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What We Can Learn From the Oxfam Scandal

08 Mar 2018
By Professor Sharon Bessell

After almost a month of intense coverage, the Oxfam scandal remains news with foreign minister Julie Bishop asking Oxfam Australia to suspend funding to overseas operations of its UK counterpart. When Haitian President Jovenel Moise described the Oxfam case as the “tip of the iceberg” and called for investigation of other agencies, shock waves once again reverberated through the development sector.

Oxfam Great Britain remains under a cloud, with several governments reviewing funding to the agency. The removal of funding from Oxfam Great Britain is complex. Sending an unambiguous message that inappropriate behaviour will not be tolerated and that organisations will be held to account for their staff is fundamentally important. Yet, it must be kept in mind that Oxfam does incredibly good work in difficult—often harrowing—situations around the world. Without organisations such as Oxfam, the lives of some of the most vulnerable people would be immeasurably worse.

Similar challenges have arisen in Australia in the wake of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. As some institutions that demonstrably acted to cover up knowledge of appalling abuse of children have failed to accept fully responsibility—including the responsibility to compensate victims—there have been calls for charities associated with them to lose their tax deductible status. As in the Oxfam case, financial sanctions would make a strong statement, but the work of the charities that would be affected is critical to the lives of those living in the most difficult circumstances.

The answer is not obvious. But two issues are important to keep in mind. First, Oxfam appears to have now acted: the Deputy Chief Executive took responsibility and stepped down and the organisation is reviewing its policies and procedures. There has been a recognition of the need for fundamental change. Second, it is implausible that Oxfam Great Britain is the only development agency to have staff members who have abused positions of privilege and power. Indeed, over recent weeks, allegations have been raised about other agencies, including allegations that women and girls in Syria were forced to trade sex for vital humanitarian aid.

Claims of some aid workers and peacekeepers using their power to sexually exploit and abuse women and girls are not new, but they are receiving a level global attention in the wake of the Oxfam case that has not occurred before. This attention opens the door to seriously tackling the underlying causes, and this is critical to bringing about long term change. This is more critical than debates about withdrawing funding in the short term.

At the heart of the issue is the gendered nature of power. In an unequal world, the wealthy have power over the poor, the strong over the weak, the privileged over the desperate and, in many situations, men over women. In the 1980s, feminists—both scholars and activists—who were engaged in international development demanded a change. They sought to integrate women into the process of development through income generation schemes or employment opportunities.

The Gender and Development (GAD) paradigm demanded that the nature of power be uncovered and challenged. It demanded that the ways in which patriarchal power structures subordinated women be recognised and redressed. GAD advocates emphasised that at the heart of the problem is the interplay of unequal power structures, the social construction of gender roles and the values that underpin the construction of those roles. GAD advocates argued that while many women are subordinated as a result, so too are men who do not have access to power or who reject destructive forms of power. Thus, GAD both identified the underlying problem and sought to open spaces through which women and men could work to bring about genuine transformation.

Today, the concept of women’s empowerment is the lingua franca of international development, bandied about by agencies from widely different ideological perspectives. Through the co-option and mainstreaming of the term women’s empowerment, the concept has lost its power and has been depoliticised.

Moving forward from the scandal resulting for the inexcusable behaviour of some Oxfam Great Britain staff in a way that protects the vulnerable from abuse in the future requires us to move from debates around funding to reflect and act on fundamental issues of power and privilege. We need to reclaim the concept of empowerment so that it is no longer a catch-cry, but a transformative idea that challenges assumptions and reshapes development policies and interventions.

The revelations coming from Australia’s Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse remind us that uncovering the destructive forms of power that create the conditions for abuse is by no means a problem that is confined to international development.

The Women and the Future of Work report, authored by Rae Cooper, Marian Baird and their colleagues at the University of Sydney and released in the lead-up to International Women’s Day, demonstrates the ongoing challenges of unequal power in Australian workplaces and in society more broadly.

Identifying cases of individual behaviour that is unacceptable and holding those individuals to account is essential. Holding organisations and institutions to account—including for the behaviour of their employees—is also essential. However, if we are to deal seriously with the underlying factors that enable abuse and exploitation—particularly of women and girls but of all those who are vulnerable—we need to rethink and reclaim the concept of empowerment.  We need to re-politicise the nature of power. Only then can we begin to create the paradigm shift that will lead to genuine transformation and equality. On this International Women’s Day, we need to think seriously about the power of power.

Sharon Bessell is Professor of Public Policy and Director, Gender Equity and Diversity at the Crawford School of Public Policy, The Australian National University.

This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.