Scarlett Johansson Oxfam Saga Highlights Problem With NGOs and Charities

30/01/2014 17:04 GMT | Updated 01/04/2014 10:59 BST

If you asked the general public whether they believed in charity the overwhelming response would be yes. Of course charities do good work; no one can deny that charities help tens of thousands of vulnerable people in all manner of difficult situations. However, most of the mainstream charities and NGOs have become corporatised, choosing relationships with corporates and government instead of grassroots social change movements.

Scarlett Johansson has recently announced that she is stepping down from her ambassador role at Oxfam. This brings an end to an embarrassing saga for Oxfam. They had refused to sack the actress, despite coming under huge pressure because of her links with Israeli drinks firm SodaStream. They operate on illegally occupied Palestinian territories - something which Oxfam actively campaigns against. Oxfam should be ashamed that Scarlett Johansson quit her role instead of it being the other way round.

Omar Barghouti from The Boycott, Divestments and Sanctions campaign against Israel said:

"Oxfam is a human rights organisation. They cannot maintain an ambassador if they are involved in a complicit Israeli company built in a settlement. You can't maintain something and its contradiction."

Stories like this, where charities and NGOs act hypocritically - are not isolated incidents. More and more, mainstream charities and NGOs are finding themselves in these types of circumstances which I would argue can be attributed to a creeping corporate stranglehold.

Let's take a look at some other examples:

  • January 2014: Product Red, founded by Bono in 2006 which aims to fight against aids in Africa takes on corporate partners Bank of America alongside partners who already include Coca Cola, Apple & Starbucks who all have highly questionable human rights records. They have also been criticised for "not having an impact proportional to the advertising investment".
  • December 2013: It is revealed on BBC Panorama that Comic Relief have been investing in in funds with shares in tobacco, alcohol and arms firms. In other words, they are directly supporting the industries which cause the problems they seek to address.
  • December 2013: It is revealed on the same BBC Panorama programme that Save The Children censored criticism of energy firms, to avoid upsetting their corporate partners.
  • 2013: Environmental groups are found to be investing in fossil fuels and energy companies.
  • March 2011:Barnardos are criticised by many for legitimising child detention as they announce they will be working with the UK Border Agency.
  • 2008: Leonard Cheshire Disability receive grants from BAE Systems and Japan Tobacco International. BAE Systems are well known for supplying weapons across the world - something which results in people being made disabled in the first place.
  • 2006: WWF launch David Cameron's green agenda for him where he famously claims to make "the greenest government ever".
  • 2005: The famous 'Make Poverty History' campaign which had faces of celebrities such as Bono (again) and Bob Geldof all over it came under scrutiny because of its cosy relationships with the Labour Party leadership. Oxfam's name comes up again. The Make Poverty History Campaign is widely seen as a spectacular failure today, with billions of people still in poverty.

These examples are shocking and fundamentally highlight how charities and NGOs hide away from addressing structural issues and no longer challenge the powers that be. They can be highly capable of dealing with the fallout of people who suffer in society, but they do not address the systems and structures which lies at the root of that suffering. This quote from Indian author and activist Arundhati Roy summarises very well:

"Most large, well-funded NGOs are financed and patronized by aid and development agencies, which are in turn funded by Western governments, the World Bank, the United Nations and some multinational corporations. Though they may not be the very same agencies, they are certainly part of the same loose political formation that oversees the neoliberal project and demands the slash in government spending in the first place. NGOs give the impression that they are filling the vacuum created by a retreating state. And they are, but in a materially inconsequential way. Their real contribution is that they defuse political anger and dole out as aid or benevolence what people ought to have by right. "

It is worth noting that about 40% of charities in the UK turn over less than £10,000 a year, so clearly the crux of the problem lies with those organisations who receive the much bigger budgets. It's here whereby a situation arises that a charities' primary concern becomes their own survival due to the need to pay high-staff costs: the issues which are supposed to motivate them - homelessness, child poverty, discrimination - are relegated to second place.

This is presumably why Oxfam didn't get rid of Scarlett Johansson, as they rely on her for good branding. A decision they will now presumably be regretting.