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A roster of disturbing allegations about the behaviour of Oxfam officials has added fuel to the fire of a raging public debate about the role of charities and UK foreign aid funding. The initial scandal in the wake of the 2010 Haiti earthquake – and more are coming to light. It should be said that the source of the information is Oxfam’s own reporting and disciplinary records. It goes without saying that the acts described are disgraceful and deserve full-throated condemnation. However, the government’s continued assault on foreign aid funding gives us reason to pause – to question who wins from this public flogging of Oxfam, and the proxy smearing of other charity work.
In 2011 Oxfam launched a full inquiry into the Haiti case. They fired four members of staff and three more resigned before the investigation could be completed. They set up a dedicated Safeguarding unit and a confidential whistleblower line. Could they have done more? Possibly. Could they have acted sooner? Probably. Clearly, there were enormous and ultimately tragic failings of institutional insight. On the other hand, there’s an argument that it’s hard to plan for events which haven’t taken place. Moreover, the measure of an organisation’s “moral leadership”, (to borrow a phrase from Secretary of State for International Development Penny Mordaunt) is how it responds to such disastrous abuses of power.
The questions over whether or not Oxfam acted correctly will run and run. But in this political climate, perhaps the more urgent question is – why is it being covered now? The initial case was reported to the Charities Commission at the time. There wasn’t some massive cover up. Even the reports which have come out since, showing that there were 87 accusations of sexual abuse by staff between 2016 and 2017, out of thousands of staff and tens of thousands of volunteers, came from the charity’s own reports. The ongoing conversations as to how best tackle institutional sexual assault show how much more work needs to be done to protect people when institutional power goes awry. But it would seem disingenuous to claim that the organisation was totally sweeping the issue under the carpet. Yet it seems that Mordaunt is using this as a reason to strip the organisation of its funding.
Whilst it seems like a knee-jerk response to shock revelations, this is nothing out of character for Mordaunt. Earlier this year she announced that she wanted to redistribute the foreign aid budget. The budget accounts for approximately £13 billion, or 0.7% of the UK’s Gross National Income – the second lowest of all major government spending. It is split between approximately 37% to multilateral organisations and 63% as bilateral aid to specific countries. Mordaunt’s plan is to increase the amount of direct aid and shift funds away from projects run by organisations. This allows the government to use the bargaining power of aid money as a means to secure more favourable trade deals. So the question is not how to use the money most effectively to improve the lives of impoverished people – many of whom are still suffering the effects of UK’s colonial past. The first order of business is to use this money as a bargaining chip to secure British economic security over these countries. There is nothing in law to stop her doing this. The 0.7% budget is ring-fenced but not legally binding, instead the Secretary of State for International Development is required only to explain to parliament how the funds are being spent.
The foreign aid budget has often been attacked as a waste of money by the right. It is for this reason that in early February Jacob Rees Mogg, widely tipped to be next Conservative leader, made the news by delivering copies of the Daily Express, along with a petition signed by 100,000 readers calling for the budget to be cut. Those on the right paint the aid budget as a waste of money. But foreign aid also benefits the UK by bolstering global security – reducing conflict and migration initiators by boosting the economy and local community services. Long-term, this is a much more efficient use of money than dealing with the geopolitical effects of political dissolution and economic chaos. Moreover, it’s a duty of richer countries to help out the nations off of which it has historically profited.
Among these longstanding critics of the foreign aid budget is Mordaunt’s predecessor Priti Patel. In her post as Secretary of State, Patel attempted to have the funds repurposed as a means to boost UK trade, and at the end to potentially give to the Israeli army, leading to her resignation. Where Patel arguably failed was in providing a context within which she could defend these changes in parliament. In order for Mordaunt to succeed she needs to be able to give a reason which is unassailable for removing funds from charities, and giving it directly to those she deems as being in “the national interest”.
It may raise a few eyebrows to note that less than a month after announcing she wants to achieve this, a seven-year-old story, dealt with at the time, resurfaces, Then, instead of using the established channels of the Charity Commission to first conduct any kind of investigation, she has threatened to remove funding unless they met her demands. Oxfam made errors, and those errors allowed its employees to do some truly abhorrent things. But pulling funding isn’t the answer to tackle institutional assault. It does nothing to challenge the institutional failings at Oxfam. All it does is encourage charities to cover up any abuse, or risk losing their funding. All it does is endanger the hundreds of thousands of people around the world who stand to lose out from aid budget cuts. Neither Mordaunt nor Rees-Mogg were calling for the dissolution of parliament in response to allegations of decades of assault in Westminster, and the culture of hush-ups which allowed them to continue. They’re simply using the abuse of Haitian women and girls as a political weapon to strip more vulnerable people of vital aid funding