Axe-grinding and the morally compromised

The sound of axes being ground is deafening.

Whether it’s the right-wing press incensed that the UK spends any money on overseas aid, and sensing an opportunity to lobby for its reduction.

Or the government seeking to undermine an effective advocacy organisation that has been holding them to account on poverty in the UK among many other issues.

I don’t know…

What the reality is behind the headlines. What Oxfam staff did or didn’t do in Haiti and Chad. What the power imbalances were. What Oxfam management did or didn’t report to the Charities Commission.

What life was like for the women in Haiti that turned to prostitution. Where Chad’s oil revenues go.

How many people have been helped by Oxfam, other UK charities, and the UK aid budget as a whole. How much violence and other suffering is stemmed as people are supported out of poverty.

How the UK’s commitment to spending 0.7% of its GDP on aid increases its standing on the world stage and on the ground.

I do believe…

That the UK gets substantial benefits from the aid budget, including so called ‘soft power’.

That charities do have to try to be whiter than white. That Oxfam has actually been among those driving transparency in the sector.

That absolutely nobody is perfect. That some Oxfam staff did wrong. That probably other aid workers have done wrong.

That prostitution should not (need to) exist. That it should be illegal to exploit a prostitute, but not illegal to be a prostitute. That any abuse of power is wrong.

That our government and media have no right to lecture Oxfam on morality or doing the right thing. This on the BBC website beggars belief:

[Penny Mordaunt] said no organisation could be a government partner if it did not “have the moral leadership to do the right thing”.

Would that be a partner of this government, riddled with sexual misconduct???

That the media is not reporting the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Because the British press delights in tearing down, not building up.

That all who hold power must be held to account, and that much of our media is unable and unwilling to do this.

Who will suffer?

It certainly won’t be government ministers or media moguls. Some Oxfam staff have fallen on their swords, and others may lose their jobs if Oxfam’s revenue goes down and programmes have to be cut.

But the main people to lose out will be the beneficiaries of those programmes.

People suffering in areas torn by war, violence, natural disaster or disease, who are helped by Oxfam’s emergency response activities.

People who are climbing out of poverty and developing greater resilience with the support of Oxfam’s development programmes.

And all of us will suffer, because we need to join our voices together to hold our governments to account and challenge unjust power structures. We need to work together for an end to poverty and injustice, for our planet and all of its people. If Oxfam’s campaigning voice is weakened, we are all weakened.


I am proud through Websites Ahoy! to have worked on the website for Lawyers Against Poverty, an Oxfam project. Its vision is to build a community of lawyers across the globe who use access to justice to relieve poverty.

Shame, an addendum

Penny Lawrence, when she resigned as Deputy Chief Executive of Oxfam, said something that struck me: “As programme director at the time, I am ashamed that this happened on my watch and I take full responsibility.”

“I am ashamed.”

It took me back to two TED talks: Brené Brown “Listening to shame”, and Monica Lewinsky “The Price of shame”.

Starting with the later talk from 2015, Lewinsky’s story is a personal account of online public shaming, but it is still very relevant. Does any of this sound familiar?

This rush to judgment [in 1998], enabled by technology, led to mobs of virtual stone-throwers.

For nearly two decades now, we have slowly been sowing the seeds of shame and public humiliation in our cultural soil, both on- and offline.

A marketplace has emerged where public humiliation is a commodity and shame is an industry. How is the money made? Clicks. The more shame, the more clicks. The more clicks, the more advertising dollars.

I believe clicks and advertising revenue are the prime motivation for most so-called reporting in the British press.

We live in sad times when our press has lost the moral standing to hold others to account, and needs to be held to account itself. Yet I believe we are all culpable when we swallow our press whole, and fail to look behind the headlines and sound bites.

Lewinsky’s conclusion?

We need to return to a long-held value of compassion — compassion and empathy. Online, we’ve got a compassion deficit, an empathy crisis.

We talk a lot about our right to freedom of expression, but we need to talk more about our responsibility to freedom of expression. We all want to be heard, but let’s acknowledge the difference between speaking up with intention and speaking up for attention.

Lewinsky referenced Brown’s earlier talk in 2012, which draws a distinction between shame and guilt:

The thing to understand about shame is, it’s not guilt. Shame is a focus on self, guilt is a focus on behavior. Shame is “I am bad.” Guilt is “I did something bad.” How many of you, if you did something that was hurtful to me, would be willing to say, “I’m sorry. I made a mistake?” How many of you would be willing to say that? Guilt: I’m sorry. I made a mistake. Shame: I’m sorry. I am a mistake.

I believe employees at Oxfam made mistakes. I do not believe Oxfam is a mistake.

Shame gets in the way of being open about our mistakes and failures. It makes us people who are afraid to fail instead of being unafraid to take risks. The admission of guilt and failure keeps the door open for the possibility of change for the better:

You know why [TED] is amazing? Because very few people here are afraid to fail. And no one who gets on the stage, so far that I’ve seen, has not failed. I’ve failed miserably, many times. I don’t think the world understands that, because of shame.

The ability to hold something we’ve done or failed to do up against who we want to be is incredibly adaptive. It’s uncomfortable, but it’s adaptive.

Do we want to be people who tear down or build up? People who get on the shame bandwagon, or who applaud the right admission of guilt and the determination to adapt and do better? I’ll finish with Brown quoting Theodore Roosevelt:

“It is not the critic who counts. It is not the man who sits and points out how the doer of deeds could have done things better and how he falls and stumbles. The credit goes to the man in the arena whose face is marred with dust and blood and sweat. But when he’s in the arena, at best, he wins, and at worst, he loses, but when he fails, when he loses, he does so daring greatly.”

1 thought on “Axe-grinding and the morally compromised”

  1. If you want to help the people who Oxfam helps, it would be great if you could write to your local MP. If you don’t know how to contact them, you can write via the Write To Them website. Please do spread the word.

    Thank you to Julia Golding for the following.

    The point of writing to an MP to ask a question of the DFID Minister is that it gets a much higher profile in civil service handling and is followed up by your MP with you. You get to influence twice.

    Here are some points to make. It’s good to make them in your own words, and add your own, so your letter isn’t dismissed as a campaign and given a general response.

    1. While you share everyone’s disappointment at the behaviour of some aid workers in Haiti, you are extremely disturbed by the unbalanced reporting on the part of the media and the over-reaction of Government regarding Oxfam’s role in this.

    2. Every organisation has cases of sexual exploitation, including the Government and Houses of Parliament etc. The difference with Oxfam is that they have been trying to do something about it since at least 2007, when they started reporting cases annually so as to be as open on the problem as possible and find ways of combating this long-standing issue. If you have a reporting system, you will get incidents reported – it shows the system is working. The Haiti case itself only came to light because Oxfam itself investigated and took action. More serious questions surely remain for those who are not being transparent and hiding their problems. Why is the Government trying to punish the one organisation that took a stand?

    3. In 2017 Oxfam was recognised by an independent study from Tufts University Feinstein International Center in the USA as the outstanding agency with procedures in place. The government should be encouraging that good practice not penalising openness.

    4. Please ask your MP to ask the DFID Minister Penny Mordaunt to inject balance and sanity into this debate and ask her to restore funding immediately. Also ask your MP to ask her what she is doing about the organisations who are not as transparent as Oxfam. Will she make a public statement recognising the pioneering reporting work Oxfam has done?

    5. Going after Oxfam will only make others hide their mistakes and in suspending funding to Oxfam poor people will be punished. Oxfam has a unique water and sanitation expertise that is saving lives today. It should be helped to go about this business. Oxfam has already promised that it has learned lessons from the incident and it should be allowed to get on with its lifesaving work.

    And from me… You might like to ask Penny Mordaunt to stand by her talk on Smart Power at TEDxHousesofParliament 2014. All is of interest, and from 8:10 is particularly pertinent: “There is growing disquiet amongst the British people with spending on the ingredients of smart power. They want us to slash the [overseas aid] budget and raise the drawbridge. This sits in contradiction with their propensity to be incredibly generous in donating funds to assist those countries affected by natural or man-made disasters… That inconsistency in their views has to be down to their lack of trust in politicians people like me to provide a strategy, and to address their concerns, and to deliver it effectively.”

    Thank you

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