Jayne Dowle: Don’t stop giving to Oxfam, but demand radical change

Oxfam's water programme in Haiti before the charity became engulfed by scandal.

THE scandal engulfing the Oxfam charity is desperately sad, but awfully inevitable. If you’ve ever found yourself in the company of the kind of people who make charitable work their career, you’ll recognise two distinct types.

Most charity workers regard their calling as an unquestionable vocation and follow their calling entirely because they are good people. Others – a tiny minority, thankfully – do it because the ability to lord it over those less fortunate than themselves provides a sense of moral and cultural superiority.

Sorry to be blunt, but that’s my experience gained over more than three decades of engaging in various ways with the voluntary sector.

Clearly, the aid workers now engulfed in scandal over claims of abuse and using prostitutes in the troubled Caribbean country of Haiti fall into the latter category.

If we want to be truly charitable, we should strive to keep a sense of balance. It’s all very well taking the moral high ground and turning our backs. What about the desperate people Oxfam helps every day, not just on the days when the global organisation happens to be in the news?

What about the staff, the volunteers and the ambassadors who do so much to help others day in, day out? Who will fund them if the charity, which was originally set up to help starving women and children in Nazi-occupied Greece, loses its Government grants? There’s a very strong argument for steadying the past week’s knee-jerk reactions.

Especially the ones which impact directly, and financially. In just three days this week, a total of 1,270 direct debit payments to Oxfam were withdrawn in protest as the crisis over how senior staff used prostitutes in Haiti deepened, while actress Minnie Driver resigned yesterday as a global ambassador after 20 years of service.

Those cancellations represented a possible loss of £12,039 a month or £144,468 a year to Oxfam, based on the average monthly donation being £9.48.

That money could buy a lot of hope. I agree that cancelling a donation is a valid way to make a point. So is deciding to take your unwanted clothes, shoes and books elsewhere, but is it the right thing to do? Could it be that it only serves to make us feel better, which surely can’t be right?

If this lamentable situation provides us with nothing else that is positive, it should make us all question our motivation for supporting any charity.

In our house we’re committed to a small monthly donation to the World Wildlife Fund to sponsor both a snow leopard and a polar bear (my 12-year-old daughter badgered us for the cuddly toys sent out to new subscribers) and the Dogs Trust, where we contribute a similar sum to help look after dogs too elderly or troubled to re-home.

How would I feel if I suddenly found out that the WWF was accused of poaching, or kennel staff mistreated the whiskery old boys who sent us “Valentine” cards this week? Even in my anger and disappointment, I hope that I would remember that what matters are those who need support – whoever or whatever they are.

Withdrawing support doesn’t exactly help those who it is aimed at. While the scandal rages on and Oxfam executive staff resign, presumably all the projects it funds, organises and runs in countries across the globe must still continue. Cancelling a direct debit, withdrawing donations, turning your back, it’s like a pebble in a pond. One ripple spreads and spreads and eventually the effects become catastrophic.

If you want to make a stand, don’t do it on your High Street. Write to a newspaper and express your opinion. Take to social media. Or find another way of voicing your support for campaigners such as American human rights lawyer Madeline Rees, who helped to blow the whistle on the role of UN peacekeepers in sex trafficking.

Speaking to BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, she called for a much more muscular stance to be taken against charity workers who abuse their power over vulnerable people. She wants to see codes of conduct that are legally enforceable, not just nice words on a mission statement. Plus, she’d like more women in leadership positions to help stamp out covert acceptance of unacceptable predatory behaviour. And an end to the “boys will be boys” culture which leads to casual abuse of power and using women for sex.

If you agree with what the respected Ms Rees says, taking the moral high ground will do no good at all. Anyone can tick a box on a direct debit (or not). Anyone can boycott a shop. If we want all our charities to do the best work that they possibly can to help those who are vulnerable and in desperate need, we must engage with them. Hold them to account. Remind them of the reason why they were set up in the first place. And never let them forget that they only exist because of public donations and support.

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