Politicians, and the problem we face
Rob Wilson, the former UK Charities Minister, has used his column in the national newspaper the Daily Telegraph to attack an international NGO, claiming that Oxfam has ‘disappeared up its own posterior’.
Aside from the fact that there are few more disheartening indications of how far British political standards have fallen – for all their faults, there is simply no way that a member of, for example, the Conservative government of Howard Macmillan would ever have reduced themselves to an insult so unimaginative and lacking in wit; even Thatcher would have found attacking an aid organisation so bluntly, distasteful – the ‘article’ by Wilson does highlight the nature a series of challenges facing the humanitarian sector in the UK and across the world.
For background, Wilson was Conservative MP for Reading East. He was Charities Minister until he lost his seat in May 2017.
Despite his former position, Wilson used his column in Thursday’s Telegraph to claim that ‘charities make unfair criticism of the (UK) government,’ and ‘must employ more Right-leaning people’.
Unsure, seemingly, that he had made his point forcefully enough, he moved on to attack Oxfam specifically, saying ‘Oxfam, like a number of large international charities, has been so blinded by the political correctness of the chattering classes, it has disappeared up its own, morally righteous, posterior.’
Wilson’s outrage was inspired, he said, by Oxfam’s recent revelation that just eight men and women own more money than the poorest 50 per cent of people on the planet combined.
He wrote: ‘It stands accused of being anti-capitalist, anti-wealth and anti-Conservative. Some have even gone so far as to suggest that it is now a front-group for extreme left-wing Corbynistas. It certainly gives every impression of being incapable of evidence-based rational argument.
‘The leadership of the big charities must stop being so overtly pro-left. They must provide balance by hiring new right-leaning people and change their focus.’
Before we look at the ‘substance’ of what Wilson said, it must be noted that he has chosen a particularly craven way to cast his aspersions. No-one, anywhere, is on record as regarding Oxfam as ‘anti-capitalist’’ or ‘anti-wealth’, and even fewer people outside parts of England even care whether it is ‘anti-Conservative’.
But Wilson has chosen to say that they are even though he is literally the only person to have claimed Oxfam has ‘disappeared up its own posterior’ and the only person to have publicly-stated the accusations he implies others are making.
His reference to ‘Corbynistas’ may also perplex some non-UK observers. Effectively, Wilson is deliberately politicising an issue that – as we shall see – need not be purely political, and doing so by suggesting that not only are Oxfam’s highest-ranking staff ‘political’ (as if anyone engaged in any form of social care or international activity can be anything other than political) but are expressly supportive of one UK political party, the Labour Party.
More than that, he claims with absolutely no evidence at all that they support Jeremy Corbyn, a man who the Conservative party and its followers (including, of course, Wilson and most Telegraph readers) spent more than a year ridiculing, (they also claimed he is a Marxist, despite all of his policies being Social Democratic) and now fear after he removed the Conservative Party’s majority in Parliament in the election in which Wilson lost his seat.
We should also note that Wilson’s accusation – albeit hidden behind the ‘screen’ of the claim that ‘people’ are saying something that in fact only he is saying – that Oxfam is now ‘a front’ for the ‘extreme left’ is not simply crude, or ill-thought through. It is effectively libel; an imputation of an underhand motive which Oxfam has chosen to hide behind a pretence that it is working to attempt to serve the world’s poorest and most vulnerable people.
However, he does not stop there.
His next claim, that ‘The leadership of the big charities must stop being so overtly pro-left. They must provide balance by hiring new right-leaning people and change their focus,’ is designed to open the accusation far beyond just the bounds of Oxfam.
The fact that he does not offer any geographic restriction whatsoever means that Wilson, should he so choose, could apply this to all humanitarian actors all over the world: UK Conservatives have already spent a great deal of time nurturing relations with Poland’s far-Right government, are in general agreement with the attitudes of Hungary and Denmark on matters of immigration and refugee support, and are chasing hard to create an alliance with Trump in the US, so this may well be Wilson’s intention.
And these comments – which have been growing in number and volume since the early years of this decade in the UK, not least by the former advisor and speechwriter of David Cameron, Ian Birrell (who attacks humanitarians for being ‘inefficient’ so often that one could almost forget that the Conservative Party spends a far greater proportion of its income on wages than anything else, and yet still managed to fall foul of campaign-spending rules in the last two UK General Elections) – are important.
Because we are in the midst of an international attack on the very concept of humanitarian work, from nationalist politicians who deliberately confuse migration and refugee crises, and label both as negative when neither are, and their supporters who as a result increasingly claim that we spend ‘too much’ on international aid (the UK, one of the world’s largest aid donors, spends just 0.7 per cent not even of the money it has each year, but the extra money it gained that year) and that the heads of aid organisations ‘are paid too much’*.
*there are arguments to be heard on this matter. However, the author of this piece believes that criticising the heads of aid agencies, who run organisations with thousands of staff who work to save and improve lives is, at best misplaced on a planet where people (generally men) earn 10-20 times more money for selling phones or bleach.
The effect of this is to steadily reduce support for aid agencies, and therefore for humanitarian work in general. And in combination with sustained and ongoing attacks on the UN by amongst others Russia, the US and Israel, it does constitute a serious danger, with the real risk that public support ‘dries out’ at the same time as the UN is forced to chase populist measures to prop itself up.
The people who suffer will not be humanitarians, but the men, women and children whose lives are threatened by war and disaster, and by poverty and disease.
We should not pretend that aid organisations or the humanitarian sector are faultless and flawless. They are not.
In Oxfam’s case – as they are the main target of Wilson’s remarkable ire – in Greece, the organisation has undeniably followed a mistaken path; choosing to manage refugee camps, which they have no experience of and as a result have failed to deliver some of the services the camps’ residents need.
But this is not an error made because Oxfam is ‘left-wing’, it is a mistake which came out of Oxfam’s desire to reach refugees with whom it feared it would not otherwise be able to engage (and we should note that the response in Greece could almost have been designed to create such errors, as the Greek government’s insistence it ‘can manage the crisis’ alone has proved time and again to be a false hope, and has instead led to chaos in which NGOs are under-informed by the government, and left to scramble for information – often against one another).
It was still an error, however. And this is what makes Wilson’s article so disappointing. Because those of us within the humanitarian sector accept that there are some challenges, and some failures which should not be repeated, but he has instead chosen to attack Oxfam for a political position it does not really even hold.
Oxfam’s role as an NGO is to assist people who need help. Whether or not there are hundreds of different ways that can be done, it is reasonable to suggest that in a world where people do die on a daily basis for reasons created by their poverty (lack of food, lack of water, from treatable diseases) one way is definitely not by concentrating more wealth in the hands of eight people than in 3.5bn people combined.
And Oxfam, as an organisation which works globally with people who have certainly had their lives impacted by the global distribution of wealth, is in a better position than most to point out the negative effects of that unequal distribution.
Doing so is not even particularly Left-wing. Although the definition of ‘Left’ in political terms is ‘believing that equality should be increased’ there is nothing to suggest that the ‘Right’ (and certainly not in the UK since 1946) has to believe that almost all the money in the world should be owned by fewer than 50 people, while millions of people die. For Wilson to suggest it is so, should shame Conservatives.
In any case, there is no suggestion that Oxfam’s criticism is fuelled by support for the UK Labour Party (it might be that such a belief would drive Oxfam to support Labour, but not only is this simply how politics works – people support the party that most closely matches their outlook based on their experience, rather than, as Wilson seems to think, people pick a party and then deliberately point out international crises and scandals to attack another party – it should, again, shame Conservatives that people believe that widespread death through poverty when such obscene wealth is hoarded by a very few people is what Conservatives want), and equally little that Oxfam ‘opposes wealth’.
A clue as to what may have driven Wilson’s tirade comes a little later in the article. He notes that in 2014, Oxfam complained about ‘austerity’ (the policy under which the Conservative Party has slashed spending on public services, held wages below the rate of inflation and cut social security for young people, and those unable to work), calling it a ‘perfect storm’ which has forced people into poverty.
The problem is, Oxfam (and it is not alone: the EU, UN, Save the Children and others have also criticised austerity’s effects) was correct.
Since 2010, when the policy began, homelessness has increased in the UK by 167 per cent. Hundreds of people have died within days of being forced back to work, despite medical experts saying they were not physically-capable of doing so, and well over a million people are now forced to rely on food hand-outs because they cannot afford to feed themselves.
In the world’s fifth richest state.
No humanitarian organisation can seriously stand by and say nothing while people are being deliberately – or even accidentally – forced into such poverty. This is not because they are ‘political’, though it may drive their political decisions as individuals, it is because they are experts and they can see something seriously wrong.
While there are a number of arguments to be had about ‘politics’ in aid organisations – and most are sensible in attempting not to antagonise specific political parties or leaders, so that they will be able to access people who need help, regardless of their outlook, religion or race – it is not a ‘political’ statement to say that people should not be driven into poverty by a government’s policy.
We should all, as humanitarians, be able to recognise that when a politician claims an NGO is driven by politics, this is likely to be a hollow claim, by a person without the wit or talent to debate the actual issues raised, or a party unable to respond to them with sensible and effective action.
And we must engage in this debate. Because every inch we lose on this makes us decreasingly-backed by the public, and with the UN under concerted attack, we cannot afford to lose public support through lies deliberately told.