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Oxfam and the UK’s moral leadership

Oxfam and the UK’s moral leadership

Ben Ryan argues that despite the Oxfam scandal, Britain must not shy away from its lead role in international development.

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The allegations currently surrounding Oxfam read like a story designed in the fevered dreams of a Daily Express editors’ meeting. It has sordid sexual exploits (“It was like a Caligula orgy with prostitutes”), underage girls, charity amateurism, the misuse of foreign aid and an institutional cover–up.

It is alleged that during the work in the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake in Haiti several Oxfam staff members, including at least one senior leader, encouraged girls into prostitution and used them as such (some of whom were apparently underage), all in defiance of Haitian law, international aid codes of conduct and, indeed, basic human decency. It is further alleged that Oxfam effectively covered this up, allowing several to resign and even writing references that allowed them to go on to, in some cases, high profile roles at other charities. At least one went onto a senior role at the Catholic international development charity, Cafod, apparently on the basis of a good reference (he has since been suspended).

All of which, to state the obvious, is repellent and raises serious questions about how this was able to happen and how widespread such abuses are within the international aid sector. What is interesting, however, is how a scandal in a particular charity has become the battlefield for a much broader battle about the role that the UK ought to play on the international stage.

The tragic Oxfam case comes at a useful moment for a lot of interested parties, falling as it does in the same week that the Daily Express and right–wing darling of the moment Jacob Rees–Mogg launch their big campaign for a reduction of the foreign aid budget. Particularly when it follows months of successive DFID ministers openly musing a shift in the use of aid funds.

The government are limping towards the Brexit finishing line, with whatever European relationship that ultimately entails. When the seemingly endless negotiations saga is finally brought to a close, we will have to look around and ask what the UK wants to be. We will have left the EU, but the more optimistic and confident Brexiteers promised that that did not mean we would become an isolationist country. That being the case, what role are we set to play?

To criticise those who are politicizing the Oxfam case is to miss the point. Aid is always political. The UK’s (and everyone else’s) aid budget is not and never has been purely altruistic. Aid money helps support British interests in all manner of ways, economically, in terms of soft power, in security terms, even in terms of reducing the asylum burden. Nor is anyone really arguing that should not be the case. But it also has a critical element of moral purpose behind it. What we choose to provide aid for reflects the sort of international development we want to see in the world, it is symptomatic of the type of international community the UK seeks to build (it is, in other words, maximally political).

That purpose might be manifested in a commitment to peace, or to tackling ecological concerns, or in promoting education, or to rebuild areas which are prompting so much of the ongoing refugee crisis. In a sense this specific cause matters less than having some sort of moral leadership on any international issue, and demonstrating a concern that goes beyond isolationism, to a commitment to broader human development.

Rees–Mogg, in his campaign to reduce foreign aid, and in his self–appointed role as Catholic champion in Parliament, might recall the line which Pope Francis has preached repeatedly: “Responsibility for the poor and the marginalized must therefore be an essential element of any political decision, whether on the national or the international level.” Such has been the theme of much of Francis’s papacy, including his major encyclical Laudato Si’ which called on rich countries to pay their “grave social debt” to poorer countries. Solidarity is not considered an optional extra in Catholic Social Teaching.

Post–Brexit there are any number of possible models for the UK’s international role. Having backed out of a political union which has a commitment to combatting climate change and increasing international peace and development (no matter how imperfectly the EU is accomplishing those goals), there is an onus on the UK to prove that it has a genuine alternative vision for attaining whatever it decides are its moral goals. Stripping the foreign aid budget would be a decidedly unpromising way to position the UK’s role as a moral actor on the world stage. As for the Oxfam case, it certainly raises challenges, but the battle is so much broader than how to guarantee safeguarding procedures.

 Image by Electric Egg from available under licence

Ben Ryan

Ben Ryan

Ben Ryan is Home Affairs Adviser at Church of England. He was Head of Research at Theos until late 2019. He is the editor of Fortress Britain? Ethical Approaches to Immigration Policy for a Post–Brexit Britain (JKP 2018) and the author of Theos reports on chaplaincy, the EU, the Catholic charity sector, mental health and ecumenism.

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Posted 15 February 2018

Brexit, Britain, Charity, International development


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