I’ve never worked for Oxfam, and – although I’m on nodding terms with some of the staff in the extremely well-stocked Dalston outlet – I don’t know anyone who currently does. The moment I realised that most of the concern about Oxfam’s hamfisted attempts to handle allegations of inappropriate behaviour by individuals within its employ was when a local newspaper harrassed volunteers in a local shop, and then tried to present it as part of a cover-up – a ‘wall of silence‘.
It is puerile, salacious and utterly irresponsible to take serious events and present them in a way which will encourage misunderstanding and subsequent condemnation. While Harvey Weinstein was a Hollywood movie producer whose career ended suddenly when it was revealed that he had a sordid history of sexually abusing woman and had made concerted efforts to cover it up, Oxfam is not an individual celebrity. It is a huge organisation operating in all sorts of ways and which sometimes makes mistakes. That is the complex reality behind the prurient headlines and the gossip which follows them.
A moment’s reflection confirms that the suggestion that Oxfam as an individual organisation is engaged in a systematic campaign, at every level from senior management to volunteers in local shops, to abuse vulnerable people within its care would be risible if it didn’t have such deadly consequences. Today it transpires that the Swedish Government is to withdraw its funding from the organisation. Now, I don’t believe the world will be righted through acts of charity – most people who work for NGOs probably don’t believe this either. With some notable but dishonourable exceptions (as in any cause), they are intelligent and sincere people doing the very best they can in a partly haphazard fashion. In Oxfam’s case, of the handful of arseholes who behaved irresponsibly, the procedures to identify and hold them accountable could have been more rigorous and transparent. But that doesn’t make for a very good headline – and as the organisation’s CEO has said, some of those asking questions about what happened, particularly on the BBC, don’t seem especially interested in the answers.
The characters who are doing most to promote this story and spin the original allegations out of all proportion and context do not believe in foreign aid. Sensible people should be able to see through their agenda. It’s likely that the attacks on the work – indeed the very existence – of NGOs will continue. A mostly insincere prurient interest into the machinations of individuals employed by them will almost certainly play a major role in disarming vulnerable people of this weapon employed (admittedly, on their behalf) in the fight for justice and survival. Other lines of attack will emerge, partly through a media which the global far-right – from Jacob Rees-Mogg to Donald Trump – will happily dismiss as ‘fake news’ the moment it turns its attention to its figureheads.
Discrediting NGOs is part of the same act as defunding international organisations, and part of the same ideological sweep which urges the public to disregard the work of serious news organisations. We could also link it to the way in which anger at the financial system and at those who had encouraged its profligacy was rapidly diverted into rage at public representatives, how fury at million dollar bonuses was converted into outrage at hundreds wasted on duck houses. That masterstroke by the defenders of privilege and inequality was one source of the disenchantment with the entire democratic system which led to Brexit. So it’s no accident whatsoever that those who successfully scapegoated the EU and are dead-set on seizing their chance to create a deregulatory Year Zero are gunning for NGOs. As I mentioned above, I don’t believe that organisations such as Oxfam will ‘save the world’, just as I don’t think that the EU is all that it could or should be. I do believe that huge bureaucracies dedicated to protecting vulnerable people should ensure that their staff behave in accordance with their principles. That’s a no-brainer. But it’s not what these attacks on Oxfam are about.