Oxfam’s fall from grace

Oxfam, like the Catholic Church, discovers the price for failing to uphold the ethics they claim

Shown here Jan. 17, 2010, are buildings in Jacmel, Haiti, that were destroyed by the earthquake that hit the region Jan. 12, 2010. VIRIN: 100117-F-1644L-024a

Buildings in Jacmel, Haiti, destroyed by 2010 earthquake

The house in Mfuleni was set alone amidst a rubbish-strewn dusty plain. Inside the house, inside each of its warren of rooms, were babies; all alive, all HIV positive, and all absolutely silent.

For in their cots, in that house, they had learned that their tiny cries for food, for a clean nappy, for love would go unanswered.

Instead, covered in insect bites and nappy rash, they rocked back and forth, comforting themselves.

The charity caring for these babies raised funds off the claim that they knew how to care for babies born into poverty with a virus requiring life-long treatment.

Except … there weren’t enough nurses, weren’t enough resources, and no-one ever admitted it. Not the charity, not the donors, not the government meant to ensure a minimum standard of care.

For charity is not about what is achieved, but the consequence of thousands of years of being told that money is evil, and that giving it away to icons of virtue is the only path to salvation.

In 2010 an earthquake hit Haiti, killing 220,000 people. A massive aid response followed leading to an imported cholera outbreak and abuse of locals. In 2011, Oxfam’s Haiti leadership team drew women from devastated communities they were supposed to be helping, into prostitution.

Oxfam quietly dealt with the issue, quietly closed out the case, and quietly hoped no-one would notice. In 2018, The Times published the story.

Oxfam’s boss, Mark Goldring, responded to the backlash. “The intensity and the ferocity of the attack makes you wonder, what did we do? We murdered babies in their cots? Certainly, the scale and the intensity of the attacks feels out of proportion to the level of culpability. I struggle to understand it.”

Oxfam annually publishes a report castigating rich people. Oxfam regularly attacks private companies for “profiting” from illness by selling medication.

Oxfam placed itself above any form of ethical contradiction, any form of moral tradeoff. They declared themselves perfect.

We are living through an era where the contradictions between the public claims of those in authority, and the lived reality of their actions, are leading to a complete revision of the nature of trust.

You can call it “fake news,” but it’s an expression of profound despair. There are no trusted icons anymore.

When I visited that AIDS orphanage in Mfuleni in 2007, I had set up a ratings company to quantify and rate the value offered by charities. To permit impartial comparison between those which do outstanding work, and those which do very little. How much does it cost to care for an AIDS orphan? What is too much, or too little?

It turned out that no-one was interested. Because charity is not about the effect of what is given, but the relief of buying salvation.

Oxfam spent £303.5 million on 8.6 million beneficiaries in 2016/17; a little under $50 per person. In exchange, Oxfam gets tax relief, low rent shops selling Oxfam merchandise, and the freely-donated time of 27,000 volunteers.

Is $50 enough to rebuild a life? Is it what you were expecting?

When those defending Oxfam’s unethical behaviour in Haiti say “99% of us have no idea of the stresses of working in these environments” could you imagine that being used to justify a priest abusing children amidst urban poverty?

And Oxfam are not actually a religion. Catholism can fall back on its ownership of churches, of its unique position in communities. Oxfam has no such place.

The problem for Oxfam, and every charity, in the aftermath of this scandal, is that they are not used to ethical scrutiny. Next will follow financial investigations, of price fixing and market collusion. If we can’t trust them to do the right thing, can we trust them to be financially responsible?

They won’t enjoy this, but it will be worth it to return the charity industry to earth.