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The Attack on UK Foreign Aid

British conservative party member of parliament Jacob Rees-Mogg poses as he delivers a petition against the provision of foreign aid at 10 Downing Street in London on February 8, 2018. (Getty)

by Yasmine El-Geressi

Revelations that Oxfam workers paid for prostitutes during Haiti’s 2010 earthquake has subjected the murky world of humanitarian work and disaster relief to much closer public scrutiny. The organisation has faced criticism for being less than transparent about what actually happened, how it was dealt with, or how much of it was communicated to the Charity Commission, a non-ministerial government department that regulates registered charities in England and Wales and maintains the Central Register of Charities.

The storm of criticism has included a government threat to cut Oxfam’s funding, and with Brexit looming and cuts to public services continuing, long-standing controversies about the UK’s generous aid budget and the complex topic of the value of overseas aid are once again raging.

The disclosures emboldened those who say the development budget is a waste of public money. A day after The Times reported that Oxfam had covered up the use of prostitutes in Haiti by its aid workers, Jacob Rees-Mogg, the MP who regularly tops polls of who conservative members would like to see as their next leader, delivered a petition to No 10 in favour of cutting the target. “It was a petition of Daily Express readers who want to ensure the foreign aid budget is properly spent and are not in favour, as I’m not in favour, of the 0.7% target,” he said. Rees-Mogg was pictured on the front page of the Daily Express holding a paper headlined “stop the foreign aid madness.”

The Sun published an editorial saying Oxfam should be stripped of its public money amid claims of sexual exploitation being covered up, adding: “It’s time to bin the spending target.” The truth is that the aid system is ‘fundamentally broken’, the paper argues: ‘For years we’ve told how taxpayers’ cash is ploughed into vanity projects that do little to help the world’s poorest’, argues the Sun. 

The Daily Telegraph asked: “Should Britain really be spending almost £14bn a year on overseas development when ‘austerity’ has for so long been the grinding watchword at home?” It is a question which has been asked for some years, says the paper. 

In response to a question on the calls for the UK government to cut its foreign aid budget, an Oxfam Spokesperson told Majalla, “Not only is keeping our promises to the poorest the right thing to do, investment in overseas aid helps make the world safer and more stable for everyone, such as by tackling diseases like the Ebola outbreak in west Africa. British aid spending is a lifeline for the world’s poorest people, and boosts global prosperity from which we all benefit. Looking beyond our borders to help reduce global poverty boosts the UK’s credibility on the world stage.”

Downing Street’s comments indicated that May would stick to the position she set out before the 2017 general election, when she made it clear that the commitment “remains and will remain” while stressing that the money must be spent effectively. But an article in The Telegraph by the International Development Secretary, Penny Mordaunt, caused a stir. In the article, Mordaunt argued that Britain must be more “hard-headed with cash” and indicated a change of approach within her department. “It will,” she says, “no longer be enough for a project simply to be achieving good things. We must be able to demonstrate why it absolutely needs to be Britain that pays for them…” The International Development Secretary vowed to spend Britain’s foreign aid in “the national interest” and to cut aid to countries which fail to “take responsibility” for their own people. She claimed she “will not invest” in nations that should be “putting their hands in their pockets”.


One thing that the UK is good at as a country is making sure that aid is transparent. According to Publish What You Fund’s International Aid Transparency Index, the UK’s aid department, The Department for International Development (DfID), is ranked among the top four in 2016 for its overall commitment to transparency as well as the information they publish at the organisation level and for individual activities.

The UK currently sends 0.7 percent of national income abroad. The government approved new legislation on foreign aid in 2015, meaning that there is a legal obligation to meet this target each year. The 0.7 percent goal is in line with the foreign aid target set by the United Nations for all developed countries back in 1970. The UK was spending approximately 0.43 percent on foreign aid a decade ago and 0.57 as recently as 2012. However, the nation has hit the 0.7 percent target each year since 2013.

About 15% goes as humanitarian aid, or crisis relief, with the rest focused on strategic or long-term goals. 36% of the money goes via multilateral organisations, like the United Nations. The other 64% goes to programmes in specific countries as bilateral aid. The five biggest recipients of bilateral aid are Pakistan, Syria, Ethiopia, Nigeria and Afghanistan. When it comes to continents, the biggest beneficiary is Africa (51%) followed by Asia (42%).

From 2013-2017, UK aid has helped to give 65 million people clean water and better hygiene. Over the last 15 years, British aid has bought the mosquito nets that helped stop six million people dying from malaria; has given 11 million children a chance in life by supporting them through education. The UK played a prominent part in halving the number of children that die before their first birthday since 1990. And today, in the countries neighbouring Syria, the UK is contributing more than any other country, apart from the United States, to the cost of alleviating the misery caused by the tragedy suffered by that country. (The Times)

For years, newspapers have been digging up examples of exorbitant six-figure aid-industry salaries and misspending. Critics often point out that India and China, which receive some UK aid, have active space exploration programmes. They also point to the CDC, the little-known investment arm of the British aid programme, which The Guardian revealed invested more than £154m in 44 property and construction companies of gated communities, shopping centres and luxury property in Latin America, Africa and Asia. There were also question marks over the millions sent to an Ethiopian girl group dubbed the “Ethiopian Spice Girls” that uses pop culture to empower young girls.

Many argue that the UK, as a relatively wealthy country, has a responsibility to support poorer countries, but that this obligation can be made void if the UK is going through tough times – “charity begins at home.” Some British newspapers, politicians and the public have called for aid to be abolished or slashed and redirected to pay for social care for elderly Britons, the struggling NHS, frontline policing or on homeless veterans instead.

As government donors and individual supporters threaten to withdraw money and pressure mounts on the government to cut foreign aid altogether, who will suffer from our Oxfam moral outrage? Should arguing for structural change mean having to argue against aid all together? Should the UK’s legacy of doing good in the world be one that we should walk away from?


Over the last 30 years charities have become richer, larger and more competitive. For some, this crisis questions the entire culture of modern-day charity. They believe the sector is too big and incapable of regulating itself.  It is beyond doubt that the vast majority of professionals in this field are honest people but it appears that some staffers at Oxfam believed that undoubtedly doing good and saving lives in the world’s poorest places gave them license to behave in inappropriate ways. The issue is not only about sexual abuse, or the misspending of donations, nor is it only about Oxfam management’s failure to respond adequately to the revelations, it is also about power.

In an article in the Washington Post by Jovenel Moïse, the President of Haiti, says that harassment, abuse and exploitation don’t happen in a vacuum; they arise in situations of power inequality and weak accountability:

“Let’s take this ‘Oxfam moment,’ this ugly moment of reckoning, to reflect on the bigger picture. The general paradigm of aid and power…is not a balanced one…Something clearly needs to change…as our country becomes meaningfully developed and our economy becomes strengthened, more of our communities will be lifted from poverty—which means fewer individuals at risk, such as the women who were preyed upon by the Oxfam staff. While we pursue accountability for what occurred in 2011 we must simultaneously pursue long-term, clear-eyed solutions to the root causes. It’s not enough to punish one or two individuals, or to shame an organization. We have an entire cycle to break in order for the vulnerable to become the empowered.”

Sienna Merope-Synge, staff attorney at the Institute for Justice & Democracy in Haiti, a U.S. NGO which brings together Haitian and U.S. human rights lawyers, described the Oxfam case as “the tip of the iceberg” and said it was “emblematic of broader lack of accountability and an ability to be above the law among these actors.”

If it had been the case that it was discovered that charity workers had sexually abused children in the UK there would be court cases and jail time. But in Haiti, this behaviour is treated as internal disciplinary matter while sidestepping accountability. The impunity in the foreign aid sector not only creates the conditions for abuse to happen, it also weakens the effectiveness of international work.

A hurricane Matthew victim sits on a damaged tree after receiving food from the UN’s World Food Programme in Roche-a-Bateaux, in Les Cayes, in the south west of Haiti, on October 12, 2016. (Getty)

Oxfam was a major player in Haiti, now it stands to lose at least £32 million in government funding in the wake of the scandal, as the charity is suspended from bidding for new government funding while a review is conducted. As part of Oxfam’s new sexual abuse plan it has made a commitment to proactively working with local authorities, employed a head of safeguarding, set up a hotline for whistleblowers, sent safeguarding teams to overseas programmes, began publishing a list of all safeguarding incidents and has now shared the names of the men involved in the sex scandal with the Haitian government. But public confidence in one of the most trusted and well-known names in the sector is already badly eroded and thousands have cancelled donations. Over 7,000 regular donors had abandoned the Oxfam since the scandal broke. The same day, a Guardian/ICM poll of more than 2,000 people suggested there was declining support for charitable giving in the UK. More than a third said they were less likely to donate to humanitarian charities, such as Oxfam, about a quarter said they were no less likely, and 32% said they did not donate anyway. Of those who said they already donated, 52% said they would now be less likely to fund humanitarian causes.

Public confidence in the UK overseas aid sector desperately needs a boost. The leader of the Scottish Conservatives used the example of The Halo Trust, a landmine clearance charity, which she spent four days with in Kabul as an example of the good UK aid does that shouldn’t be ignored. She applauded the charity for not only clearing landmines in Afghanistan, but also for helping to provide work for locals and keeping them away from the Taliban. Aid such as this, Ms Davidson argued, not only helps the country directly, but also benefits the UK too. In the Guardian, Mark Haddon wrote about the people who have been left out of the conversation: “people in Yemen who, after three years of war, are now facing the world’s largest cholera outbreak; more than half a million Rohingya people fleeing to Bangladesh to escape the violence in Myanmar; 3.8 million people driven from their homes in the Democratic Republic of the Congo; recipients of Oxfam aid and support in Bolivia, Malawi, Kenya, the Philippines, Niger, Rwanda, South Sudan and Zimbabwe.”

Slashing or even canceling overseas aid to restore public confidence punishes the wrong parties. Rather, the solution to minimise this sort of abuse of power is to raise the ethical bar and hold humanitarian organisations accountable. The charitable sector should not be immune from scrutiny. They need to show that they are doing more than just ticking boxes when it comes to sexual abuse and adopt a zero-tolerance approach. Charities have to recognise that they are all polluted by the Oxfam revelations, and work together to make things better. Along with the government, they need to be honest about where it has failed in order to reconnect with public.

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