I Worked For Oxfam For Eight Years. Its Aid Is Vital But The Sector Must Change

Over the last few weeks, I’ve felt ashamed and conflicted
Andres Martinez Casares / Reuters

I left Oxfam over a year ago, after eight years with the organisation. Over the last few weeks, I’ve felt ashamed and conflicted. I’ve had an instinctive urge to defend an organisation that I love, without wanting to excuse wrongdoing or minimise the pain experienced by the abused women. 

As we are learning, what happened in Oxfam is not unique to Oxfam – this should be a wake-up call for the entire sector. If the current revelations lead to a transformational #MeToo moment, together with a deeper examination of aid, then that can only be a good thing.

I joined Oxfam back in 2008, in Juba, South Sudan. 

I worked mainly with South Sudanese colleagues, as well as Ugandans, Kenyans, Brits, Australians and Pakistanis. It was gruelling work. Talking to communities, we made tough decisions about how to address mammoth need. We sweated into keyboards in sweltering offices to comply with endless donor deadlines. And we danced with villagers around Oxfam-drilled boreholes, the women of the village telling us that, at last, they no longer had to walk for hours to collect water. 

We visited Oxfam’s programme teams to provide support in the remotest of locations – and yes, we travelled in 4x4s. This was the only way to reach homes in the deep bush, where Oxfam had water, agriculture and livestock projects. But the sturdy Land Rovers sometimes still got stuck. We’d all pile out, as the driver reminded us to watch out for snakes and landmines.

We toiled, and nobody worked harder than the South Sudanese staff, even as they carried the trauma of war and endured repeated bouts of malaria.

My lasting impression of that time is of collective endeavour – of shared pride when we were able to make a difference, of shared frustration when we could not.

In numerous visits across Africa and the Middle East, I saw how people’s lives were ripped apart by crises, and I saw the value of aid. Not just the physical benefits of water, food and shelter, but the softer ones, too, of Oxfam’s work on women’s rights or support to civil society. The importance of standing in solidarity, bearing witness, just being there.  

I also saw the messiness and limitations; the constant moral dilemmas, compromises and unintended consequences. And ultimately how only political action, not aid, could end violence. This is precisely why Oxfam’s dual mandate – being operational and campaigning on the causes of suffering – is essential.

I was involved in difficult discussions about the approach Oxfam should take in conflict contexts. Like many of my colleagues, I would fight from the inside for what I thought was right. Inevitably, at times, I fundamentally disagreed with the ultimate decision, but I knew, at least, it had not been taken lightly.

And this, for me, is the beating heart of Oxfam: a self-critical organisation, agonising as to how to live up to its values and its best self. 

Despite being a younger woman, often in male-dominated settings in the ‘field’, I never encountered sexual abuse. Throughout, my Oxfam experience was of working in a respectful, nurturing environment (where my bosses, women and men, supported me with the work-life juggle and to rise across two maternity leaves).  

But just because I didn’t see any abuse doesn’t mean it wasn’t happening. I suspect that I was protected, at least partly, by my nationality, race, and, as the years went by, relative rank. I know that some of my colleagues in Oxfam, and probably even more so in the wider sector, had entirely different experiences.

I commend the courage of women in the sector who are speaking out, privately or publicly, anonymously or otherwise. Please keep speaking. We need to hear you. And you need justice.

We know that sexual abuse is endemic in society – and charities are clearly not immune.

But systemic issues in the aid sector also facilitate abuse: the macho, adrenaline-fuelled culture of an emergency response; the unmanageable workload, burnout and high staff turnover that can result in poor oversight; the absence of rule of law in some disaster zones; and the imperative to get the job done. Perhaps above all, the inherent disparity in power between expatriates and so-called ‘locals’.

Perceived fundraising imperatives, in the face of strident attacks on aid, have meant that charities (and donors) have not spoken openly about the complex reality of aid. Slick communication material eulogises aid workers as heroes and their job as pure, noble and simple. Some charity bosses, invariably men, have internalised that narrative or expertly manipulated it to claim that they or their organisations are above reproach.

And among all this, the voices of women, of junior colleagues, of ‘locals’, have not been listened to as they should.

We face a watershed moment. It means all of us examining our privilege and power, relinquishing power, and taking personal responsibility to bring about change.

The sector should reform but it also needs the breathing space to do so. 

Yes, it is right to decry the weaknesses in Oxfam safeguarding (even if improvements were made post Haiti) but with an acknowledgment that proper safe-guarding - like delivery of quality aid - requires bureaucracy and money.

Oxfam may have become unwieldy, but those who denounce it for being ‘too big’ are often loathe to recognise that one reason for growth is rising need: more and more people are affected by war and disaster. And yet when Oxfam campaigns on the drivers of suffering, it is accused of being too political.

There is no excuse for what happened at Oxfam or in any charity. But nor should it eclipse the vitally good, if imperfect, work that Oxfam has done and is doing. Right now, dedicated Oxfam teams in war-torn Yemen and Congo, and multiple other places, are getting up at the crack of dawn to help people in need.  

While seeking to maintain this work, Oxfam has committed to listen and learn – I hope it does. And, I hope the sector follows suit, and it is given the space to do so.

Maya Mailer worked for Oxfam GB from late 2008 to early 2017, first as a policy advisor in South Sudan and then in the Oxford headquarters. She visited Oxfam’s programmes across Africa and the Middle East. In her last role with Oxfam GB, she was Head of Humanitarian Campaigns and Policy. She now freelances for the UK charity sector. She writes in her personal capacity.

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