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The Oxfam scandal is the start of the charities’ MeToo moment

12 February 2018

12:46 PM

12 February 2018

12:46 PM

It would be interesting, wouldn’t it, to sit in on the meeting today between Oxfam executives and Penny Mordaunt, International Development Secretary, who has got off to a cracking start in her job by giving short shrift to the weaselly equivocations by Oxfam after the sex scandals involving its country director and other staff in Haiti and now Chad. But the intelligent money must be on a MeToo rush of individuals recalling what they’ve seen in other charities, in other countries, on exactly the same lines. My husband worked for a British charity in receipt of lots of US government money during and after the conflict in Kosovo. His surprise about the latest revelations was merely in that they suggested there was something unusual for aid workers and UN staff to have recourse to prostitutes, though he was talking about aid workers generally rather than his own charity. In Kosovo, they weren’t propositioning actual recipients of aid during the conflict, but they certainly paid for sex locally and in conveniently adjoining states. (There were rumours about the UN having dealings with trafficked women in some brothels too, from Moldova and other countries.)  

His gist was this: you have men being paid enormous sums of money (by our standards, not just local ones – and it was, moreover, tax free) living without their families and with huge powers of patronage. And you’re surprised they’re paying for sex, or having sex with local workers? Of course, lots don’t, and I’d be astonished if women went in for the same sort of activity, but when you have a sense of moral superiority and the kind of status that comes with having white land rovers, big offices, the best accommodation in town, unlimited means and the power to hire and fire young women as translators and fixers, well, that’s what happens. For all the good it may do, aid work is the equivalent of a secular clergy; they have moral authority, a licence to pontificate, glamour back home and being secular, none of the inhibitions that even bad clergy have in their work and conduct. And their behaviour is proof – a bit like clerical sex abuse – of the truth of Lord Acton’s little dictum that ‘all power tends to corrupt’. So it does. And if this diminishes the standing of these entitled individuals, well, that’s salutary for them and us.

PS I wasn’t wholly surprised by the dusty reaction of the then Oxfam boss, Dame Barbara Stocking, to the suggestion that she had let some of the alleged perpetrators in Haiti off rather lightly. Nor indeed by the reaction of the Cambridge college of which she is head (of course she is), New Hall, (now Murray Edwards), where a spokesperson issued a statement that:

We would like to assure you that the College believes these allegations to be untrue, has full confidence that the matter was dealt with appropriately at the time, and the President has the College’s full support.’


I had dealings with Dame Barbara a while back when I suggested that her approach to women and university examinations was misguided. She wanted to increase the number of women getting firsts by persuading the university to award them on the basis of plodding continuous assessment rather than brilliant end of course exam performance. I said as much in a newspaper and she wrote to express her angry disapprobation at my nerve. She doesn’t like criticism, does Dame Barbara. She’s getting it now though.

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