Is Operation Christmas Child's shoebox campaign just a propaganda tool for Christianity?

Operation Chrismas Child asks children to "experience God's love through the power of simple shoe box gifts". But they are to charity what Femen are to feminism: superior, islamophobic, and seemingly unresponsive to the needs of those they claim to help.

Much as I’m loathe to conform to working mummy stereotypes I still have days when I’ve stepped straight out of an Allison Pearson novel. I arrive at the school gates, puffed up with pride that I’ve got the kids there at all, when I suddenly notice that everyone else’s child is dressed for World Book Day, or every other mother is carrying a PTA bake sale cake, or the teacher is collecting money for next week’s trip and no, I can’t pay by Visa. Once again, Mummy has messed up. Of course, I blame my entirely imaginary high-powered career and the fact that a woman can’t have it all (the suggestion that Mummy is just disorganised and needs a kick up the arse won’t cut it). Next time, though, it’s going to be different.

For the first time ever I am prepared for the upcoming school event. I know all about Shoebox Day. I’ve already got it scribbled on the calendar, having found the Operation Christmas Child leaflet stuffed into my eldest child’s book bag. In two weeks’ time my sons will be just like their classmates, each arriving at school with a Christmas shoebox to be given to “a poor child in Africa” (I tell my children it won’t necessarily be Africa and that not every child who lives there is poor. “Don’t be silly,” says my six-year-old. After all, he’s watched Comic Relief).

Of course, I must remember not to get so hung up on the day itself that I forget to purchase the gifts to put in said shoebox. These won’t just be any old gifts, either. There may be socks, and possibly a cuddly toy, and perhaps even a mini Connect Four. Most impressive of all, though, is the fact that my children will be giving the gift of Christ’s love (it’s amazing what you can fit in a Start-rite box these days).

At first glance Operation Christmas Child seems simply delightful. Christmas! Children! Toys! Sharing! Even if, like me, you’re flicking through the leaflet thinking “I wish they didn’t do gender segregated toy labels” and “isn’t this all rather patronising?” it feels churlish to criticise. Sure, world poverty won’t be eradicated by you stuffing Lego into a cardboard box, but this is for the children. What kind of smug liberal begrudges children a little Christmas cheer? What kind of privileged arse puts their precious principles ahead of a poor child’s laughter on Christmas day? It seems incredibly self-indulgent to take issue with a charity. However, at the risk of looking like a cross between the Modern Parents and Ebenezer Scrooge, the more I read about Operation Christmas Child, the more I find myself making an exception. 

Since 1995 Operation Christmas Child has been run by the evangelical organisation Samaritan’s Purse. You provide the shoe boxes and toys, and they make the deliveries. Oh, their church partners might just happen to drop in “a little booklet of Bible stories” or even “invite children receiving shoeboxes to join a discipleship course called The Greatest Journey.” The charity’s website boasts of bringing “the hope of Jesus Christ into the lives of over 100 million underprivileged children.” This might not sound too bad until you learn that Samaritan’s Purse is run by Rev Franklin Graham, a man who has called Islam “a very wicked and evil religion”. OCC targets countries with large Muslim populations, with an aim to convert (they also adopt these tactics with Hindu communities). My children think they are sending toys who children who have none; what they’re actually doing is sending faith to children whose own beliefs are deemed not to measure up.    

My eldest child believes in God, although he also believes in Star Wars (he doesn’t, however, believe in the city of Birmingham, but that’s another story). I would find it hard to explain to him what I find wrong with OCC. Initially I thought it was merely the kind of casual, well-intentioned cultural imperialism you find in other western charity efforts such as Band Aid’s "Do they know it’s Christmas?", but it’s worse than that. Operation Chrismas Child are to charity what Femen are to feminism: superior, islamophobic, seemingly unresponsive to the needs of those they claim to help (although deep down, I suspect some members of Femen do care about feminism; I’m less sure anyone leading OCC really gives a toss about toys).

In 2003 the Guardian’s Giles Fraser launched a brilliant attack on OCC, highlighting the narcissism that lies at the heart of this approach to giving:

Schools and churches that are getting their children involved in Operation Christmas Child need to be aware of the agenda their participation is helping to promote. There is, of course, a huge emotional hit in wrapping up a shoebox for a Christmas child. But if we are to teach our children properly about giving, we must wean them off the feel-good factor.

I think he’s absolutely right. And yet ten years on I’m one of the many parents who’s gone ahead and written “Shoebox Day” on the calendar. I am hoping I can think of some clever ruse between now and then. Perhaps I shall mark our box “for the local children’s hospice” (though I’ve checked and it turns out they want money, not trinkets self-indulgently chosen by me and my children in order to give ourselves a warm feeling inside). Alternatively, I can always pretend to be Useless Mummy again. “The Shoebox? Argh! I forgot!” Then I’ll make it up to them by investing in a more ethical gift. See, I can be sneaky and manipulative, too, although not half as manipulative as those who exploit children to spread their prejudice.

 

At first glance Operation Christmas Child seems simply delightful. Look closer, and it's not all it seems. Photo: Getty

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.

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Forget sniffer dogs. To stop drug abuse in prison, fight the real enemy – boredom

Since I left prison in 2011, the system has had £900m sucked out of it. No wonder officers are struggling to control drug use.

It’s rare to go a day in prison without someone offering you drugs. When I was sentenced to 16 months in 2011, I was shocked by the sheer variety on offer. It wasn’t just cannabis, heroin, and prescription pills. If you wanted something special, you could get that too: ecstasy for an in-cell rave, cocaine for the boxing, and, in one case, LSD for someone who presumably wanted to turn the waking nightmare of incarceration up to eleven.

Those were sober times, compared to how things are today. New synthetic drugs – powerful, undetectable, and cheap – have since flooded the market. As the Ministry of Justice itself admitted in its recent White Paper, they’ve lost control: “The motivation and ability of prisoners and organised crime groups to use and traffic illegal drugs has outstripped our ability to prevent this trade.”

The upshot is that, rather than emerging from prison with a useful new trade or skill, inmates are simply picking up new drug habits. According to a report released on 8 December by drug policy experts Volteface, on average 8 per cent of people who did not have a previous drug problem come out of prison with one. In some of the worst institutions, the figure is as high as 16 per cent.

Why are people with no history of drug abuse being driven to it in prison?

There’s the jailbreak factor, of course. All prisoners dream of escape, and drugs are the easiest way out. But, according the report, the most common reason given by inmates is simply boredom.

Life when I was inside was relatively benign. On most days, for instance, there were enough members of staff on duty to let inmates out of their cells to shower, use a telephone, post a letter, or clean their clothes. Sometimes an emergency would mean that there might not be enough hands on deck to escort people off the wing to education, worship, drug therapy, healthcare, family visits, work, or other purposeful activities; but those occasions were mercifully rare.

Since then, the system has had £900m sucked out of it, and the number of operational staff has been reduced by 7,000. All such a skeleton crew can do is rush from one situation to the next. An assault or a suicide in one part of the prison (which have increased by 64 per cent and 75 per cent respectively since 2012) often results in the rest being locked down. The 2,100 new officers the MoJ has promised to recruit don’t come anywhere close to making up the shortfall. Purposeful activity – the cornerstone of effective rehabilitation – has suffered. Inmates are being forced to make their own fun.

Enter ‘synthetic cannabinoid receptor agonists’, or SCRAs, often more simply referred to by brand names such as ‘Spice’ or ‘Black Mamba’. Over 200 of them are available on the international market and they are, today, the most popular drugs in British prisons. A third of inmates admitted to having used ‘Spice’ within the last month, according to a recent survey conducted by User Voice, and the true figure is probably even higher.

As one serving prisoner recently told me: "It's the perfect drug. You can smoke it right under the governor's nose and they won't be able to tell. Not even the dogs can sniff it out."

The combination of extreme boredom and experimental drugs has given birth to scenes both brutal and bizarre. Mobile phone footage recently emerged from Forest Bank prison showing naked, muzzled prisoners – apparently under the influence of such drugs – being made to take part in human dog fights. At the same establishment, another naked prisoner introduces himself to the camera as an ‘Islamic Turkey Vulture’ before squatting over another inmate and excreting ‘golden eggs’, believed to be packets of drugs, into his mouth. It sounds more like a scene from Salò than the prison culture I recall.

The solution to this diabolical situation might seem obvious: but not to Justice Secretary Liz Truss. Her answers are more prison time (up to ten years) for visitors caught smuggling ‘spice’, and new technology to detect the use of these drugs, which will inevitably fail to keep up with the constantly changing experimental drugs market. Earlier this week, she even suggested that drug-delivery drones could be deterred using barking dogs.

Trying to solve prison problems with more prison seems the very definition of madness. Indeed, according to the Howard League for Penal Reform, over the last six years, inmates have received over a million days of extra punishment for breaking prison rules – which includes drug use – with no obvious positive effects.

Extra security measures – the training of ‘spice dogs’, for example – are also doomed to fail. After all, it’s not like prison drug dealers are hard to sniff out. They have the best trainers, the newest tracksuits, their cells are Aladdin’s Caves of contraband - and yet they rarely seem to get caught. Why? The image of a prison officer at HMP Wayland politely informing our wing dealer that his cell was scheduled for a search later that day comes to mind. Unless the huge demand for drugs in prison is dealt with, more security will only result in more corruption.

It might be a bitter pill for a Tory minister to swallow but it’s time to pay attention to prisoners’ needs. If the prodigious quantities of dangerous experimental drugs they are consuming are anything to go by, it’s stimulation they really crave. As diverting as extra drug tests, cell searches, and the sight of prison dogs trying to woof drones out of the sky might momentarily be, it’s not going to be enough.

That’s not to say that prisons should become funfairs, or the dreaded holiday camps of tabloid fantasy, but at the very last they should be safe, stable environments that give inmates the opportunity to improve their lives. Achieving that will require a degree of bravery, imagination, and compassion possibly beyond the reach of this government. But, for now, we live in hope. The prisoners, in dope.