Should we really be surprised by the Oxfam sex abuse scandal?

Oxfam, one of Britain’s – if not the world’s – leading aid agencies is the target of an awful lot of hate at the moment. You don’t need me to tell you that.

The cause of the hate – the reported abuse of women and girls by aid workers in Haiti following the earthquake – is despicable. You don’t need me to tell you that, either.

Something must be done to stop future abuse and to ensure the perpetrators are punished. Again, you don’t need me to tell you that.

But there is something that I do want to say – and it is important. But this blog post is my third attempt at saying it. So please bear with me.

If you were surprised by the Oxfam abuse scandal, then you do not understand the nature of abuse or the deceit and charm of those who carry it out. In fact, I’m no longer going to call it the Oxfam abuse scandal, because this isn’t about Oxfam.

Oxfam is merely the latest organisation where abuse has become known. First, it was in the Boy Scout and Girl Guide movements; then it was in the churches; then it was the media, from the BBC to Hollywood; then it was in Westminster and political circles; now it is in the aid sector.

Is nothing sacred? Well, actually, no. Abusers will go wherever the opportunity takes them. And people whose perverted sexual desires include children, will go where children are found.

This is not a problem for Oxfam or the other aid agencies. It is not a problem for Westminster, for the media, for churches, or uniformed organisations. It is a problem for society. And all of society needs to be aware of it and take action. If you were surprised that abuse could take place in the context of an aid agency, then you are not aware just how widespread abuse is – or of the levels abusers will go to in order to carry out their abuse.

Many people – too many people – still try to deflect the issue by politicising it. And you don’t have to look too far to see that in the Oxfam case. When the news story first broke – and I mean when it first broke – right-wing commentators were condemning the media because it wasn’t leading the bulletins in the way that the Presidents Club scandal dominated the headlines. Well, you can’t say that now.

There were numerous Tweets in the first few hours after The Times broke the story, accusing the “left-wing media” of bias and downplaying the scandal in the way that they hadn’t done with the Presidents Club. They accused the media of clear bias: that the Presidents Club involved the rich – and therefore right-wing people; while Oxfam was beloved of socialists and left-wingers and so was being downplayed.

Left-wingers on Twitter offered a false defence of the media, saying that the Presidents Club scandal involved abuse while the Oxfam scandal involved the use of prostitutes; and that prostitution was a choice.

Let’s get two things clear straight away:

Firstly, when I said that this was a problem for society, I meant it. It doesn’t matter where you are politically: on the right, the left, central or neutral: child abuse and the abuse of women and girls is all around you. It is a certainty that you will know victims (but you may not know that they are victims); and it is highly likely that you know or are connected to a perpetrator in some way.

Secondly, this isn’t about prostitution. I know that there are some people who view prostitution as a woman’s choice and that it is wrong to take that choice away from her. And I have no doubt that some women do make a conscious free-will choice to engage in prostitution. But there is far more evidence of the abusive nature of prostitution, and of so many women coerced into selling their bodies – sometimes by obvious force and sometimes by more subtle means of coercion. This isn’t the place to debate that, but if you want to know more, I recommend Julie Bindel’s well-researched book, “The Pimping of Prostitution: Abolishing the Sex Work Myth”, published last September by Palgrave Macmillan.

But, as I said, this isn’t about prostitution. The original report in The Times quoted an internal Oxfam report into the scandal, which said that “It cannot be ruled out that any of the prostitutes were under-aged.” This is shocking beyond the obvious initial view that the abusers may have used under-age girls; but also because whoever wrote the report for Oxfam referred to the girls as “the prostitutes” rather than “the victims”.

Those who argue that prostitution is a valid choice must surely understand that such a choice is only a choice if it is freely made. If you are a poverty-stricken, starving girl or young woman, in a country unable to meet your needs at the best of times, now suffering from a devastating earthquake – an earthquake from which Haiti is yet to recover, years later – then you may not feel there is much choice when a wealthy individual who controls access to food, water, medicines, or shelter offers money or food or resources for sex.

There is an abuse nature to the relationship – as there would be if we were talking about a romantic partnership that didn’t involve the exchange of cash or goods. There is a power-imbalance so serious that it makes any relationship dangerous and potentially abusive.

I started this blog post by saying some things didn’t need saying. But I’ve said them anyway! But this was important background to what follows: The question now is what should be done about it.

Some people are advocating an end to all charity funding. No, really, I’ve read their Tweets and comments to newspaper articles, ranging from “charity begin at home” to “it is the responsibility of governments to look after their own people.” I could really go to town on such statements; but I won’t. Not now.

But those sentiments are at the extreme-end of a growing chorus of people who are demanding that Britain lowers its overseas aid budget and abandons the mandatory 0.7 per cent of GDP spend on overseas aid. It was back in 1970 that the United Nations set nations a target of committing 0.7 per cent of their GDP on development aid. The target has been re-stated many times by organisations ranging from the UN to the G8; yet last year only six countries reached or exceeded the target: Denmark, the Netherlands, Norway, Luxembourg, Sweden, and the UK.

There are valid questions about how or where that money is spent; but with so much poverty and inequality in the world, and continuing natural and man-made disasters, there is surely no valid argument that the amount isn’t needed. Yet some people make that argument and they are using what happened in Haiti as fuel for their fire.

I really don’t think that such people can genuinely be said to care about the victims of abuse in Haiti or elsewhere. If they did care about the victims, they would want to ensure that they were fed, clothed and sheltered as much as whether or not they were abused.

Reports since the story broke have demonstrated that donations to Oxfam have fallen. Individuals have cancelled their direct debits and standing orders. It is too early to tell, but it doesn’t look as though all these individuals are switching their donations to other overseas aid and development charities.

When you stop giving money to overseas development agencies, you don’t harm the agencies, you harm the recipients of the aid – from Haiti to Pacific and from Africa to Asia, there are men, women and children who rely on overseas aid to ensure access to medicines, food and even clean drinking water. The unfairness of past abuses of natural resources means that we in the West have got rich by plundering the resources of the poor. And that unfairness continues today, including in unfair trade deals.

There are those calling for resignations. I’m not sure that will help either. Clearly, those who abused need to go. And they need to face justice. And those who covered it up need to go and also need to face justice. When you cover-up abuse you enable abuse (and you only need to look at how those sacked were able to get jobs elsewhere in the sector to see this).

The underlying theme to the scandal is that Oxfam covered up abuse in order to protect its own reputation. And if that happened, it is wrong. But what is Oxfam? Why does its reputation matter? It isn’t a business, it doesn’t have shareholders and it doesn’t pay dividends. So if its reputation suffers, why does it matter? Who will suffer?

The people who suffer – the people who are suffering – are the world’s poor who depend on Oxfam’s help, and the help of other international aid agencies. When Oxfam’s income goes down, the only thing affected is the amount of help it can give to poverty stricken.

It is easy for us to say “stop giving to Oxfam” – it doesn’t affect us. Is it as easy to say: “stop feeding this child in South Sudan” or “don’t build shelters in that refugee camp in Uganda”.

I can understand why Oxfam wanted to protect its reputation; but that doesn’t make it right. That’s why I don’t support calls for people who were not even employed by Oxfam at the time the Haiti scandal occurred to resign or be sacked. It will achieve nothing. Oxfam have a big job on their hands to clean up the mess. They need to get on with it.

As I said earlier, this is not an Oxfam problem. This is a societal problem. Abuse and abusers are everywhere. There will be other scandals to come. What matters is how such scandals are dealt with.

Now is not a time for attacking Oxfam or the overseas aid and development sector.

Now is a time for examining our own organisation’s policies, procedures and practices to ensure that children and vulnerable people we work with are protected as best we can; that abusers cannot worm their way into our organisations to use the good work we do as a pretext for carrying out their abuse. We need to ensure that abusive behaviour is called out for what it is, and action taken, so that abusers are not allowed to switch from one organisation to another; from one sector to another.

It is time to call time on abuse.