The past week has been a torrid time for the leadership of Oxfam and no doubt, for the thousands of staff and volunteers that support them around the world. One minute you’re considered a hero, a lifesaver, a generally good and caring individual - the next, you’re a fraud and a hypocrite. The court of public opinion can be very cruel. I know we’re in the era of fairly crazy or even ‘fake news’ - but to have a senior politician lecture the bosses of a major international charity on ‘moral leadership’ was quite staggering. Are our memories so short that we forget the expenses scandal that tarnished the reputations of so much of the political establishment?
Meanwhile, the anti-aid ideologues are using the current crisis as an opportunity to advance their own agenda. One of the most vocal critics has been former Secretary of State for International Development, Priti Patel. Ironic, given she herself was recently forced out of her job for a lack of transparency and poor judgment. What, with the Daily Mail running a vitriolic campaign for years, it’s small wonder that Oxfam chose not to put their head on a plate by being even more transparent about the nature of their problems in Haiti in 2011, beyond informing the UK Charity Commission.
I am not for one minute disputing the fact that the abuse and unethical behaviour of a small number of Oxfam staff in Haiti was scandalous. With the luxury of hindsight, I would also question the decisions made by some of the leadership at the time as to how best to handle the situation. But now, the key issue is how we should respond to these revelations as they emerge seven years on, in 2018. Should the UK government hang Oxfam out to dry and play to the gallery of public opinion by withdrawing all public funding? Should we as individuals cancel our monthly donations in disgust at these past events?
I say no. Don’t cancel your monthly donations. Now is the time to double the amount you give. Now is the time to invest in transforming the aid and development sector – not destroy it.
That may sound completely absurd. Indeed, I confess that I was not a regular donor to Oxfam, as in the past I preferred to support other charities that seemed more in need of my money. However, I may well be the only person to become a new donor to Oxfam in the past seven days.
Firstly, if we want an aid sector that is efficient, effective and accountable, then we need to accept that this costs money. We, the giving public, are somewhat naïve in our demands for ‘every penny of every pound’ to go to frontline services. We hate overheads and many charities are culpable in competing with one another on whose overhead percentage is the lowest. Staff training, world class IT and dare I say, talent management systems and processes all cost money, but admittedly are not as photogenic as starving kids and the aid porn we’ve become hooked upon. Either we accept that a proportion of our hard earned donations go into strengthening the organisations that deliver the aid, or accept a lower level of transparency and accountability and undoubtedly more scandals in the future. We can’t have our cake and eat it.
Secondly, these issues of abuse and predatory behavior are not unique to Oxfam – it’s becoming clear that they affect many other international charities and indeed UN institutions. Somewhat ironically, Tufts research showed that Oxfam were in fact best in class when it comes to transparency. Unethical behavior by a minority of staff are no doubt issues for global businesses and the military too. When the scandal broke about US Secret Service agents using prostitutes in Cartagena, Colombia during a Presidential visit by Obama in 2012, was the response to cut off all government funding? No, the answer was to tighten up the checks and balances to ensure that such behavior couldn’t happen in the future.
Shouldn’t the UK Government’s Department for International Development be adopting the same approach? They’ve instead chosen to cut off all Government funding until Oxfam can prove that they’ve put their house in order. Funded by whom I ask? And what happens when the second, third and fourth scandal breaks in other international charities - cut off their funding too and bring the whole sector to its knees?
That would no doubt please The Daily Mail and many on the right who campaign tirelessly against the UK’s commitment to spend 0.7% of GDP on aid. But it won’t solve the problem. We should instead seize the opportunity to transform the aid sector as a whole - to channel some of these important funds towards a sector wide initiative that ensures that all of our international charities have the systems and processes in place to provide the transparency and accountability we rightly demand of them.
I would go further. I would invite Oxfam’s CEO Mark Goldring to come out of the doghouse and lead the charge on this initiative together with the CEOs of all the UK’s major development charities. I’ve spent many years working on the inside of these organisations and am in no doubt that Goldring has both the capability and the moral authority to do this. He is widely regarded by peers and Oxfam’s own staff as being one of the best leaders in the business.
The alternative is to continue with the status quo - to destablise one of UK’s finest international charities and threaten the aid sector as a whole. The only people this will hurt are those who are most vulnerable whom we are seeking to protect.
So I ask you to keep donating to Oxfam, or start donating today. It may not make you popular. You may attract ridicule and abuse from those who are joining the stampede for the exit. But it’s the right thing to do.