Sue Tibballs: Did Oxfam really deserve such a roasting by media?

The sector must reassert itself and make its aims clear after the Haiti affair, writes our columnist

Sue Tibballs
Sue Tibballs

In a previous column I wrote about the former charities minister Rob Wilson describing Oxfam as a "front group for Corbynistas" and what seemed to me to be a deliberate and dangerous obfuscation of the difference between being "political" and "partisan". Little could I have known what was to come next.

The recent revelations about Oxfam are not news – they took place in 2011 and were known about by plenty of civil servants and ministers, as well as the Charity Commission. That they should suddenly pop up in The Times now suggests someone has an axe to grind. If you wanted to inflict damage on charities that have been a thorn in your side, Oxfam is a prime target.

And, my God, has damage been done.

What happened in Haiti is wrong. Nobody is in any doubt about that. Let’s be clear: no sector escapes the abuse that men perpetrate on women. It blights every trade, in every country. Sometimes, women abuse men, but nowhere near as often. There have always been men in positions of power who have used that power to subjugate and abuse women. It happens everywhere. That is why the #MeToo fire is burning so fiercely. But does Oxfam deserve quite such a roasting?

Oxfam did what it was required to do at the time. It acted to stop the abuse. It sacked the perpetrators. It undertook a full inquiry.

Oxfam has also been criticised for not being more "transparent". But my sense is that it has been made vulnerable by its transparency. It published statistics about numbers of alleged sexual abuse complaints and this has been used to feed the media frenzy, rather than leading to a measured debate.

But what really strikes me about Oxfam’s travails is how vulnerable it is. How easy it has been to make the mud stick. It reveals how vulnerable the entire sector is. Why?

Is it because our sector is increasingly becoming, first and foremost, a fundraising machine? If you go to the home page of any major charity, it will immediately ask you for a donation.

Nobody comes to work in the charity sector for the money, so why have we allowed ourselves to be seen as being all about the cash? If people don’t believe we are a force for good in the world, then the public has every right to ask what we are for.

There is a siren song echoing through the corridors of Westminster, one that harks back to an idealised Victorian philanthropic past. Charities have never been solely about alms, any more than the Women’s Institute has ever solely been about "jam and Jerusalem". Some politicians would prefer that we were, but most know that this is a false narrative. They understand the crucial role that civil society plays in a functioning democracy.

So what is the corrective? We must continue to place creating a fairer, safer and more sustainable world at the centre of our values. It is what we exist to do. We must ensure that we express this proudly in all of our work. This will help the public and politicians to positively value the contribution charities make to public debate – even when it is uncomfortable.

Mission first, not model or money. That has to be our mantra.

Sue Tibballs is chief executive of the Sheila McKechnie Foundation

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