Oxfam is under attack. Some would say rightly so. It allowed sexual predators to be employed – repeatedly – in situations in which women were vulnerable to their power and abuse. And that was absolutely wrong.
When that happened – seven years ago – it launched an investigation, got rid of the perpetrators, issued a press release, informed the Charity Commission and its donors, and then put in place stronger safeguarding measures and channels for people to be able to report abuses. And that was mostly right.
In the middle of managing that huge and complex natural disaster response it had to make some tough decisions – it didn’t report it to the local police, or go into the full details of the misconduct in its public reports – and I don’t know, maybe that was partly or wholly wrong.
The safeguarding system it put in place was starting to work – allowing more cases of abuse to emerge. The safeguarding team asked for more resources and, although not immediately, they were ultimately boosted – and that was a wrong that was at least partially put right.
In January, Oxfam launched a report called “Reward Work, Not Wealth: To end the inequality crisis, we must build an economy for ordinary working people, not the rich and powerful.” And that, in my view is right, but it attracted the ire of some of the rich and powerful.
On Friday Feb 9th (the day that Jacob Rees Mogg presented a Daily Express petition to Downing Street against foreign aid) The Times published the story of the sexual misconduct story from seven years earlier.
Oxfam has apologised repeatedly and sincerely for its mistakes. It has committed to putting in place even stronger safeguarding measures, being even more transparent, working with other aid agencies to make it even more difficult for sexual predators to move between agencies. And that is absolutely right.
But what is so heartbreaking is that the whole of this amazing organisation is being tarred with the same brush, a brush charged with half-truths and vested interests. My colleagues are being attacked and abused, accused of vanity, arrogance, greed, selfishness… and that is so, so wrong.
The Oxfam I know is an organisation that is deeply committed not just to ending the hunger and suffering of millions of people around the world, but finding out – through painstaking research – why they are hungry and suffering and doing something about that too.
The Oxfam I know is a collection of incredibly committed, unbelievably hardworking, thoughtful people who do not by any means see themselves as saints or put themselves on a pedestal above others, but who are simply responding to a strong sense of injustice in the world. As the Guardian journalist who visited Oxfam recently reported, they are heartbroken, angry, distraught – one colleague who has dedicated over 30 years of her life to the organisation described it feeling like “a bereavement.”
The Oxfam I know provided food and medical care to thousands of refugees from the newly formed Bangladesh through my grandparents’ Social Welfare Society in West Bengal.
The Oxfam I know brought doctors to a remote forest in central India to treat tribal people who had no access to medical care – including the man who told me his harrowing story of an infected leg that stopped him from being able to earn his living as a farmer, of going from hospital to hospital but being unable to pay for the treatment he needed, and of being ready to give up and die, before Oxfam provided the treatment he needed and literally saved his life.
The Oxfam I know responds immediately and pragmatically to disasters, like the 2004 Tsunami, when I helped in the communication hub and heard the reports coming in from all the affected countries about the food, housing, water, sanitation, clothing, medicines being rushed in.
The Oxfam I know enables incredible individuals – Indian, South African, Malawian, Bosnian, Zimbabwean, Zambian, Filipino, Haitian etc colleagues – to dedicate their lives to helping the people of their own countries.
The Oxfam I know consists of women and men who repeatedly fly into the most dangerous situations in the world, leaving behind the comfort and safety of their homes and their families to work day and night to help fellow human beings survive wars, earthquakes, volcanoes, epidemics… without abusing sex workers.
And all that is so, so right.
If you – like me – still believe in Oxfam and its work, please send a much needed message of support. And go into an Oxfam shop to hug a volunteer. (It’s ok – there are strong safeguarding measures in place there too.)