Toby Porter: The Haiti story is in the public interest; destroying Oxfam is not

Of course the revelations about the international aid charity are appalling, writes our columnist, but powerful people with antipathy to charity are taking advantage

Toby Porter
Toby Porter

By now the details of the crisis involving Oxfam in Haiti must be well known to any Third Sector reader. Regrettably, there has always been a small number of national and international aid workers who use and abuse commercial sex workers. An even smaller percentage again sexually harass colleagues and/or beneficiaries. But the global humanitarian sector is huge, employing many hundreds of thousands of people. So this tiny percentage aggregates out into quite large numbers. A former Save the Children colleague of mine tweeted yesterday that "organisations can and should do better, but don’t let anyone tell you this is easily fixed. Zero tolerance is achievable, zero incidence is not."

He was right. Tales of sexual exploitation by aid workers and UN peacekeepers have indeed been commonplace, and have been acknowledged and reported by agencies themselves for years. For the sector, what happened in Haiti was a system failure.

But the past week shows that public supporters of charities and their business partners are in a completely different place, and don’t want to accept that this goes on anywhere, let alone everywhere. For them, the issue is clearly a visceral, instinctive and normative one. It goes to the heart of their moral impulse for giving, for having donated their money to a charity in the first place. The idea that even a small number of staff from an organisation into which they have invested not just their money, but also their hope, their empathy, their compassion for strangers afflicted by catastrophe might be doing this is just beyond the pale.

This I think is the biggest challenge facing UK humanitarian agencies in the future. After this show of public outrage, and the future media scrutiny we know is guaranteed, how can they for example meet the Department for International Development’s legitimate expectations of transparently reporting on every future incidence of sexual harassment and abuse without their public supporters turning away in shock and disgust.

As for Oxfam, beyond the immediate crisis I see a threat to its whole impact model. Oxfam increasingly has two real areas of expertise: its life-saving humanitarian operations and its global campaigning work on poverty, inequality, injustice and women’s rights. Wherever its post-crisis income settles, you can see tremendous difficulties ahead.

With its humanitarian work, what might this scandal offer in future political capital or leverage to governments or rebel forces that might not want Oxfam to be saving lives and witnessing human rights abuses? With its advocacy and campaigning, what might this scandal offer to the many voices in the UK and internationally who think that charities such as Oxfam should not be campaigning on any issue, let alone on the failures of capitalism and the human impact of austerity?

In the UK, this crisis is unfolding under a government that has already given charities the "gagging clause", told us as a sector to "stick to our knitting" and ended several hundred million pounds worth of structured annual funding support to the UK’s world-leading international civil society sector. It has placed overtly flawed individual politicians who are openly antagonistic to charities – such as Rob Wilson and Priti Patel – into key government roles working with civil society. It has nominated into the Charity Commission people who share not just the political views but also the political loyalties of the ruling Conservative Party. It’s now clear that many people and institutions that instinctively hostile to our sector scent blood.

I remain fiercely proud to have worked for Oxfam. I disagreed strongly with some early voices within the sector at the onset of the crisis on 5 February who saw in the appearance of The Times story some conspiracy or revenge for Oxfam’s campaigning on inequality. I didn’t think it was true and it certainly was a flimsy communication line that cut no ice with a deeply shocked and offended public. But I believe that by Tuesday 13 February powerful forces began to take advantage of the scandal and are now trying to completely destroy one of the UK’s and the world’s great charities. The Haiti story is in the public interest, destroying Oxfam most certainly is not. I am personally appalled by the revelations, but still drawn to join the barricades.

Toby Porter is chief executive of Acorns Children’s Hospice and chair of the UK board of Humentum. Before joining Acorns in 2016, he had a 25-year field and head-office career with humanitarian agencies, including long stints with Oxfam and Save the Children. He writes here in a personal capacity. An earlier version of this article first appeared in The Chamberlain Files

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