The recent story about Oxfam’s handling of abuse that happened in Chad and Haiti feels like the #MeToo moment for the charity sector which we knew would come.
We knew it would come because we know these kinds of abuse are everywhere.
We (as a sector) are neither uniquely flawed nor, uniquely infallible.
It’s right and proper that there is scrutiny of what charities get up to and how they spend money. It’s right too that appropriate action is taken. That would include listening to the stories of those who were abused, taking the situation to appropriate authorities and taking internal measures to guard against this type of abuse.
We also know that the hurry to condemn Oxfam and drive questions about their existence is useful to those who want to overturn government commitments to overseas aid. The story is both a very serious one, which deserves full and through investigation and action and, ammunition in an attempt to destroy any commitment to supporting work that tries to make the world a more just and equitable place.
It’s tempting to fight back with everything that is good about us. But I want to caution against a response, that says something like:
‘Thousands of passionate committed people work for organisations like Oxfam, we just need to root out a few ‘bad eggs’.’
First of all, not matter how committed we are, we can never entirely win the numbers game. No matter how many policies and registers we create, there will always be at least one more ‘bad egg’ who was improperly dealt with.
Secondly, and more importantly, the world is not deeply poor and unjust because of ‘a few bad eggs’ but because of the systems we live by.
Oxfam, of course, knows this theoretically.
Most of us engaged in work that aims at social change do too.
But what we tend to engage less tangibly with is the fact that this means that the inequities we are fighting, show up in us.
We aren’t either, righteous passionate individuals who care about what we are doing, OR a ‘bad egg’.
Let’s resist being pushed to that dichotomy.
That truth is that we are human and fallible.
That doesn’t mean that we are all committing abusive crimes. Nor that those who do commit them should not be brought to justice. They should. Absolutely.
But the archetype of the ‘passionate selfless aid worker’ juxtaposed against those who are found to seriously abuse their position, is a simplification that I think we need to find the space to question and think more about.
I have been engaged for many years with feminist work on women’s rights.
But I also know that structures and systems of patriarchy are not just around me. They also live in me. This can manifest in a variety of ways.
To give just a couple of examples, I might find myself wondering if a man could do a better job? I might fail to put myself up for promotion because I doubt my skills and experience while less qualified men are promoted past me or I might find myself wondering in passing why a man is doing a certain kind of job. I might think all of these things in passing even though I know I shouldn’t. On a bad day I may also act on them, or, more often, not act because of them.
I try to catch myself in these places where I am manifesting patriarchy and in doing so harming both myself and others. But never the less, they exist. We don’t get out of this by choosing charity work. We are all living out, on some level, the injustices of our society. And this reality impacts our work and that of our wider organisations too.
It’s our very complicity in them that perpetuates systems that we abhor. And that doesn’t just apply to patriarchy. We are not, to give another example, immune from racism just because we work internationally. And we have to be prepared to root out these day to day injustices that live in our organisations, as well as specific cases of serious harm and abuse.
And what that means is that, as Desiree Adaway put it to me, the fight we are engaged in, is an ‘inside outside game’.
We don’t just get to sign up for an NGO Job and be a good person. We actually have to continually be addressing structural oppressions as they show up in us and that’s why the ‘thousands of passionate aid workers and a few bad eggs’ type of analysis warrants questioning.
Not from the destructive place of destroying any commitment to caring about making the world a better place, but out of a genuine commitment to showing up differently.
We are human and fallible. We make mistakes. We, as a sector, have done far too much trying to fix the problems ‘out there’ without addressing how social injustice shows up in us, in our own lives and the lives of our organisations.
This is partly because inner reflection is a much much harder ‘sell’ than dynamic do-gooding. And so we become slaves to a capitalist funding machine in which ‘doing’ is all, and in which presenting our organisations as infallibly as possible is an effective path to obtaining greater resources.
In this way our organisations become reflections of our current culture, rather than a means through which to question and re-make it.
Places in which mistakes need to be kept quiet (whether addressed or not) precisely because, bringing them in to the open might jeopardise everything we do.
And yet bringing stuff in to the open is exactly what needs to happen if we are ever to achieve the kind of bold social change, the development sector professes to aspire to.
The things that most of us dreamed of when we choose this life path.
Setting ourselves up as infallible saviours deserving of resources serves a limited purpose in the path towards a more just world. It might make sure our organisations survive for a bit, but it can lead us to forget the things that really matter.
Leading by example means addressing and questioning inequity and abuse as they manifest in ourselves, and our organisations. Really practicing what we preach.
We know that abuse, violence, racism and sexism live in our sector, just like they are alive and well in the wider world. Should that be a realisation that allows others to destroy everything we stand for?
The tendency of others to both assume we are ‘good’ because we have chosen to work in a sector that is trying to make a difference and, be able to topple us so robustly when something goes wrong, is something we need to work out how to resist.
I think the best way of doing that is to do our own internal work. We actually have to be on our own healing path and continually question and review how the things we profess to be against are showing up in the way both we as individuals and our organisations, behave.
What would really make a difference is if we were prepared to be honest about that and lead not as infallible examples of ‘good’, but people able to stay present to the shadow parts of ourselves and our organisations and in doing so, walk a path towards acting from greater integrity.
How do we live it in practice? We need to use our tools of analysis to reflect on each and everything we do. We need to accept and acknowledge our mistakes. We need to keep asking how can we do better. We need to make our organisations into places where both self and institutional reflection is genuinely valued. Places where we learn and share tools of community, of showing up, of listening and of dialogue. We need to take steps to heal ourselves. We need to value the time and space that takes. In summary we do things differently.
We won’t do that by simple rooting the ‘bad eggs’ out of our organisations. We also need to make them places where we work to make the structures of oppression visible so that we can figure out how to address them together, and where we can bring honest awareness to our tacit participation in the structures that we abhor, so that we can develop ways to do this life differently.
This will take courage in no small measure.
We have profited for too long from providing ease to a collective guilty conscience. But the whole model in which people, governments and philanthropic institutions give money to charity and carry on living and acting much as they always did needs to be broken.
Because it perpetuates structures of oppression and leaves our organisations particularly vulnerable to what Oxfam is experiencing right now.
In this context International Aid is like a sticking plaster. And a sticking plaster in which colonialism, patriarchy and racism are, albeit often in subtle ways, alive and well.
We need to lead by our actions. By how we do what we do. And that means accepting that we are not infallible.
Yes there will be ‘bad eggs’. Yes where there is abuse it must be properly addressed. But let’s not deny that the rest of us are also human and flawed.
The hard path to change requires that we address the structural inequities within ourselves and our organisations as well as seeking to work on them in the programatic work we do with others.
It requires us not just to be knocked off the pedestal but to climb down from it with intention and begin the hard work of working out how bravely imperfect individuals can work together to re-make a better world.