Saturday, October 29, 2005

Poxfam again


I've been meaning to write about this for weeks, but only now have I got the time and clarity of thought to do so.

Some time ago, a little leaflet popped through the letter box. I've got it in front of me now. It's entitled 'The Art of Self-Defence' and pictures a young woman doing a high kick with her arms stretched above her head. At first I thought it might be a useful guide to fending off muggers offered by a concerned Metropolitan Police (perhaps on the grounds that they no longer have any interest in helping you deal with street crime, not when there are so many people to shoot). But, no. In the corner of the front page is the Oxfam logo. When I saw this I was both confused and intrigued.

Here's what it says inside the front cover (verbatim):

We've all been there - harangued by a cynic who says outrageous things about Oxfam, or charities in general.

So here's the answer - well several in fact. Answers to some of the most annoying myths, in one handy place.

And it fits in your pocket too.

Well, the last bit's indisputable, but I'm not so sure about the rest of it. For one thing, I don't remember ever being harangued by a cynic about charities, although I've done a bit of haranguing myself. But this leaflet arrived before I wrote that post, so it obviously wasn't a response to anything I'd said. Perhaps (more likely) it was a response to the growing criticism of Oxfam (voiced by Lenin and others) for its increasingly cosy relationship with ZaNuLabour, and its attempts to shut out any meaningful political dimension to its work.

But, no, it wasn't that either. It was a set of paper tigers, tired old clichés about charities conveniently set up so that Oxfam could knock them down like coconuts at a fairground (excuse the mixed metaphor). More on this if you click "More".

"Oxfam spends most of its money on admin." "Actually," the booklet says, "we only spend 4p in every £1 on managing and administering Oxfam." Fair enough, except they then undermine their own argument with a picture of Sidibe Fanta Keita, admin secretary of an Oxfam-funded urban development programme in Mali. "Sidibe's in admin," says the caption, smugly. No, Sidibe's not in admin, not in the sense in which the 'myth' means it. In any case, the "only 4p" claim is a little disingenuous, as the back page of the booklet shows. A little pie chart reveals that "For every £1 given to Oxfam, 79p is used to support our emergency, development and campaigning work." 79p? Well, it seems that "a further 17p is invested to generate future income." So one-fifth of the money you give Oxfam is not spent on aid (and none of it is spent on any meaningful sort of campaigning, as Lenin's post points out - one wonders how much of the 79p is spent on such 'development and campaiging' work as the silly white MPH wristbands and Live8 concert which made me feel so uncomfortable back in June).

"Oxfam bosses go to work in limos." I've never heard anyone say this. Still, never mind, it gives Oxfam Director Barbara Stocking a chance to show how intact her conscience is: "[she] drives her own Toyota Avensis and always travels economy when flying abroad." The Toyota Avensis, though sold with 'green' credentials, is one of the less environmentally-friendly cars, according to the Department of Transport. Accompanying this section is a photo of Oxfam staff travelling through Albania - in a 4x4.

"Oxfam threw our tsunami cash down the toilet." Again, not a claim I've ever heard anyone make. No matter, Oxfam use this as an opportunity for a real side-splitting laugh. "We did, actually," they claim, showing a picture of an emergency toilet provided in Sri Lanka after the tsunami.

"There's no point giving to Africa - everyone's dying of AIDS." I don't know which pubs the writers of this booklet have been going into lately, but this is yet another daft proposition that only the most trenchant beer-fuelled reactionary would come out with from the corner of his local snug. Still, they manage to 'answer' the myth, but only by dodging the central premise - preferring to focus on the children left orphaned by parents who have died of the disease. Even then, the booklet doesn't go into any detail about what Oxfam is doing for the children, assuming that a picture of an "Oxfam-funded community school [...] for AIDS orphans and children from poor families [my emphasis]" in Zambia will be enough to satisfy the reader. In an attempt to bulk out the section, the writers choose to state the bleedin' obvious: "Lack of proper health education, no medication, and slow-to-act governments [remember that bit, we'll be coming back to that] have turned a bad situation into an epidemic." Goodness, I would never have known that. "[Oxfam] is campaigning for improved access to essential medicines, debt cancellation, and more and better aid," concludes the section on AIDS. Debt cancellation - that has a familiar ring. Now that the MPH campaign has proven so successful, no doubt we'll hear no more about Africa from Oxfam, right?

"Not all the money gets there." Well, they've already admitted that 21p in every pound doesn't get there. Never mind, blithely ignoring this contradiction, the authors plough on. "Let's just ask Getrudis about that shall we?" (Note: all punctuation is as per the original booklet - I know there should be a comma after "that".) 'Gertrudis' turns out to be a Honduran woman whose women's soap-making group was launched with the help of Oxfam money. Grand - good work. But they probably could have given us more than just one example of where Oxfam's money has actually been spent fully and wisely, couldn't they?

"All African leaders are corrupt." This is where the booklet comes seriously unstuck (not literally: its glossy pages are held together by two strong staples). A photo of Nelson Mandela is featured with the words "Er, hello..." over it. Apparently Nelson Mandela is an African leader who is not corrupt. Whether you agree with this or not, it seems strange that he is used to stand for all African leaders, rather than (say) Sani Abacha, Mobutu Sese Seko, Idi Amin, Samuel Doe, Milton Obote, Laurent Kabila, Hastings Banda or our old friend Mugabe. Of course, you can argue that most of the names I've listed are no longer in power in their respective countries. Trouble is, nor is Mandela - so not the finest example to use, is he? The authors could have used the opportunity to point out the role of American, British, French and other Western governments in establishing and propping up corrupt African leaders during the years of decolonisation and afterwards. But they are strangely silent on this point.

Never mind, brave Oxfam is still doing its bit: "Oxfam supports independent local organisations which enable poor people to press for an accountable government and a better deal for their families." Several problems with that. First, this indicates that there are clearly still unaccountable governments in Africa who are not delivering poverty relief to their citizens. Second, why is it only poor people who have an interest in "accountable government"? Third, "supports local organisations" is about as political as this booklet dares get.

Anyway, this section sinks all its credibility by ending with a quotation by ultimate hand-wringer Richard Curtis, talking about going to Johannesburg for "a meeting of leaders of the Make Poverty History campaign". In the typical white-guilt patronising style which characterised his dreadful Girl in the Café TV drama, he gushes: "Interestingly, it was the representatives from Africa and the poorest countries who were most passionate about forcing their governments to clean up their act." Really, Richard? These dark people are actually aware of their own oppression? Crikey! Better sweep that under the carpet - they're supposed to wait for help from us white folks, and be jolly grateful when they receive it.

"Oxfam's director earns a small fortune." Well, it seems Barbara Stocking earns £87,000 a year according to the booklet, a figure which I'm sure would impress many readers managing on the minimum wage (beginning to see where that 21p goes?). But it's OK, because "that's around £600K below the retail industry equivalent." Gosh, that's all right, then. And what does Barbara do for this pittance? The booklet helpfully describes a typical week, which includes "flying to Darfur to see latrines being dug", "briefing Tony Blair on the Make Poverty History campaign" and being "nabbed" for photo shoots. Sounds like a tough old job. She's flying economy, remember.

"What a waste of money putting a pen in an envelope!" The booklet suddenly turns all serious, trying to persuade us of the benefits of putting pens in donation requests. Apparently, they only cost 1.5p each (the 'myth' should have read "what a waste of money putting a crap pen in an envelope", shouldn't it?), "Every time we send pens out in our mailings, we get a lot more money back than we would if we didn't." Rather than offering evidence for this claim, the booklet again beats us over the head with the painfully obvious: "We couldn't respond to emergencies such as Darfur, the Tsunami, and West Africa as quickly as we do, or carry out our other vital work, without the support of the people who respond to our letters."

"Oxfam is too close to the Government to criticise its policies. Ah, now we're getting somewhere. Except we're not. Rather than admit its closeness to ZaNuLabour, Oxfam bleats that "we're not puppets of ANY government - and we're not afraid to slam them when they get it wrong (as we did over the Iraq war)." Oh, how very big of you. The world and its wife slammed the government over the Iraq War. Is that really the best you could come up with? How about castigating the government for its slow response to major humanitarian crises, of which the tsunami was only one? Well, the authors once again fall back on the repetitive MPH campaign: "our hard-edged campaigning [I'm not making this up] gets results. The Make Poverty History coalition, of which Oxfam is a member, has already helped persuade world leaders to take vital first steps to overcome poverty."

So an umbrella organisation, of which you are a member and not the sole representative, has persuaded world leaders to cancel the debt of some poor countries? Is that the best example available? Yes, it probably is. Let's face it, the MPH campaign was tacitly endorsed by ZaNuLabour anyway. Hardly a damning indictment of the government's policies. Why aren't they highlighting this government's inability to commit more to overseas aid (targeted to be 0.7% of Gross National Income, but not until 2008)? Hard-edged campaigning? More like soft underbelly.

Oxfam shop staff just take the best stuff for themselves. There's our man in the pub again - I've never in my life heard anyone say this. Never mind, because yet again the authors of the booklet assume that one single example will act as an appropriate counter-argument: "Shop volunteer Alma Barnes spotted what turned out to be a very rare silver tea caddy. She took it to the auction house (they waived their fees) and it made £3,600 for Oxfam!" Well, that proves it then. Obviously every single Oxfam volunteer has the same ethics as Alma Barnes - that stands to reason, doesn't it?

Incidentally, the entire booklet is illustrated on every other page with a photo of a senior Oxfam worker self-consciously striking a martial arts pose ("self-defence", you see - geddit? Oh, how I laughed).

I hate to carp at one of the country's biggest charities. There's no disputing that Oxfam has done a lot of wonderful work over the years and that its contribution to poverty and disaster relief should not be underestimated. What's rocked my boat on this occasion is this booklet, which smacks so strongly of a PR firm lazily cobbling together - well, a load of cobblers - and throwing it out at the general public. How much the booklet cost to put together and send out I don't know, nor how much the consultancy charged for compiling this toss. But if Oxfam is trying to defuse the criticism that it's snugly in bed with ZaNuLabour, this bland, smug, condescending, glossy, unpersuasive and overall naff document can only create the opposite impression.


Blogger Brownie said...

(Without having followed any of your links,) Please let me mention that a professional aid worker I know, (who has inside knowledge of Oxfam, UN, RedCross, Save The Children, Rwanda and North Korea's starving babies) recommends never donating cash to any of them, unless cash is not a personal need in any way.

2:45 am  
Blogger Raw Carrot said...

Excellent post there. While I don't think the Government should give any money to foreign countries (if I want to donate to Africa, I'll do it my self) -- I have to say I can understand how the leaflet annoyed you. What's more, it would annoy me too, and I'm on the opposite end of the spectrum on the issue.

So, quite who the leaflet was aimed at god only knows...

Presumably those elusive floating/swing voters in the centre ground that everyone is after these days??

3:50 pm  

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