Charities and purity politics
As the Oxfam affair unfolds, Paul Demarty asks why the wave of sexual harassment scandals has given more ammunition to the right than the left
So the #MeToo era continues. What began with allegations of sexual harassment and assault in the film industry has slowly grown into an unfocused omniscandal - a sort of Great Puritan Cultural Revolution, in which the next denunciation is neither far away nor strictly predictable; where high crimes are munged up with basically trivial misconduct; and all demurrals from public criticism denounced as fraternisation with the enemy.
The extension of the affair into the international aid agencies, at first glance, is merely another step-change (#ThemToo!); after all, why should we expect the senior staff of aid agencies to be immune from the temptations of power? Add them to the list. Yet what is exposed here is actually a far more complicated political knot: the role of charities in neoliberal capitalism, especially in the context of international aid, is a murky matter, and the politics around it is hardly just a matter of liberal-feminist do-gooders versus sexually exploitative men. But that, in fact, was already true of the scandal in its other incarnations, and the left at large - liberal and socialist - has basically failed to confront the reality that so far the beneficiaries have been principally on the right. The difference is merely that, in the sphere of international aid, the rightist agenda is both more vulgar and more obvious.
So let us recapitulate the story so far. On February 9, TheTimes revealed that senior people in Oxfam posted to Haiti in the wake of 2010’s catastrophic earthquake had been quietly shuffled off - some sacked, some allowed to resign - after an internal investigation found good reason to believe that they had used prostitutes. There are several reasons why this behaviour is legally sensitive: prostitution is illegal in Haiti, UN regulations concerning the behaviour of aid workers prohibit the procurement of sex, and - needless to say - it contravenes Oxfam’s own internal code of conduct.
The non-transparency around the issue - the way Roland van Hauwermeiren, the director at the centre of the allegations, was permitted a “phased and dignified exit” to avoid embarrassment to the charity - has, of course, not played well in the public gallery. The subsequent discovery that a similar hushed-up episode had taken place on his watch in Chad four years earlier produced a further lurch into crisis, with deputy chief executive Penny Lawrence falling on her sword. As I write, her erstwhile boss, Barbara Stocking - accused by The Times of arranging the quiet resignation of van Hauwermeiren - limps on in post, but surely cannot last much longer.
By unhappy coincidence, old allegations against Brendan Cox concerning his time as chief strategist for Save the Children resurfaced: the widower of Saint Jo - and like her a professional do-gooder for various charities - was sacked over accusations of “inappropriate behaviour” in 2015, and denied wrongdoing until February 18. Thus was Save the Children - and other charities Cox still had a hand in, before he publicly resigned all such posts two weeks ago - sucked into the maelstrom.
The most vociferous critics of these charities have, as noted, been on the right - and on the hard right. The Daily Express has been running a campaign for months demanding that the British international aid budget basically be abolished, and (what else?) spent on the national health service, and has not said anything different in its days under Richard Desmond; the Mail’s attitude is basically the same, as is that of many on the right of the Tory Party. Godfrey Bloom, when he was the UK Independence Party’s gobbiest MEP, got into hot water for stating: “How we can send a billion pounds a month to Bongo Bongo Land when we are in this kind of debt is beyond me” - a clearer expression of this chauvinist resentment of international aid is hardly imaginable, which is perhaps one of the reasons why the media stitched him up over it.
With such a background, all incidents that show charities in the international aid space in an unfavourable light are guaranteed to be trumpeted as loudly as the media megaphone allows. The horror is that these aid workers were paying for, according to one source, “full-on, Caligula-style orgies” with British taxpayers’ money.
It is hardly surprising that many liberals are uneasy about joining in, then. It seems that this campaign against Oxfam and the others has exactly the stamp of cheap cruelty about it; that these allegations are being exploited in the service of the parochial small-mindedness that undergirds plebeian Thatcherism, Brexitism and related phenomena. The source of that small-mindedness is precisely the media and demagogic right which promotes it so assiduously now, and is so hated by the liberal left.
It would do us a bit of good, however, to ask why exactly it is that the Express and co have such a rich seam of impropriety to mine. Patrick Cockburn, straying briefly from his Middle East portfolio, was the most eloquent of many to put the Oxfam scandal in the context of Haiti at that time, which suffered far beyond what was ‘necessary’, even if we consider the country’s extreme poverty ‘necessary’:
The earthquake that devastated Haiti on January 12 2010, killing 220,000 people, produced a terrible and disgusting failure by those who came from abroad to help the survivors. Among these were UN soldiers from Nepal, which was then in the middle of a cholera epidemic, who brought the disease with them and allowed it to enter the rivers that provide Haitians with their drinking water.
Cholera, previously unknown on the island, killed 7,568 Haitians over the next two years, though the UN denied responsibility for the outbreak. This was despite a report by its own experts in 2012 that showed that the spread of cholera downstream from the Nepalese soldiers’ camps was predictable and avoidable. It was only in 2016 that the UN finally accepted responsibility for starting the epidemic, though it claimed legal immunity and refused to pay compensation.1
Classy indeed. Elsewhere, Socialist Worker is good enough to remind us of other exploits of the ‘peacekeepers’:
[United Nations] forces raped hundreds of women and girls with the promise of giving them medicine, clothes and food. UN troops in Haitian capital Port-au-Prince ran a child abuse ring, where homeless girls and boys as young as 12 were raped.2
Oxfam is, of course, not a military outfit, and it should be stressed that Cockburn is a staunch defender of it in the current situation. There is, however, a big, murky overlap between the ‘humanitarian’ operations of the UN, United States and friends, and the civilian outfits very often attached to them. “Many NGOs,” our Socialist Worker author continues, “push or cooperate with a western agenda because aid often comes with strings attached.” By “western”, surely, is meant the combination of political subservience to imperialism and economic ‘structural reforms’ of the type we know all too well.
The situation of Oxfam is interesting here, especially if we pull back from a focus on Haiti. On the face of it, there can surely be no charity in Britain that carries on so extensive a mass fundraising operation as Oxfam. It operates one of the largest bookshop chains in the country. It has music festivals, armies of charity muggers across the country, huge TV ad campaigns … Yet it has been clear from the start that, should the Department for International Development sever its ties with Oxfam, that would be the end of it all. It is utterly dependent on the state. And so it never strays off message. Its tortuous navigation of the Israeli occupation of Palestine and diplomatic agreement to separate itself from those who call for boycott, divestment and sanctions is a case in point. Charities are permitted to denounce, in abstract terms, the particular state of affairs to which they are addressed; but are barred, both by the aforementioned pecuniary interests and a truly Kafkaesque level of state regulation, from taking any clear political line.
The result is probably best thought of as wasteful. It would be fatuous to deny that some good is done when Oxfam distributes medicines or food parcels in a disaster zone, Médecins Sans Frontières patches up civilian casualties of war, and so on. It is difficult to imagine a humanitarianism worthy of the name not doing so. It is equally difficult, however, to imagine that by sufficiently energetic philanthropy, any more ambitious objectives could be achieved. Oxfam was the core of the Make Poverty History campaign that grabbed a lot of attention in 2005 or so; but making poverty history is exactly what Oxfam cannot do.
The relationship between the charities and the state is not, of course, unidirectional. Domestically, for instance, there is something the charities can offer the state in return for its largesse, which is actually doing that which might be better thought of as the work of the state. Charities plug the gaps in health and social care, in education, emergency housing and countless other ‘social service’ areas. This state of affairs is artificial; much of this work was once done by municipal government, and municipal government was crushed by Thatcher and her heirs in order to extirpate ‘municipal socialism’.
The effect of moving all this activity increases waste in two ways. It, firstly, ensures that it is done piecemeal and incoherently by financially vulnerable organisations. Secondly, it imposes by law and bureaucratic force a capitalist managerial structure, which leads to the same defects we observe elsewhere in economic life: overpaid senior managers, a middle and lower management staffed with lackeys and yes-men, cost-cutting and capacity issues, etc.
It also leads to people with control of large amounts of funds, in places like Haiti, and appetites of their own.
This is the hidden sting in the tale, and the link back to the wider moral panic around sexual misconduct. The Oxfam workers’ misdeeds are rooted in the material situations in which they work. They are the bringers of food, aid and shelter; all around them is dire poverty. The opportunity is there only because there are countries like Haiti upon which permanent penury has been imposed. The obverse of the obsessional digging for sexual hypocrisy is to state that the payment of prostitutes for sex is not normal, but the conditions which drive people to prostitution are.
And likewise the problem with Harvey Weinstein is seen to be Harvey Weinstein as an individual moral agent, rather than the absurd and unnecessary control he and his ilk have as gatekeepers of fame. The ‘solutions’ to these ‘problems’ are thus invariably more social control and more hierarchy, making the problem more likely to recur in the future.
This is the ultimate reason why - however much the agenda seems on a day-to-day basis to be driven by liberals - the #MeToo campaign serves the traditionalist right better. For theirs is the view that humans are intrinsically sinful; thus moralistic police actions are the best that can actually be offered; the constant recurrence of these peccadilloes supports that view, as well as the accompanying idea that modern ‘permissiveness’ leads to such activity. In short, there is a basically coherent and thoroughly hierarchical world view there - which cannot be said for liberal Hollywood actresses and their co-thinking pundits.