Shaista Aziz and Alexia Pepper de Caires: White supremacy, patriarchy, power and Oxfam

The start of 2020 highlights, once again, that the international aid sector has deep rooted structural problems with power and accountability

Oxfam GB’s appointment of the new trustee Andrew Hind – a former Charity Commission chief executive, who wrote an article in September 2019 arguing that Oxfam had been treated unfairly by the regulator and the media after the exposure of sexual exploitation and abuse of women and under-age Haitian girls by Oxfam employees – illustrates once again that abuses of power lie at the heart of #AidToo.

We witness, over and over again, how older white men continue going through the revolving door of power and landing at the top table. These men always fall upwards, regardless of what they stand for, and the lesson we learn is that power protects and reinforces power.

Hind’s appointment provides further evidence that, under the leadership of Danny Sriskandarajah, who was appointed chief executive in 2019 to clean up Oxfam GB after its previous chief executive Mark Goldring was allowed to timetable his own departure (because, again, this is how power protects older white men), little is changing.

Sriskandarajah’s outward mission was to bring radical change to a fading British institution, along with senior managers and trustees. As the man at the helm, he has opted instead to shuffle the deckchairs rather than commit to leading the urgent and principled work needed to dismantle structural whiteness, patriarchy and colonialism.

A sector-wide system that allows its regulators to become trustees is yet more proof of the desire to bypass public trust tests and restore reputation, rather than tackle the much harder and unrewarded work of fighting internal structures of oppression.

As the founders of NGO Safe Space, an intersectional feminist platform created to hold #AidToo abuses to account and support victims and survivors, we have written to both Sriskanrajah and Oxfam’s global safeguarding director Clifford Isabelle, to voice our deep distrust at the charity’s direction of travel as signalled by its latest trustee appointments.

The mission now appears to be a procedural-heavy, corporate and audit-focused approach to international development, in response to deep-rooted cultural norms across the sector. There is no sign of an intersectional, grounded, anti-racist-led analysis of power and privilege, an approach we have always unapologetically advocated for.

Over the past year, NGO Safe Space has been in dialogue with Oxfam and other international non-governmental organisations that have been seeking our expertise on how these institutions can challenge and change their cultures and massively outdated structures. We also have heard directly from Oxfam employees who feel betrayed and let down by the approach Oxfam GB is still taking in response to its #AidToo crisis.

Our dialogue with many organisations has been direct, respectful, thought-provoking and held in the spirit of moving things forward.

But we have also found INGOs and leaders who think they can paper over the crisis with lip service. Quite frequently, these are the same men invited to the NGO speakers circuit to shine a light on their so-called feminist credentials, or white men sending us their comment pieces urging us to signal boost their thoughts on how to "diversify" the sector.

In November, NGO Safe Space delivered a keynote address to senior NGO leaders about #AidToo abuse, called "Power, Privilege and Shame: Facing Uncomfortable Truths". What followed was a vital and honest discussion in the room, naming the problems and sharing what the leaders in the room needed to do to make change.

We also challenged the room to ask these leaders how they were preparing their multimillion-pound organisations to work and operate in an increasingly authoritarian and violent world, where rights for women, LGBQTIA+ people, and people of colour are under direct threat from their governments.

We are not prepared to be complicit with sustaining existing power structures across INGO models. We continue unapologetically to fight for these powerholders to resource and commit to actions that dismantle patriarchy, whiteness and colonialism in all parts of the aid sector.

All else at this stage is cheap talk. The world is literally on fire. It doesn’t need any more white saviours and performative solidarity from the multimillion-pound INGO sector. Instead, we need urgent and brave ways of working rooted in radical, active, intersectional solidarities.

Shaista Aziz and Alexia Pepper de Caires are founders of NGO Safe Space

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