Today is a depressing day, a very depressing day.
OXFAM, an organisation for which I have enormous respect, is headline news today because of the disgraceful behaviour of a number of OXFAM staff during the relief efforts following the earthquakes Haiti in 2010.
Stories have emerged of ‘sex parties’ and the use of prostitutes, involving a group of OXFAM employees, including the Country Director, who was subsequently allowed to resign and went on the join a French NGO, presumably on the basis of forged references. Several other individuals were either allowed to resign or were sacked.
Further digging on the part of The Times newspaper has uncovered evidence of similar behaviour by the same Country Director during a previous posting in Chad. OXFAM stands accused of trying to sweep the affair under the carpet for fear of reputational damage and subsequent loss of donations.
The Times broke the story on Thursday, coincidentally on the same day as its sister paper launched the banner headline ‘Stop This Foreign Aid Madness.’ All part of a campaign on the part of some elements of the press to cut the foreign aid budget.
Since then all of the media, newspapers as well as radio and television, have been headlining the story. It is all very saddening.
I need to declare an interest here. I used to be an OXFAM Country Director. Indeed I worked for OXFAM, in the UK and then in Africa, for a total of 15 years. I saw the organisation from both sides during that time, from the fundraising, the OXFAM shop network and public opinion work in the UK to the work on the ground with the recipients of the funds, both as Deputy Country Director in Kenya and then Country Director in Coastal West Africa.
My involvement with OXFAM, however, goes back much further, more than 50 years further, in fact. I parted company with the Church, indirectly, because of OXFAM. I don’t suppose that at the age of 13 or 14 I was a particularly devout Christian, but I was in the church choir, until my voice broke.
At around that time, a few weeks before Christmas, a little cardboard money collecting box from OXFAM appeared on the mantle-piece of our dining room. My mother had put it there because she felt guilty about the fact that we would soon be having a proper Christmas dinner with all the trimmings, whilst half the world was starving.
We were not a particularly wealthy family. My father held a middle management position in an aluminium factory and had five kids to feed. My mother didn’t work, so money was always an issue. Nevertheless, in the weeks before Christmas, my mother faithfully squirrelled bits of money away into the little cardboard box , so that, in her mind, she could eat her Christmas dinner with a clear conscience. In the New Year, she sent whatever she had collected to OXFAM.
At the same time by an unfortunate coincidence, our local vicar decided to spend £3,000 on a ‘reredos’, a decorative screen to beautify the back of his altar. This was about 1963/1964. In those days £3000 was a huge sum of money. I left the Church.
I got my first job with OXFAM after five soulless years with the Metal Box Company, for the last two of which I held the exalted position of Export Salesman. I was, without question, the worst salesman in the long history of the company and, even today, I wonder at the fact that I was never found out.
My new OXFAM job was brilliant. I was the local organiser in Berkshire, Oxfordshire and parts of Buckinghamshire. I had about 30 shops and several non-shop groups in my area. The job was never dull.
One day I would find myself in a meeting of shop volunteers trying to convince them that using an electronic till did not equate to going over to the Dark Side and, speaking of the dark side, putting the lights on in the shop might encourage more people to come in.
The next day I might be addressing the local Rotary Club at lunchtime and then rushing off in the afternoon to try to stop the rain coming in through the roof of the Pangbourne shop.
Following a number of ‘reorganisations, ‘ I eventually found myself one of four Regional Coordinators, responsible for an area that had over 240 shops and a quarter of OXFAM’s total shop income.
I then moved to Africa and spent the next seven years basically dispensing the funds that I spent the previous seven years raising, and monitoring the effectiveness of those funds.
I saw the effects of OXFAM’s staff and funds at work in remote areas of Kenya, Senegal and Mauritania where, for the first time ever, water suddenly became available to ordinary people, who were able to grow their own crops and feed their families and where, for the first time in in anyone’s memory, women and girls did not have to walk miles each day to fetch water for their families.
I saw women’s groups using small loans from OXFAM to fund petty trading activities, buying tomatoes in bulk, distributing them to their members, who would sell them in local markets. The loan would then be paid back to OXFAM so that the same funds could be passed on to other groups.
I saw health posts being built in remote areas so that the local people could petition their government to send health care personnel to treat diseases that otherwise would have gone untreated.
During my 15 years with OXFAM, I worked with literally hundreds of volunteers and staff at all levels. Some of them, I liked. Some of them, I didn’t. Some of them I agreed with, some I didn’t. But the thread that ran through all the people with whom I worked was that they were committed to their work and to the ideals that OXFAM represents and were, almost exclusively, thoroughly decent people, working, in whatever way they could, towards a goal, the reduction of world poverty, that was greater than they were.
OXFAM has grown enormously since I left in early 1990s. It now employs around 5000 people in the UK and all over the world. It receives funds not only from individuals who want to support its work but also from governments and other agencies who have seen what OXFAM achieves with poor communities and are confident that the funds channelled through OXFAM will reach the people they are intended to support.
I believed when I worked for them, and I believe now, that OXFAM is an excellent organisation, run by exceptional people, who do unbelievably valuable work amongst communities who are, for the most part, desperately poor and, in a civilised world, deserve to be helped.
The news splashed across the headlines this week is devastating. The behaviour of those involved was appalling, degrading and utterly unacceptable in any decent organisation. The action taken by OXFAM management at the time may have been insufficient and misguided. The damage to OXFAM’s hard-earned and thoroughly deserved reputation will be immense.
An open goal has been presented to those who exploit that damage in the name of cutting overseas aid. The losers in all this will be those people from whom aid will be withdrawn and whose chances of working their way out of poverty will be reduced even further.
A truly depressing day.