certainly benefit from more generous food allocations than the people they serve, for otherwise they would be unable to do their jobs. Inevitably there may be 'guilt' attached to this. Yet, most such aid workers do not benefit from having the support of their families around them, or partners with whom they can share the pressures. The impact of such stress on them as individuals can be overwhelming.

It is hardly surprising that some of these workers may play hard when off duty to compensate for living hard during the long hours they work, day after day. These pressures may result in wild drunken parties or intense relationships within expatriate teams, some of which may also verge on the exploitative. At some point a line may be crossed, as clearly happened in Haiti, Chad and, no doubt, other countries, though it is surprising that not much has been said about this. (For more on crossing the line, though within a different context, read Emma's Story: Love, Betrayal and Death in the Sudan, by Deborah Scroggins) The stories so far have been about a small number of dysfunctional men in a small number of countries. Unacceptable but hardly representative of the whole of the aid industry or even of Oxfam's work in the 90 countries in which it operates.

Many critical voices this week have pointed to the 'luxurious' circumstances in which aid workers live. Again, these comments show a complete lack of understanding about the context. Yes, such workers will often lodge in 'big' houses. I can only speak of the countries in sub-Saharan Africa where I have lived. There it is difficult to find mid-range housing except in the urban centres. Aid work is mostly carried out in remote rural areas and small towns. In settlements twenty miles or further beyond the capital, the choice may be between mud, pole and grass-thatched huts, or if you are lucky, two-roomed baked-earth cottages with beaten earth floors, and large old ex-colonial houses. Most sanitation will be provided by pit latrines. In Uganda, even the hotels in which Stuart and I delivered training only offered delegates the use of pit latrines.

Aid workers must be housed in sanitary conditions. That much surely is obvious. In Uganda, only 10% of households had flush toilets and then mostly in cities. Ony 8% had electricity. Piped water within houses was a rarity. Aid workers need access to clean water and proper sanitation or they get sick and are of no use to anyone. They need electricity, usually provided by a generator, because access to the internet is vital to modern ways of working. It also makes life safer. They need a secure environment with proper walls and fences and guards, because robbery is very common. This kind of environment is not 'luxurious'. It is essential for them to do their work. Have any of the critics ever lived abroad?

Is it fair that the past activities reported this week should lead to calls for aid to be cut or for aid organisations to be disbanded altogether as some politicians and media sources in Brexit Britain seem to be demanding?

For urgent humanitarian aid, there is no alternative to providing direct support on the ground. Such support is virtually impossible to mobilise from within countries in which law and order have broken down, health systems have succumbed to epidemics or transport systems have collapsed following earthquakes or floods. You need very highly trained specialist staff to deal with such situations, able to operate under extreme pressure. They are unlikely to be without some flaws. As far as I know, sainthood is not one of the qualifications required. Living and working abroad all one's life in these kinds of circumstances can lead to a loss of one's bearings and, in a very few cases, a hardening of emotional reactions or even a destruction of one's moral compass. The stories in the press which recount instances such as these are mostly anecdotal, however. They are not the outcomes of objective research studies.

Effective humanitarian action needs resources, and those resources need to be managed effectively. Governance in developing countries, particularly those in the middle of disasters, can be seriously lacking. Sometimes the necessary technical skills are only available from specialist organisations. And abuse of resources and of people is just as likely - in fact, even more likely - to be carried out by local staff under pressure from their extended families as by expatriates.

For those of us who work for smaller charities, the demeanour of staff in the bigger agencies can be irritating - their sense of entitlement, their sometimes superior attitudes, their domination of the working context. Nevertheless, there is absolutely no doubt that organisations like Oxfam, Save the Children, UNICEF and their like are responsible for amazing achievements. They transform lives across the world. We should be proud of their successes, while supporting them as they deal with their weaknesses. Can I ask if you, my readers, work for perfect organisations? When you identify weaknesses in your businesses, do you demand that they should be closed down?

The current media frenzy plays into the hands of those who have always wished aid work ill. Right wing politicians such as Priti Patel and the tabloid press have made no secret of their scepticism about the worth of international aid. The issue no longer seems to be about improving the governance of our charities. There is a real danger that the current hysteria will put an end to aid in its entirety. If it does, then millions of the poor and weak will suffer in some of the most dangerous places on earth. Oxfam's work with the Burmese Rohingya, in DR Congo and in the Yemen, for example, will end.

So, what would Jacob Rees-Mogg, the Daily Mail et al like us to do about aid? Stop giving it, of course. In the case of Oxfam alone, let me remind you, that means we should no longer:
  • help communities across Africa and Asia deal with climate change
  • campaign to improve global trade rules so that they are fairer for poorer coutries
  • help smallholders grow and market their crops
  • develop water resources in drought-ridden agricultural areas of Ethiopia and northern Kenya
  • provide access to clean water and sanitation in South Sudan, Pakistan, northern Sri Lanka and Zimbabwe
  • train people to fight gender-related violence in Zambia
  • provide sexual health information in the Philippines and elsewhere
  • help female survivors of gender violence in Iraq rebuild their lives
  • address severe malnutrition in DR Congo
  • provide free health care to mothers and children under five in Sierra Leone
  • provide low cost clinics in rural Georgia
  • improve education in Zambia, building community schools for orphans without the resources to attend government schools
  • help women and young people start up businesses in the slums of Nairobi and other urban centres
  • provide non-polluting bio-sanitation centres in slums so that people can shower and use safe latrines
  • train midwives and birth attendants in sub-Saharan Africa
  • etc etc etc etc
If our sensationalist press got its way all this work by this one charity alone would stop.

And what if DfID withdrew from all the work carried out by all its funded charities? The impact would be enormous. In Malawi alone, the following projects would end:
  • support to groups working to prevent violence against women and children and to develop traditional and formal justice systems
  • support for sustainable infrastructure developments
  • provision of capital and technical assistance to small and medium agricultural businesses so that they develop resilience to climate change
  • action to prevent school drop out and keep marginalised girls in secondary schools
  • provision of health services to poor communities, which to date has treated 4.3 million under-fives for pneumonia, 63,000 patients for TB, enabled 2.3 million deliveries by skilled health workers, extended family planning to 363,000 users, treated 416,000 adults for HIV, immunised 2.4 million children, treated 25 million children for malaria, and distributed 10 million bednets
  • improvements to ethical and professional standards within the civil service, introducing merit-based recruitment and performance-based human resource management
  • help to survivors of violence against women to enable them to achieve justice
  • improvements to public finance and budgeting
  • work to develop disaster-resilient communities.
Odd isn't it that no one suggests that the Catholic Church should be closed down because of the behaviour of some of its priests, or that football clubs should be disbanded because of the predatory behaviour of some of their coaches. Aid organisations, however, are fair game.

Let's punish the poorest people in the world for the behaviour of a few maverick senior managers. That'll teach 'em!


Sources for this article

Don't cut foreign aid because of  the disturbing behaviour of individual workers at Oxfam, i Academics (Luisa Enria, University of Bath, The 'i' Newspaper, 13 February 2018
British aid makes the world a better place - we should be proud, Andrew Mitchell, The Evening Standard, 13 February 2018
Don't let right wing Brexiters exploit the Oxfam scandal, Marianne Taylor, The Herald, 12 February 2018
What is Oxfam's real crime?, Richard Murphy, Tax Research UK, 10 February 2018
Charities watchdog demands answers from Oxfam over Haiti scandal, Jamie Grierson, The Guardian, 10 February 2018
Oxfam's Haiti scandal may have big consequences for Britain's foreign aid target, Stephen Bush, The New Statesman, 12 February 2018
Oxfam in Haiti: It was like a Caligula orgy with prostitutes in Oxfam T-shirts, Sean O'Neill, The Times, 9 February 2018
The Oxfam row is no reason to cut foreign aid, Matthew Ancona, The Guardian, 11 February 2018
Aid worker who used prostitutes: 'Judge me by my actions not by what I do in my time off', LBC, 11 February 2018
Refugee Funds Scam: There is no place for fraud UN tells Uganda, All Africa, 13 February 2018
Oxfam scandal - Would you still donate?, Huffpost UK Politics video
Oxfam scandal: William Hague warns cuts to aid would be a 'strategic blunder', Richard Vaughan, the 'i' Newspaper, 13 February 2018
The Oxfam scandal is a reckoning for the boated, decadent aid industry I saw at first hand, Richard Dowden, the 'i' Newspaper, 13 February 2018
We need to increase the foreign aid budget following the Oxfam Haiti scandal, Matthew Norman, The Independent, 11 February 2018

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