Time Out with Nick Cohen: Barbara Stocking

In what circumstances would Oxfam's head choose to speak plainly, even if telling the truth endanger

Oxfam was founded in 1942 to bring aid to the oppressed of Nazi Europe, a cause that didn't make it popular with the Churchill government. After the Germans occupied Greece, the Royal Navy blocked the shipping lanes. Food and medicines couldn't get through to civilians, and famine set in. Lifting the blockade might have helped the starving, but Whitehall wondered whether food meant for the hungry wouldn't end up in the bellies of German troops instead, and gazed with some disdain on the new lobbyists.

The founders of the Oxford Committee for Famine Relief were stereotypical members of the great and the good: bishops, academics, retired teachers and Quaker philanthropists, all of whom have been at the forefront of liberal causes for generations, and the butt of satirists for just as long. In Bleak House, Dickens gave us Mrs Jellyby, who had "very good hair but was too much occupied with her African duties to brush it", and was so obsessed with bringing edu cation and coffee cultivation to "the natives of Borrioboola-Gha, on the left bank of the Niger" that her neglected daughter declared: "I wish Africa was dead! I do! Don't talk to me, Miss Summerson. I hate it and detest it. It's a beast!"

Yet Churchill's coalition government found it no easier than its successors to dismiss the new charity. Mock if you like, implied Gilbert Murray, Regius professor of Greek at Oxford, founder of Oxfam and friend of half the worthy causes of the mid-20th century, but "be careful in dealing with a man who cares nothing for comfort or promotion, but is simply determined to do what he believes to be right". Murray was better at predicting the power of organised conscience than Dickens. The ad hoc response to the Greek famine turned into the most visible charity on the high street. It was infused with the amateur air English liberals adopt when they go out in the world to do good. The first head office was in a cramped room above the original Oxfam shop in Broad Street in the city centre; the second in a dingy parade of shops in Victorian north Oxford.

The tweeds and piles of dusty pamphlets are gone now. Under the leadership of Barbara Stocking, Oxfam has moved to a huge HQ at a new business park on the edge of town. Old hands find the identikit postmodern box with its dispiriting views of traffic jammed on the ring road soulless, and I saw why when I got there. This might be the head office of any corporation in any ribbon development anywhere in the industrialised world. Once inside, however, there's no denying the efficiency of the place. Charity workers sit in an open- plan office the size of a football pitch. Neat shelving units hold research papers, while a GM-free, organic, fair-trade canteen offers succour when they need a break from rescuing Africa.

The businesslike atmosphere reflects the personality of the director. Stocking is a former regional director of the NHS who, according to rumour, was in the running for the top job. Corporate cant litters her talk - "making a difference", "meeting the challenge" and all the rest of it - but it would be a mistake to see her as another empty suit. The charitable world is notoriously uncharitable, but I couldn't find a director of a rival charity with a bad word to say about her. Her own staff describe her as an honest and popular manager.

Annus mirabilis

Above all, she is a success. Under her leadership, turnover has hit £300m. Oxfam now has more than 750 shops in the UK, 6,000 staff all over the world and sister organisations in 13 countries. Oxfam officials have gone from the charity into government and helped make new Labour the most charitable administration ever. Tony Blair and Gordon Brown were the "Lennon and McCartney" of poverty reduction, cried an approving Bono, and if you can forgive the cheesy comparison, you can see his point. I would be exaggerating if I said that aid was a major political issue in Britain, but it matters more to voters here than in any other European country.

The annus mirabilis for Oxfam was 2005, when Blair and Brown pushed for the G8 nations to agree to an extraordinary programme of debt relief and subsidies for Africa, Live 8 played Hyde Park, and the Asian tsunami provoked an outburst of altruism. "It was a time that people recognised that we are part of the global world," Stocking remembers with a warm smile. "For the first time, the new horizons of travel and the net came together and made people realise that if we're going to live happily in the global world we're going to have to make it better."

I wasn't as convinced then and am less so now. Even at the peak of Make Poverty History's campaign, you didn't have to be a Telegraph-reading Tory to think the aid movement was taking a wrong turn. It presented a picture of a world as much the white man's to direct as it was at the apogee of the European empires. No one told the audience at Live 8 that Africa had nepotistic dictators in power or kleptomaniac families in office. They stayed silent about genocidal movements and spy-ridden regimes. All that was needed to rescue Africa from poverty was for the developed world to agree more aid, fairer trade and debt relief and - poof! -the suffering would end.

Two years on, the neocolonialist view hasn't been shaken. A recent Oxfam study of global warming says, truthfully, that pollution from the rich world will hurt the poor world, but fails to ask how Africa can develop without increasing its output of greenhouse gases. A report on foreign policy says, again rightly, that the Iraq war has made humanitarian intervention harder to justify, but it makes no condemnation of Ba'athist and Islamist "insurgents", nor does it offer solidarity to their victims. A report in advance of this summer's G8 summit condemns rich governments for failing to honour promises made in 2005, but assumes the problems of the world are the fault of the west and, by converse, that the remedies lie in western hands.

The usual justification for lopsided vision is that pressure groups can best influence their own governments. A demonstration in London against the massacres in Darfur will have no influence on the regime in Khartoum, but a march to demand that the British government commit more money to, say, education in Africa might. If double standards and myopia follow, then so be it. What matters is what works. But the easy ride given to Oxfam, Christian Aid and the other aid charities overlooks a structural problem. The aid charities are hybrids with incompatible aims. On the one hand, they provide relief regardless of the political consequences - like the Red Cross - and, on the other, they lobby for political change - like Human Rights Watch. As Amartya Sen showed, dem ocracies don't have famines. The great hungers of the past hundred years were presided over by colonial administrators, communist tyrants and, today, African nationalists and gangsters. Dictatorships do not as a rule tolerate censure from anyone inside their borders. Therefore, if Oxfam were to speak out against the obscenity of Robert Mugabe's Zimbabwe being elected to head the UN Commission on Sustainable Development, there's a fair chance Mugabe would stop Oxfam workers from relieving the suffering inflicted by his economically unsustainable regime. Its hybrid status means Oxfam has to direct disapproval at governments that won't respond to criticism by closing down Oxfam operations, but, rather, will invite Stocking in for a chat and a cup of tea.

Stocking has the strength of character to face hard questions candidly. In Darfur, I said, Oxfam is feeding 600,000 refugees on the Chadian border. Is that why it refuses to call the Darfuri genocide "genocide"?

"It is a dilemma for us," she said. "We think we've got to save lives today while trying to get the international com munity to sort out the bigger problem. Now we will do our absolute utmost to go to the edge of that. We will try to give as much information out, but not in ways that are challenging to the Khartoum government."

I asked if she could imagine circumstances in which Oxfam would choose to speak plainly, even if telling the truth en dangered famine relief. There were two, she replied. First, if charitable aid was a "sticking plaster" that allowed the international community to feel that conditions in, say, Darfur were not so bad. Second, if aid was keeping an oppressive government in power, as may soon be the case in Zimbabwe.

Future dangers

I suggested that a better policy would be to help African progressives set their countries free by championing their causes and highlighting the crimes of their oppressors. If I'd confessed to stealing second-hand books from my local Oxfam, she couldn't have been more shocked. "No, no, that's not our mandate. We want to offer a way out of poverty that makes them feel they have economic opportunity and provides them with a right to be heard. It's not our job to help groupings that want to overthrow their governments."

She sounded reasonable as she marked out her limits, but I was left wondering how long the aid charities could stay in British politics while staying out of African politics. The strongest criticism she would make of governments in the poor world was that some of them were corrupt. But the trouble with Africa is not that its post-colonial elites are corrupt - there are corrupt governments all over the world - it is that they are unpatriotic. From Côte d'Ivoire to Zimbabwe, post-colonial rulers have shown that they would prefer to bring the roof down on their wretched peoples rather than let the opposition challenge their power.

A thought experiment shows future dangers for Oxfam. Suppose the G8 meets all its 2005 promises. Suppose the World Trade Organisation stops the rich world subsidising its farmers. Then suppose that nothing changes or, as Sen would predict, that change for the better comes only in those countries already on the path to accountable politics. Would Oxfam be able to rouse governments and publics for another Live 8? Or would governments and publics echo young Miss Jellyby and say that Africa was a beast?

At its birth, Oxfam had to decide whether destroying tyranny was more important than relieving immediate suffering, and 65 years on it seems no closer to an answer.

I asked Stocking if she expected to see Africa break away from the demeaning need for other people's charity by the time we both retired. Yes, she replied. Absolutely. Look at the strides made in combating poverty in India. The naysayers said change was impossible, but it happened, for all their sneers. I forgot about the question and moved on, but it evidently niggled away. As I left, she corrected herself: "Perhaps not by the time we retire, but maybe before we die."

Nick Cohen is an author, columnist and signatory of the Euston Manifesto. As well as writing for the New Statesman he contributes to the Observer and other publications including the New Humanist. His books include Pretty Straight Guys – a history of Britain under Tony Blair.

This article first appeared in the 28 May 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Gaza: The jailed state

Show Hide image

Brothers in blood: how Putin has helped Assad tear Syria apart

The Syrian catastrophe has created the worst humanitarian crisis since the end of the Second World War. And the world watches helplessly as Putin and Assad commit war crimes.

Sometimes we know the names. We know Omran Daqneesh, the five-year-old boy who, covered in mud and dust, was pictured on the back seat of an ambulance in the aftermath of an air attack. We know his name because pictures and a video of him were released on social media and travelled around the world. The outrage that followed was widespread and sincere, the image of the dazed little boy seeming to symbolise the greater plight of the beleaguered residents of Aleppo. But then the moment passed. Few will know that a few days later doctors announced that Omran’s elder brother Ali, who was injured in the same air strike, had died from his injuries. He was ten.

Sometimes we know the names of the babies pulled from the rubble of collapsed buildings – occasionally alive, but often dead; or the names of the children weeping over lost parents; or the women grieving over lost husbands and children; or the elderly simply waiting (and sometimes wanting) to die.

We know Bana Alabed, the seven-year-old girl trapped inside Aleppo whose Twitter account has gone viral in recent weeks. “Hi I’m Bana I’m 7 years old girl in Aleppo [sic],” reads the on-page description. “I & my mom want to tell about the bombing here. Thank you.”

A series of pictures depicts Alabed and her mother, Fatemah, struggling to live as normal a life as possible, one showing the little girl sitting at an MDF desk with a book. Behind her, in the corner, is a doll. “Good afternoon from #Aleppo,” says the caption in English. “I’m reading to forget the war.”

The conflict, however, is never far away. Alabed, whose mother taught her English, has repeatedly tweeted her own fears about dying, followed by stoic messages of defiance whenever the immediate threat of an impending air strike passes. On the morning of 3 October, her words were simply: “Hello world we are still alive.” On 17 October, Fatemah tweeted: “The airstrikes ended in the morning, all the last night was raining bombs.”

But in most cases we never know the names of the victims of air assaults led by Presidents Bashar al-Assad and Vladimir Putin. One of the most haunting images to emerge in recent weeks was that of a mother and child, killed while sleeping in the same bed. The scene had an eerily preserved-in-amber feel to it: a snapshot of snatched lives, frozen in the act of dying. Pictures of ruined buildings and distraught civilians have become routine now, holding our attention briefly – if at all.

As many as 500,000 people are believed to have been killed since the beginning of the Syrian uprising in early 2011. According to a report released in February this year by the Syrian Centre for Policy Research, a further 1.9 million have been wounded. Taken together, those figures alone account for 11.5 per cent of Syria’s pre-revolutionary population. Combine that with the number of Syrians who have been displaced – more than ten million (almost 50 per cent of the population) – and the sheer scale of the disaster becomes apparent.

The conflict has become the worst humanitarian crisis since the Second World War. Today it centres on Aleppo, in north-west Syria, one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, and a cradle of human civilisation. Various conquerors from the Mongols to the French have fought battles there but none, so it would seem, has been quite as ruthless or committed to the city’s annihilation as Bashar al-Assad.

Aleppo remains the most significant urban centre to have been captured by the anti-Assad rebels, most of whom will (by now) be strongly influenced by an Islamist world-view. Indeed, the most prominent fighting groups on the rebel side are overwhelmingly Islamist in their troop composition and beliefs, a sad marker of Western failures to support secular forces that led the anti-regime resistance in the incipient phases of the uprising.

Yet Aleppo remains too important to fail. Although rebel forces succeeded in capturing only half of the city – the western side remained firmly in the control of the regime – the symbolism of anti-Assad forces holding ground in Syria’s second city (which also served as the country’s economic hub) has buoyed the rebel movement.

Assad is more brazen and bullish than at any other point since eastern Aleppo fell into rebel hands in July 2012. That optimism is born of a strategy that has already worked in other parts of the country where the regime’s troops have slowly encircled rebel-held areas and then sealed them off. Nothing can leave, and nothing can enter. Once the ground forces seal off an area, an aerial campaign of barrel bombs and missile attacks from both Syrian and Russian fighter jets inevitably follows.

To get a sense of just how terrible the aerial campaign has been, consider that the United States accused the Russian air force of potential war crimes when a UN aid convoy was bombed just west of Aleppo last month. It was carrying food and medicines when it was hit. Since then, the UK and France have said that Russia’s bombardment of Aleppo amounts to a war crime.

Putin’s support has come as a boon to Assad ever since Russia formally entered the conflict in September 2015. Despite his administration already using Iranian forces and aligned groups such as the Lebanese Shia militia Hezbollah, rebels had continued to make significant gains throughout the early months of 2015. The most important of these was the capture of Idlib city, 40 miles from Aleppo, which presented Assad with two problems. The first was that it dented the official narrative of revanchist military successes by his forces. The ­second was that it handed the rebels power in a province adjoining Latakia Governorate in the west, where Syria’s Alawites are largely concentrated (Russia has an airbase in an area south-east of the city of Latakia). The Alawites are a heterodox Shia sect to which the Assad family belongs, and which forms the core of their support base.

Keen to reverse these gains – and others made elsewhere – Assad enlisted Putin, given Russia’s long-standing interests in, and ties to, Syria. The Kremlin has long regarded Syria as an important ally, and has served as the country’s main arms supplier for the past decade. There are important assets to preserve, too, such as the Russian naval base in the port city of Tartus on the Mediterranean, which was first established during the Soviet era.

For his part, Putin has felt emboldened by events. The world is changing – not just in the Middle East and North Africa, where the
contours of power continue to be recast, but also closer to home in Ukraine, where the pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych was overthrown in 2014.

The West is still haunted by the 2003 invasion of Iraq and has been reluctant to be drawn too deeply into the Syrian War. In 2013, the Assad regime used chemical weapons against its own people. This was a violation of President Barack Obama’s so-called red line against the use of chemical weapons, but no retaliatory action came and there was nothing to prevent the Kremlin from using force to shape events in Syria – as it had done in Ukraine.

All of this has marked a new phase of brutality in a conflict already noted for its barbarism. Civilians who avoid death from combined Russo-Syrian air assaults suffer under Assad’s strategy of “starve or submit”, in which supplies are withheld from besieged areas, slowly choking off those ­inside. It has been used to devastating effect against civilians in towns such as Madaya and in Daraya, on the outskirts of Damascus, both of which fell to government control after being sealed off from the outside world for several years. Such a strategy is not designed to deliver quick victories, however. Consider how the residents of Daraya defied Assad’s forces for four years before capitulating in August 2016.

Assad and his allies (Putin, Iran, Hezbollah) have decided to punish and brutalise, deliberately, civilian populations in rebel-held areas. To invert the famous aphorism attributed to Chairman Mao, they hope to dredge the sea in which the revolutionaries swim. And so, it is the 300,000 residents of eastern Aleppo who must suffer now.




It’s easy to lose track of precisely what is happening in the Syrian War as parcels of land swap hands between rebels and the regime. Assad’s forces first began encircling Aleppo at the start of July this year and succeeded in imposing a siege by the middle of that month, after cutting off the last of two rebel-controlled supply routes into the city. The first was the Castello Road, which leads from the town of Handarat into the north-western part of ­rebel-controlled territory. The second route, via the Ramouseh district (which led into the south-western end of the city), had already been sealed off.

The closure lasted for roughly four to five weeks before the rebels re-established access. Aleppo is too important for them, and the siege has forced various groups to work together in breaking it. The effort was led by Jaish al-Fateh (JaF, the “Army of Conquest”), an umbrella group and command structure for several of the most prominent jihadist and Islamist groups operating in northern Syria. JaF also co-ordinated the Idlib military campaigns. One of its key members is Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (JFS, “the Syrian Conquest Front”), which was previously known as Jabhat al-Nusra (JaN or “the Supporters’ Front”) and was recognised as al-Qaeda’s official chapter in Syria.

Several months before the regime began its assault on Aleppo, rebel groups in the north recognised the deteriorating situation there, stemming principally from Russian air strikes. As a result, al-Qaeda urged the various factions to merge and work together to counteract not just Assad, but also Putin. Even the global leader of al-Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahiri, issued a speech last May titled “Go Forth to Syria”, in which he called on all fighting groups to unite in order to consolidate their control across the north. This opened the way at the end of July for Jabhat al-Nusra to declare that it was formally severing its links with al-Qaeda. It “rebranded” as Jabhat Fateh al-Sham.

There are two reasons for doing this. The first is to erode partisanship among the Islamist groups, forcing them to set aside differences and narrow their ambitions in favour of the greater goal – in this case, the breaking of the siege of Aleppo, while also deepening rebel control across the north. The second aim of rebranding is to win popular support by portraying themselves as fighting in the service of ordinary civilians.

Groups such as JFS and others are succeeding in both of these goals. Responding to the abandoned and assaulted residents of Aleppo, they have repeatedly demonstrated their commitment to alleviating the humanitarian crisis. Much of their messaging echoes this theme. The group’s English-language spokesman is Mostafa Mahamed, an Egyptian who previously lived in Australia. “[JFS] is deeply embedded in society, made up from the average Syrian people,” he explained on Twitter, after the group decoupled from al-Qaeda. “We will gladly lay down our lives before being forced into a situation that does not serve the people we are fighting for . . . jihad today is bigger than us, bigger than our differences.”

It is indisputable that this ethos of “fighting for the people” has endeared the group to civilians living in besieged areas – even when those civilians don’t necessarily agree with the full spectrum of its religious beliefs or political positions. That goodwill was only reinforced when the group helped break the siege of Aleppo (in which approximately 500 rebels were killed) in August, if only for a few days. Assad reasserted control within a week, and entrapped the residents again in the middle of that month. The rebels are now planning how to break the siege decisively, but have not yet launched a major counteroffensive.




A freelance American journalist and film-maker, Bilal Abdul Kareem, who has reported on rebel movements inside Syria more intimately than most, has found himself among those trapped inside eastern Aleppo since the siege was restored seven weeks ago. “We came here expecting a two- or three-day trip,” he told me during an interview over Skype.

Life inside is becoming insufferable for civilians, Abdul Kareem said; every building is potted and scarred by shrapnel damage. Those whose homes remain standing are the lucky ones. “Your day consists of nothing,” he said. “There’s no work, there’s no fuel, no industrial zone, no food to sell. ­People sit around and chit-chat, drink tea, and that’s all they do.”

Food supplies are already running low, with most people limiting themselves to basics of chickpeas and groats – crushed grains such as oats or wheat. Sealed off from the rest of the world, those inside preoccupy themselves with survival and wait for the next wave of attacks.

It is tempting to ask why the inhabitants of Aleppo did not flee when they had the chance. Indeed, the Assad regime routinely accuses the rebels of preventing civilians from leaving besieged areas, though there is no evidence to support this view. On 17 October Russia and the Syrian regime said they would halt their bombardment for eight hours on 20 October to allow rebels and civilians to evacuate the city.

In truth, what choice do the civilians have? Most do not trust Assad and they are therefore unwilling to move into regime-administered areas. The alternative is to become refugees, with all the uncertainties and trials associated with that. For instance, refugees have found themselves subject to sectarian violence in Lebanon, and they have few opportunities to find employment in Lebanon, Turkey or Jordan, the three countries where most of the fleeing Syrians have found shelter.

For them, merely to exist in rebel territory is an act of defiance, which is precisely why Assad’s forces make no effort to distinguish between combatants and civilians in rebel areas. To be present is a crime.

The effects of this have been devastating. A spokesman for the Syrian American Medical Society told Middle East Eye, an online news portal, that in July, Syrian and Russian jets had hit medical facilities in rebel-held territory every 17 hours.

Only a few hospitals and medical staff remain. The physical conditions are primitive and perilous. Doctors work in makeshift facilities – a former flat, a commercial garage – which makes them unable to provide anything beyond basic emergency care. In-patient facilities are non-existent, not just because of high demand from those newly injured in fresh attacks, but also from fear that the facility itself will be targeted. “People are literally shuffled out of the hospital with IV [intravenous drips] in their arms,” Abdul Kareem says.

The West’s indifference to all this – coupled with its occasional pious pronouncements and diplomatic dithering – has squandered any goodwill Washington might once have had among Syria’s beleaguered civilians. When Sergey Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, and John Kerry, the US secretary of state, agreed a ceasefire in September it lasted barely two days because they overlooked the fears of those trapped inside eastern Aleppo.

The deal had stated that no party would try to capture any new territory. That might seem reasonable enough but given that the ceasefire came into effect just days after Assad re-established the siege of Aleppo, those on the inside were being asked, in effect, to acquiesce to their own starvation.

Deprived of food and medication, no one trusted Assad to negotiate access in good faith, especially after he thwarted UN efforts to deliver aid. “People saw it as a conspiracy,” Abdul Kareem told me. Moreover, there were no significant groups inside eastern Aleppo that claimed to have accepted the terms of the ceasefire in the first place. Kerry had negotiated on their behalf without approval and without securing any humanitarian concessions.

“What planet are these people on?” Abdul Kareem asked. “[Do] they think people will turn on their protectors, for people who didn’t do them any good? They look to JFS and Ahrar [Ahrar al-Sham is one of the Islamist groups fighting in JAF]. Western intervention is pie in the sky.”

The rise of these reactionary rebels is a direct result of liberal elements not being strongly supported at any stage in the conflict. Left to fend for themselves, many have deserted their cause. Those who have persisted not only risk the constant threat of being killed by Russo-Syrian bombs, but are also at threat from jihadist elements operating in rebel areas. That much was clear when remnants of the secular opposition protested against the leader of JFS, Abu Mohammed al-Golani, in the southern Idlib town of Maarat al-Nouman earlier this year. Many of those who did were arrested by jihadists and intimidated into silence.

Whereas liberals are fragmented and frayed, the Islamist rebels continue to coalesce into an ever more coherent unit. The overwhelming might of Russian airpower has convinced them of the need to form a united front in order to pool their resources and co-ordinate their efforts. That is one of the reasons why a jihadist group called Jund al-Aqsa (“Soldiers of al-Aqsa”) announced early this month that it was disbanding and being absorbed into JFS.

Herein lies the real story of how Aleppo – and, indeed, Syria itself – has been delivered to the jihadists. A conspiracy of all the external parties has forged a menacing millenarian movement that is embedded in civil society and communities across the north. Whether Aleppo falls or not, the jihadists will endure.

Shiraz Maher is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and a member of the war studies department at King’s College London

Shiraz Maher is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and a senior research fellow at King’s College London’s International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation.

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood