Kenny MacAskill: Tory outrage over Oxfam sex scandal is political

Michelet Louis holds his daughter Youdline, five, while looking over a camp for earthquake survivors in Tabarre, Haiti, in 2010 (Picture)
Michelet Louis holds his daughter Youdline, five, while looking over a camp for earthquake survivors in Tabarre, Haiti, in 2010 (Picture)
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The Oxfam scandal is sad in so many ways, particularly, for the volunteers, staff and the organisation itself. Even more so, for vulnerable people in desperate circumstances who’ve been abused by those employed to help them.

But, it’s a few individuals who’ve besmirched the good name of not just the individual charity, but the wider overseas aid sector. Likewise, the handling of the affair appears to have been inept from an organisation that should know better and has resources to perform more ably.

However, there’s an over-reaction to both the individual and procedural failings and some false outrage from some, especially the UK Government. It smacks of payback for a charity that has exposed inequality at home and campaigned for more to be done to address poverty abroad.

After all, it’s this Tory government that has fuelled the former and been failing on the latter. Oxfam wasn’t afraid to speak out about the extent of poverty in this country or in demanding greater action in other lands.

Action is being taken by the charity with the deputy chief executive already having fallen on her sword and perhaps others following, as it’s arguable it’s the corporate failures that are the most glaring. However, the outrage of the UK Government is in sharp contrast to its views, never mind actions, on corporate failings whether in banks or service companies. RBS, Carrillion and a host of others seem impervious to UK Government action, let alone castigation.

Sexual abuse is wrong and failing to properly tackle it, equally so. But, so is deliberately putting companies under and filching people’s pensions. The silence from the Government on those issues, never mind other corporate crime, is deafening.

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Moreover, the faux upset about the harm to those suffering is altogether rather nauseating when it’s considered what’s happening in Yemen. That’s the calamity of our time and yet the Tory government is complicit in arming the Saudis, who are responsible for so much of it. Never mind the former Development Minister who wanted to divert limited funds to the Israeli Defence Forces.

So, for me, it’s not just an over-reaction to the scandal but false outrage that’s being vented. Of course, none of that excuses the behaviour of the individuals or the corporate failings of the charity. The highest standards are expected from both in dealing with poor and vulnerable people, and in the overseeing and protection of employees. But, it has to be put in context. The numbers are few and the lapses limited, and this within an organisation that employs hundreds of people and helps millions more. Dismissals there should be and change there must be, but Oxfam remains a remarkable organisation and the work it does essential.

Shameful it is but prevalent it is not. It’s Individuals that have done it, it’s not institutionalised abuse by the charity or even the sector. People fall from grace in every walk of life, whether politicians or aid workers. Of course, in some sectors greater care is needed and this will be a wake-up call to potential dangers and pitfalls for aid charities.

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The saddest aspect is the effect this has on the morale of those who work in overseas aid and in the reputational damage it’s causing to the organisation and the sector.

My experience, knowing many in that line of work, is that they’re remarkably committed people. They would never dream of abusing or exploiting those they dedicate their life to serving. And serve they do for it’s not a king’s ransom that they’re paid and the work often puts them at personal risk of injury and illness, and sometimes even in danger of losing their life. For many it’s more akin to a calling than a career. They’ll be mortified by this but they’ll press on regardless and from my knowledge with ever greater effort and diligence as a consequence. It’s personal and procedural failings that have been the problem here and the responsible organisations need to address how they select those who serve, and how they monitor those in the field. It can and will be done, that’s for certain.

This appalling scandal is very much at odds with ethos of these organisations – and Oxfam is one of the largest and most professional. It’s surprising that there seemed to be some dubiety as to whether the individuals should have been sacked. Of course they should have been and that was a key failing. Loyalty to staff is normally laudable but in circumstances such as this it’s both morally wrong and harmful to the collective good.

This won’t be the only sector in which this has and does occur. I’ve no doubt there have been issues similar to this, whether in the military, diplomatic corps or the private sector, in whatever capacity they found themselves. None of them is being hung out to dry, and berated so strenuously. Yet issues over the years of exploitation and abuse of local people will have occurred in each of those sectors without the moral outrage being perpetrated by Tory Ministers.

Calls for respect of the dignity of individuals and the rights of distressed nations ring hollow from this Government with a Foreign Secretary who has made some appalling statements about the Third World and that collectively has more often been shameful in its actions. So, for sure, there’s action that Oxfam still needs to take and lessons that other aid agencies need to learn. But, there’s neither a crisis in development organisations nor any reason to stop funding them.

Support needs to be maintained by Government and many, including myself, would argue that even more should be given. Likewise support by the general public through volunteering and donations can and should continue.

The Haitian Government is entitled to be angry, as it’s their people who were exploited. But, the false outrage of the UK Government masks an attack on an organisation which exposes its failings and, in any event, possesses a superficial commitment to the fairer world for which the charity campaigns.