Few would say that the alleged behaviour of aid workers in the Oxfam sexual exploitation scandal is acceptable. But the nature of the criticism that has followed these revelations, including government threats to cut Oxfam’s funding, is driven more by politics than genuine understanding of the sector, explains David Lewis.
Evidence of sexual misconduct by staff within Oxfam rightly made the news headlines recently. Oxfam has admitted that past problems had not been handled well enough, offered a full apology, and has publicised improvements to its safeguarding arrangements that it hopes will afford better protection to people in the future. Its deputy chief executive resigned.
Few people would suggest that the alleged behaviour of these aid workers is acceptable. The exploitation of some of the world’s most vulnerable by those tasked with providing them with assistance and support during a time of crisis is inexcusable.
Nor would many disagree with the criticism that Oxfam has been less than transparent about what actually happened, how it was dealt with, or how much of it was communicated to the Charity Commission. It is good that the murky world of humanitarian work and disaster relief is now being subjected to much closer public scrutiny.
But the storm of criticism that has greeted the revelations, which included a government threat to cut Oxfam’s funding, and calls in the press for its chief executive to resign, is disproportionate and unhelpful. It has been driven more by politics and ideology than genuine understanding of the sector.
What is needed now is an effort to build a better-informed public discussion about the pros and cons of international aid, the nature of humanitarian action, and the role of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) like Oxfam. NGOs themselves have a responsibility to initiate this. But for this to happen, three key points about NGO work need to be far better understood.
NGO workplaces are ambiguous and difficult
We live in an era in which unprecedented light is currently (and rightly) being shone on the problem of abuse and harassment in society. It is simply naive to think that sexual harassment is not an issue in every area of institutional life, including the development and charitable sectors. Or that bad people don’t take advantage of the opportunities afforded by the power imbalances implicit in front line humanitarian settings.
Humanitarian emergency work usually takes place in unstable areas, in pressured situations, in places where there is a high degree of dysfunction and disorder, and where little goes according to plan. It’s messy, unpredictable and difficult.
We have to move beyond the oversimplified popular stereotyped view of aid workers either as ‘idealised virtuous helpers’ or as ‘self-serving overpaid professionals’. Neither view is accurate. The work attracts many different kinds of people with varied motivations, usefully expressed by Jock Stirrat in terms of his three archetypes of ‘missionaries’, ‘misfits’, and ‘mercenaries’.
Aid doesn’t travel by itself
Governments and private individuals who donate to NGOs are understandably committed to a belief in securing ‘value for money’. However, this can lead them to expect that resources can reach those in need without requiring much in the way of organisational structures or overhead costs.
This is unrealistic. To do effective work, agencies need to invest in proper management systems including safeguarding. One outcome of the relentless pressure to minimise resources spent on NGO overheads is that it may contribute to a lack of effective management. A key theme in my own 2014 book on NGOs and management is the point that aid money does not magically move from people’s donations or taxes to arrive safely to the people who need it – it requires effective management processes and systems to make that happen.
A better-informed public aid debate
The debate about international aid has become ideological rather than being based on a discussion of proper evidence. An informed debate about international aid is needed, but the current politically motivated attack on aid is unhelpful. Bringing international aid into the ongoing ‘culture wars’ benefits no one.
Instead we need to challenge misleading public perceptions of what it is that development organisations do. The government used to spend a tiny part of the aid budget on something called ‘development education’ in schools and local communities – aimed at promoting public understanding of international development issues. The funding for this was cut in the UK during the 1980s. What’s now needed is improved safeguarding systems, a clearer code of conduct and a raised level of public education and debate.
Ironically, a 2017 Tufts University report on sexual harassment in the international NGO sector found that Oxfam was ahead of other NGOs in its safeguarding systems and was identified by the authors as an example of ‘best practice’.
David Lewis is Professor of Social Policy and Development at LSE, and author of Non-governmental Organizations, Management and Development (2014).
All articles posted on this blog give the views of the author(s), and not the position of LSE British Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics and Political Science. Featured image credit: Howard Lake (Flickr, CC BY-SA).
Mandarins? I thought it was Missionaries, Mercenaries and Misfits? When were misfits promoted to mandarins? Mind you, looking at the way some projects and programmes are designed and managed I often wonder if the misfits have taken over!
Simon, you’re absolutely right – thanks for pointing this out … I’ve subconsciously added a new category, so apologies to Jock!
Actually David I think your Freudian slip of adding a new category is quite apt, although ironically it probably doesn’t apply to the usually “lean and mean” Oxfam. However, it’s most appropriate for the big outfits that fund the NGOs. Looking at some of DFID’s recent projects you have to wonder which Sir Humphrey thought them up. Mind you, others like USAID and the World Bank aren’t any better.
Which part of the public’s perception is actually misleading? If,say, it is reported in the mainstream media that a certain charity which pays young people an hourly wage to collect money for a certain good cause is spending between eighty-five and ninety percent of its takings on its total budget dedicated to collecting, administration and management and said charity does not deny it, would the public be harbouring misleading perceptions about this charity in question if the public thought that effective privatisation of collecting money for charity is creating a moral hazard which charities and their lobbyists cum private companies collecting for charity have been taking advantage of with alacrity? Charitable organisations could be more open about where the money goes, but no, they want your signature and your account number for regular payments and if one wants to know where your money goes one is directed to a website. Charity is the next big scandal to penetrate the consciousness of people of good conscience in the West.
Thanks Jacob – I couldn’t agree more that charities should be more open about where the money goes. My point is that simply comparing overheads between charities may not tell you everything. An organisation with higher overheads may do better work (in terms of reaching the right people, making changes sustainable, working in remote areas etc) than one with low overheads.
I know it as the triangle missionary – mercenary – misfit. In my experience, aid workers usually start out in the “missionary” corner of the triangle and then gradually drift towards “mercenary” as the years wear on (and wear them down). At the end, many get stuck on the mercenary-misfit axis, cynical about aid but trapped in the industry due to their inability to reintegrate into normal society.
By the way, has anyone noticed how bad the media response was in terms of its quality? Has a single journo flown to Haiti to find and interview those prostitutes or government officials or other aid workers there? No. Forget about an informed debate about aid, the media can’t afford to cover it properly, it’s not that much money (compared to, say, HS2) and it’s too far outside most people’s realm of experience anyway.
Soon we’ll be back to normal: the left-wing media uncritically regurgitating INGO press releases and other PR material, and the right-wing media using every occasion to call for aid to be cut.
Result: Reinforcement and gratification for everyone at home, and crappy goods and services for the poor abroad.
A journo could also ask the Haitian gov’t how much water and food was distributed by Oxfam in its hour of need.
But you even get armchair anti-aiders complaining because Oxfam uses brand new 4X4s. Just imagine the consequences of your urgent transport breaking down…
Excellent point, I like the idea of the drift from one to the other.
By the way, I apologies to all readers of the blog for the ‘missionaries, mercenaries and misfits mix-up’ (I was subconsciously confusing it with another very interesting 1998 book called Missionaries and Mandarins, edited by Carol Miller and Shahra Razavi, which is also relevant to the theme – its about feminist engagement with development institutions!).
It’s also the case, Till, that the left tends to be very critical of NGOs – as neoliberal development organisations, depoliticising struggle, doing the donors’ bidding, etc. I think it is the liberal media that is generally uncritical of development NGOs.
It’s surely right to get beyond the unhelpful stereotypes we’re hearing now.
In the absence of school classes, local groups could set up public discussions/debates along the lines of:
“Charity belongs at home — or does it?”
Where does a charity’s money go?”
Panel discussions with questions from the floor stops it being just the charity putting its POV and getting pilloried, or worse. Churches would be glad to house such meetings.
Charities could do some things by themselves. Although it’s now (I think) a legal requirement to publish the proportion of donations spent of admin v the frontline, they need to pull this fact out and use it prominently in advertising.
Incidentally, beyond Stirrat’s three-way typology, I’ve met a fourth: “instrumental”. It was a useful thing to put on your CV as part of a career path. That of course would be inverted now!
Thanks Vic – I like your instrumental category idea too. Perhaps that I was thinking with the mandarins … or perhaps we now have five possible archetypes!
As it happens, the man I was thinking of has become a mandarin, if of a rather recherché kind. And he passed through LSE on his way, too.
BTW, I liked the article. But May has given the Times’s poorly motivated story legs. And allowed floor space to those who want to cut most, or all, aid, even though she herself probably doesn’t want that.
Informative and helpful piece on this topical issue, thank you.
Your phrase about ‘politically motivated attacks’ sums up so much communication at the moment; from the mouths of politicians and every other sector of society represented.
Thank you Louise