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6 July 2021

The real reason Oxfam is tying itself in knots over “white privilege”

After a series of scandals, the charity is clinging to the simplistic ideology of identity politics to bolster its moral authority.

By Louise Perry

It has not been a good few weeks for Oxfam. First, there was the staff training document leaked to the Telegraph in which victims were scolded for reporting their rapists to the police. “Privileged white women”, it was suggested, are complicit in the root causes of sexual violence when they call on the state to lock up “bad men”, thereby legitimising criminal punishment in a racially biased justice system. 

It was the kind of document that might well make pleasant reading for rapists, who are already highly unlikely to be imprisoned for their crimes, and who would surely be quite happy to see reporting rates drop even further. Unsurprisingly, it did not make pleasant reading for many feminists, who levelled some forceful criticisms at Oxfam. 

Now another embarrassing story is in the papers, this time concerned with a survey that Oxfam’s UK employees were asked to take on “whiteness”, defined as “the overarching preservation of power and domination for the benefit of white people”. 

Excerpts leaked to the media reveal the survey to be written in the kind of academic language that mostly uses ordinary English words – “bodies”, “spaces”, etc – but puts them to strange uses, producing an impenetrable jargon that is most easily understood by people with arts degrees from elite universities. (Think of it as akin to reading Latin in a previous century, a sign of having received just the right kind of education.)

Many staff were ruffled. “Why are they presuming their workers, who are working for a humanitarian charity, are racists and bigots?” asked one employee, quoted in the Times. “Surely the time and money should be better spent on the real findings that some of the men they employ are sexual predators?”

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It’s a good question, and a painful one for the organisation. In 2018, it was revealed that Oxfam aid workers deployed to Haiti following the 2010 earthquake had illegally paid for sex with local women and also, allegedly, children aged 14 to 16. Phone video footage allegedly shown to a source showed Haitian girls dressed in Oxfam T-shirts “running around half-naked” in a property rented by the charity for the use of its workers, in a scene the source described as “like a Caligula orgy”. 

The revelations were financially devastating for Oxfam, leading to a sharp drop in donations, and the withdrawal of access to government funding. A wave of redundancies followed, along with an inquiry, which found that the child abuse allegedly committed by staff in Haiti was not an isolated incident.

The errors made in the Oxfam case seem strikingly similar to the errors made by other institutions implicated in sexual abuse scandals, including the Catholic church, the BBC, and the police and local authorities who failed to properly investigate the child grooming gangs operating in British cities. The failings are almost always the same: lack of professional curiosity, failure to communicate with other agencies, overworked staff choosing to look away rather than confront difficult problems, and intimidating individuals repeatedly given the benefit of the doubt. With the exception of the abusers themselves, most people who contribute to these disasters aren’t malicious, but rather some combination of lazy, incompetent and naive.

In the three years since the Haiti sex scandal broke, there have been some genuine efforts to flush out abusers and improve safeguarding within Oxfam. But clearly the problems persist. The charity is now facing a further suspension of government funding, following the discovery of abuses committed by their staff in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Given all this, it takes some gall for Oxfam HQ to try to lecture anyone on “whiteness” or blame “privileged” women for their victimisation. When there are reports that your own aid workers have been sexually assaulting Haitian and Congolese women and children, how could you possibly think to maintain the moral high ground on issues relating to gender and race?

But then, I wonder if the moral disgrace and the moral posturing might be related. When I was in the charity sector, I worked alongside quite a few people at Oxfam HQ. My impression was that they were all sincerely committed to their work and appalled by the crimes committed under their organisation’s banner. People go into charity work to make the world better, not to carry water for sexual abusers.

It is, of course, very difficult to make the world better. On balance, it seems that the aid delivered by charities like Oxfam does make a difference, but improvement isn’t guaranteed. It’s not uncommon for aid workers to spend their whole lives working to do some good in a region, only to see it fall back into war, lawlessness, and despair. It is understandable that those who have devoted their lives to a worthy but often hopeless cause might be attracted to a simplistic ideology that reassures them they are on the side of morality and virtue, however lacklustre the actual outcomes.

At the same time, predators are drawn to vulnerability as flies are to meat. Oxfam is not the only charity found to have had sexual predators in their ranks: Médecins Sans Frontières, the UN refugee agency, the WHO, and the Halo Trust have all had their own scandals, though they were less well-publicised. 

Oxfam cannot seem to extricate itself from the shame of its ongoing failure, and my guess is that, for some staff, it might be comforting to choose a simplistic worldview over a true one. One appeal of the “woke” ideology that senior people at Oxfam have apparently adopted is that it offers a very clear vision. In that world, there is a clear enemy – white cisheteropatriarchy – and a clear blueprint for change. Whereas in this real, complicated world, sometimes evil arrives with a smile and the promise of help.