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  • Rory O'Keeffe

Oxfam - 'reveal', shame and threaten: the UK government's effort to revenge campaigning

Though the incident in question was related to very specific attacks by one man – Rob Wilson, a former Conservative MP and Charities Minister, who now writes a column for the Daily Telegraph – we noted that this was in no way unusual, either in the UK or the wider world, and indeed was characteristic of the Right, and its increasing efforts to undermine and damage non-governmental actors with which they disagree.

It is literally our job to keep up-to-date with the context in which we all – as humanitarian actors – operate and exist, and keep those who we serve informed and therefore prepared to respond to it.

And it is increasingly (though not newly) clear that the humanitarian sector is being targeted not for its actual failings (which certainly exist, and must be addressed) but for its criticisms – implied or explicit, intended or simply unavoidable – of a system under which relatively few people enjoy wealth and comfort, while vast numbers of men, women and children suffer poverty and its most negative outcomes, including early, painful deaths.

So the latest story about Oxfam, which appeared in Friday’s (9 February) Times, is interesting for more than the simple facts of the case.

In case anyone has missed those, the Times reported on Friday that Oxfam had – during its emergency aid operations in response to the Haiti earthquake of 2010 – allowed three men to resign, and fired a further four, after finding all seven had been guilty of sexual misconduct.

Predictably – and in many ways absolutely understandably – this has led to a major (if not, sadly, considering the fact that the lives of millions of people around the world are being saved and improved by aid organisations, the major) news story regarding humanitarian work being headlined ‘Oxfam Sex Scandal’.

The seven men had been found to have paid sex workers, for sex, in Haiti.

First of all, we should note that this is definitively a case of gross misconduct: it was directly against the contract that the men signed when they agreed to work for Oxfam, and therefore against the regulations and requirements of its staff that Oxfam itself set.

Secondly, we could add that in many (though by no means all) nations – including in Haiti – prostitution is illegal.

But it is reasonable to ask some questions.

For example, given that Oxfam issues contracts that state that people must not pay local people (or indeed, ex-pats) for sex while working for Oxfam, and that all seven men lost their jobs as a direct result of Oxfam’s own investigation into this affair, what exactly could Oxfam as an organisation have done differently?

One sensible response to that may well be that it should have sacked all seven men, but it is worth noting that all three of the men who were allowed to resign, rather than be fired, were allowed this in exchange for openly admitting their part in the activities, and providing detailed information about exactly what had happened – in other words, for ensuring that the organisation could be sure of exactly what was done, when, and by whom.

To the same extent, given International Development Minister Penny Mordaunt’s announcement, live on UK television yesterday (Sunday 11 February) morning that Oxfam must now ‘show leadership’ on an incident which took place seven years ago, or face losing government funding for its life-saving and –improving work, we could ask what, exactly, Oxfam is supposed to do given that it fired four of the people involved, and forced the three others to resign?

We should also note that this activity took place seven years ago. This does not make it unimportant, and neither does it absolve Oxfam – far less the seven men who had sex with the women involved – of their wrongdoing.

But it does also make one wonder whether this is actually news, and why it has been raised only now, when it took place – and was swiftly and decisively dealt with – so long ago.

On the issue of the women themselves – or to be more accurate of their jobs, as the Times appears to have asked none of them even their name, far less their opinion of the events in question – we should be clear that the seven men were found to have used prostitutes. That is, they paid for sex with women whose job it is to have sex for money.

No-one ought to pretend that this is fine, (and indeed Oxfam does not – it had included in its staff contracts that to do so would be regarded as an act of gross misconduct, and removed all seven men from their positions) but we should also note that paying someone to have sex with you is not rape, and nor is it coercion.

This is not a ‘defence’, based on oversimplified arguments such as ‘it’s the world's oldest profession’, or ‘women can choose to do whatever they like’.

In fact, Oxfam’s attitude – and the attitude of the wider humanitarian sector – clearly shows an understanding of the wider issues, which is absolutely absent from that of almost any other company or indeed sector currently in existence.

In effect, Oxfam and other aid organisations specifically name using prostitutes as an act of gross misconduct (as no other firm does; though many do fire people for the less explicit ‘breaking the law’) because of the understanding that women in many of the places aid workers deliver services (and indeed in all parts of the world. The same applies to many men) are often forced, by pure economic desperation, to do things that they would rather not do, and Oxfam does not want its staff, who are supposed to save and improve lives, to take advantage of the very desperation they are supposed to be working to eradicate.

(there are, of course, people who genuinely sell sex out of choice: the point here is that we cannot be certain that this is the reason any individual person does so, until and unless no-one is faced with death due to poverty, which Oxfam, among others, is dedicated to deliver)

In many ways, this makes the actions of the seven men far worse, but as already noted, all seven were forced out of their positions several years ago. Even if one wants to see them further punished, the reaction so far has not been against the men, but against Oxfam, and to a lesser extent, the humanitarian sector as a whole.

And unfortunately the issue of the timing – that is, why is a Right-wing newspaper, a strong supporter of the UK’s Conservative government, reporting as news an event that happened seven years ago, and which is to be perfectly honest, unfortunately not unusual behaviour from men in many sectors of industry, including government itself? – itself leads us towards a rather grave conclusion.

Because two weeks ago, as we mentioned at the start of this piece, the UK’s other major Right-wing broadsheet newspaper, the Daily Telegraph, carried a column written by Rob Wilson, a former Conservative MP and Charities Minister.

Wilson wrote that Oxfam was a politically-motivated organisation which had been taken over by the far-Left and was as a result attacking the Conservative party, and the ideology it follows. (which has led to more than a million people having to rely on food hand-outs, a 167 per cent increase in homelessness since the party took power in 2010 and caused child poverty to rocket in the same period).

He did so in the wake of Oxfam releasing a report that revealed that just eight people owned more of the world’s wealth than 3.5bn other people combined.

We noted at the time that this was Oxfam’s literal job – to highlight the iniquities which exist all over the world, in the hope that systems and situations will be changed so that the people Oxfam and other humanitarian organisations set out to help might not have to fall into such desperate and unnecessary destitution.

We also pointed out that by claiming that objecting to such outrageous inequality, which claims millions of lives each year, is characteristic of the ‘far-Left’, Wilson was effectively claiming that the Right was happy to see widespread abject poverty and death.

Wilson’s ‘ideas’, which were by no means the first time such opinions had been given space in national media, did not have the desired effect. No-one rose up and demanded Oxfam immediately hire expressly Right-wing management staff, and no-one called for an end to funding for the organisation. It was another chip knocked out of the humanitarian sector, but little more.

We also noted that Oxfam is far from faultless, and that this is also true of the rest of the humanitarian sector, but that Wilson’s chosen attack was not against Oxfam’s actual faults, but for daring to criticise activities that kill innocent men, women and children all over the world.

But the Times’ ‘revelation’ appears to show that Wilson’s was never supposed to be the killer blow – or at least that in recognition of it not being so, the Right redoubled its efforts to find one in its stead.

Because International Development Minister Penny Mordaunt's* statement, delivered live on BBC television on Sunday that Oxfam faced the complete loss of government funding (Oxfam received £32m in UK government funding in the last financial year: it used the money to save and improve people’s lives, while the UK government used it to tell everyone it was one of the highest donors of aid on Earth) unless it ‘showed leadership’ (on the use of prostitutes seven years ago, by seven men who were all either sacked or forced to resign within weeks of their misconduct being reported to and investigated by Oxfam) was a public reprimand for an aid organisation, about a matter to which it had in any case already responded strongly.

*It may be worth mentioning here that the author of this piece has known Ms Mordaunt for a number of years. She was the President of the Student Union at the University he attended, and he later, as political editor of a daily newspaper, covered the campaign in which she won her place in Parliament for the first time, in Portsmouth North, in 2010.

She is an extraordinarily hard-working MP, but until she was appointed to her current position, she had shown no interest in international development. Her major interests have so far been the military (she is a Royal Navy reservist), and care for the elderly.

There is, of course, no requirement that an International Development Secretary should have dedicated their entire career to the topic before taking office, and there have certainly been Development Ministers with no prior experience who have performed well in the role.

We must hope Ms Mordaunt will prove to be one of these, though her behaviour here does not lend itself to this conclusion.

The concern here is that Ms. Mordaunt is absolutely one of the ‘hard-Right’ cadre of new-(ish) MPs in the Conservative ranks, an extreme anti-EU campaigner (the reason she, rather than someone else, was drafted in to replace Priti Patel: to keep the number of pro-Brexit cabinet members steady, rather than any interest in or knowledge about international development), and a campaigner for the exact austerity which has so increased poverty in the UK, and the inequality killing people elsewhere in the world.

Her threat to end Oxfam’s funding unless it responds to a seven year-old incident it already responded to by sacking everyone involved, seven years ago, is a direct attack on an organisation which is an outspoken, and trusted, critic of the Conservative party and international Right’s policies and beliefs. It is no coincidence that Oxfam was chosen for this public humiliation, or that it was chosen now.

Wilson’s ill-tempered swipe appeared to have missed its target. The latest revelations, and

Ms Mordaunt’s response to them, seem to be an effort to hole Oxfam below the water line – to simultaneously lessen it in the eyes of the public (thus undermining people’s willingness to believe it and its public statements, even though Oxfam itself makes far more explicit demands of high standards from its staff on this and other issues than most employers do, and removed every person involved from their role), and ‘instruct’ Oxfam that the government, as a major donor, will prevent the organisation from speaking against it, however many lives are lost if it does so.

Nobody should be fooled into thinking Oxfam is a perfect organisation – it is far from that, and no organisation, government, or business has ever been free of faults.

And in fact, the seven men who had sex with sex workers in Haiti not only committed acts of gross misconduct, but have also handed the UK government perfect ammunition to bring Oxfam to heel, and prevent it from campaigning in a way that might improve people's lives.

But this is not an attack on Oxfam’s flaws, nor even on those of the sector as a whole, but on the millions of men, women and children we work to protect and assist. It is a government warning that it will let people die, by preventing their lives being saved, if life savers dare to connect widespread deaths to the policies and practices that help to cause them.


Postscript: communication

There is one other element to this situation, and as a communications and analysis organisation, it would be remiss for us not to mention it.

Oxfam decided, in 2011, to announce that it was undertaking an investigation into this incident, but it never announced the investigation’s results or its actions in the light of those results.

While this may be seen as an understandable error – the organisation presumably felt its reputation might be damaged by any more publicity, and it might also lose funding vital to enabling it to save lives – it absolutely was an error.

Because communication is not just about how or when an organisation should share information, it is about whether it should and why.

It is also about being outspoken in the face of powerful opponents and colleagues, and ensuring that you tell the truth to those more powerful than you.

The truth is, as we have seen in the last few days, that Oxfam may have saved itself some embarrassment in the immediate term – and may even have retained support and funding for the same period – by saying nothing and hoping this matter would go away.

But Oxfam actually took appropriate action on this issue, and any decent communications strategist would have known that this was always likely to ‘appear’ again: they would also have known that being wrong about it never being mentioned by anyone again was likely to be extraordinarily damaging, and indeed to hand any ‘enemy’ of the organisation (and it is depressing that the UK government is an enemy of a life-saving international organisation) an extremely powerful weapon against it.

It may be that Oxfam did not at that time have an effective communications strategist, or perhaps that that person was wrongly overruled. But the best way to reveal potentially embarrassing news is at the time and in the style of your choosing. And that should almost always be immediately, particularly if you have actually taken reasonable steps to put an end to the unacceptable behaviour of a very small number of your employees.

If your policy is just to hope a story goes away and never returns, you give up that opportunity. We can see what has happened as a result.

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