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Helping to Tackle Poverty and Injustice Isn't a Matter of Left or Right, But of Right and Wrong

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This week's furore over Oxfam's Below the Breadline report and one particular tweet used to promote it has put Oxfam in an unusual position.

As an organisation which works primarily to combat poverty overseas, we are used to critics arguing that charity should begin at home. Yet having drawn attention to the 20million meals handed out by food banks and other providers some of those same critics have attacked us not only for what they claim is 'party political' campaigning but also for working on poverty in the UK when there is so much need abroad.

Oxfam is committed to tackling poverty and hunger wherever they occur. That means that at any one time we will be helping to get food to people cut off by the conflict in South Sudan; helping women farmers in Nepal escape extreme poverty; and supporting the providers of food banks in the UK to help the increasing numbers of people caught in an economic crisis not of their making and struggling to make ends meet. I have lived and worked in some of the toughest places in the world, including a township in South Africa and a slum in India, and can testify that the poverty I see in my work in the UK is real and is painful. It's vital that we help poor people in Britain as well as those in need overseas.

Like many charities, our decades of fighting against poverty have convinced us that it is not enough to tackle the symptoms of poverty - we also need to tackle the underlying causes. Rooted in our work on the ground, we have a duty to speak out on behalf of the people we work with, to push for changes that will make their lives better, not just today and tomorrow but for generations to come.

This week we have highlighting the struggles of people in the UK who because of rising prices and low incomes, compounded by welfare cuts, cannot afford to feed their families. Families have told us of their deteriorating health, and of not eating for days. One woman, Patricia, spoke about how she drinks hot water with lemon to try and get rid of her hunger pangs and how her situation resembles 1930's rationing.

The tweet highlighting this real human suffering, which prompted Conor Burns MP to complain to the Charity Commission, was not part of an advertising campaign or series of billboard posters as has been reported in some quarters. Instead it was a tweet intended to highlight the underlying factors that are forcing people below the breadline. As a resolutely non-partisan organisation, we emphatically reject the charge that it favoured one political party over another. Rather it relayed what we know about the factors behind people needing food aid.

Politicians of all stripes can be prickly when confronted by criticism from charities, churches and other parts of civil society. The Catholic Archbishop of Olinda and Recife, Brazil, once remarked: "When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist." Oxfam had rows with the last Labour Government over trade rules, the arms treaty negotiations and the Iraq war to name but three. Nor have we been shy of pointing out that rising UK inequality is the responsibility of successive governments going back decades.

Whatever the wishes of politicians, however, the Charity Commission is clear that campaigning by charities is legitimate as long as it is not partisan and it supports the charity's underlying mission, in our case helping poor people.

We don't seek unnecessary confrontations with politicians, far from it. We give credit where its due - for example, praising the present government for delivering the UK's aid promise, and William Hague for his long-running campaign - in the news again this week - to put an end to sexual violence in conflict.

Oxfam supporters come from across the political spectrum - helping to tackle poverty and injustice isn't a matter of left or right but of right and wrong.

When the scale of the problem we face demands it, we would be failing in our mission if we shied away from boldly stating the facts as we as we see them and pushing politicians of all parties to go further than they might otherwise. The growth of the number of people going hungry is one such issue and we would be failing people like Patricia if we kept quiet.

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