We must understand the realities of charity aid work


It's absolutely right that we should be scandalised about Oxfam aid workers paying for sex in the places where they were supposed to be alleviating poverty. And the cover-up is in some ways as bad as the original crimes. But the whole debate is missing a vital element without which we will not make progress – a total failure to understand the conditions in which people do vital but difficult work, the personalities of such people, and the need to provide them with back-up. Stop and think about it for a moment. Who goes to places where there's extreme poverty, extreme suffering following meteorological and military devastation, and often extreme lawlessness? In fact broaden the question out: who volunteers to report in war zones? Or even: who volunteers for social work? These questions have to be asked, along with parallel questions such as: what support do people in highly stressful situations receive? How much vetting is done before people are sent out, and what happens when there aren't enough people to do the work? – does the agency concerned just accept that it doesn't have the personnel, or does it lower its vetting, monitoring and support thresholds on the basis that 'any help is better than no help'? Some of the most sane and sensible input into the Oxfam debate has come from the Hove MP Peter Kyle. He speaks from a position of strength, having been an aid worker in the 1990s, most notably in the immediate post-Ceausescu chaos of Romania. In an interview with BBC 5 Live on Sunday, he said the kind of aid worker that goes to hellholes (forgive the term, it's more polite shorthand than Donald Trump's) is either the angel of our imagination or someone who doesn't fit in their home country so has little to lose by throwing everything into working for charities in aid hotspots. What Kyle says makes total sense, yet somehow we imagine that all aid workers are angels, that they're all given the care and back-up they need, and they're all being monitored. Many are indeed angels, and the work being done by charities does help lots of people. But the fact that they're working in extremely stressful conditions means they will never get all the support they need, and if they're slight misfits from everyday life (the former UN aid worker Andrew MacLeod goes much further and says charity aid work can be a magnet for paedophiles driven out of their own countries) then all sorts of unsavoury practices can thrive. All of which is not to say this isn't a scandal – it clearly is. Aid workers operate with an inherent trust that they're there to do good, and anything that undermines that trust must be stamped out. So calls for a full enquiry into Oxfam's activities are entirely legitimate and necessary to keep credence for international aid work. But please can we stop thinking of the world as fitting into our nice suburban categories of order and basic common decency! Yes we must fight for high standards, but we must also understand that the person who goes to a war zone or an area hit by disease is going to have a different character and skillset than many of us consider 'normal'. Actually, they are remarkably like many people we rub shoulders with. The teacher that deals with violent kids, the social worker dealing with drugs gangs, the firefighter willing to run into a blazing building, and more. They are on a par with the journalist willing to get the war report at risk of life and limb, and the aid worker in a hellhole. Such people are neither monsters nor superhumans, but we need to understand their mindset and the areas in which they work. Otherwise we will be forever faux shocked and make absolutely no progress in solving problems like the Oxfam sex scandal. And the moral of the story is that the UK government should be giving more money to aid charities with workers in hellholes, not less.

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Header photograph John Robert Young (c) 2016

Chris Bowers (c)  2019