January 2012: a curious month in Oxfam’s woes

Little has surprised me about Oxfam’s Haiti debacle apart from one big thing. Why did it take nearly seven years for the sordid affair to become public knowledge? How could the sudden departure of seven staff from a single country office, including the director, in circumstances ripe for tittle tattle, not have created a sensation within the humanitarian community?

To illustrate my bewilderment, I can offer two articles dating from January 2012 whose authors display apparent ignorance of the infamous events of a few months before, despite both being in pole positions to know.

The first is a real curiosity; offering no connection whatsoever with events in Haiti at the time of publication, it now seems tantalisingly bound up with them. Duncan Green, then Head of Research at Oxfam GB, and prominent blogger on overseas development issues, chose that moment in 2012 to engage his followers in a poll which questioned whether the swimming pool at Oxfam’s guesthouse in Nairobi should be re-opened.

The “dilemma”, as Green openly acknowledged, was whether the image of Oxfam staff enjoying such a facility, however commonplace in a Nairobi suburb, would appear damaging to the charity’s supporters, shivering in the heart of a British winter. As he put it: “Oxfam’s big cheeses saw a tabloid scandal in the making and closed (the pool).” At the time, Nairobi was the coordinating centre of the emergency humanitarian response to severe drought in East Africa.

Sounds familiar?

If Duncan Green knew the precise reasons for the staff exodus in Haiti, surely he would have relegated Oxfam guesthouses to his bucket of blog topics marked too hot to handle? His employer had escaped censure in Haiti by the skin of its teeth; why take the risk of a public debate about R&R for aid workers, whilst the potential scandal was still cooling?

Maybe Green thought that he was doing Oxfam a favour in prodding his followers to vote on a tricky ethical question. Oxfam GB’s Chief Executive had by then written to all staff worldwide in reference to Haiti, reminding them of Oxfam’s expectations of their behaviour.

I still find it hard to conceive that Green was ignorant of the facts, as a seasoned networker occupying one of the charity’s senior management positions. Be that as it may, his post did create trouble for Oxfam. The Daily Mail’s Ian Birrell got hold of the swimming pool story and published a piece in The Spectator lambasting the shallow values of over-remunerated aid workers. Green records that he “apologised” to Oxfam’s PR department.

Strange to say, it’s Birrell himself who offers my second example of missing the wood for the trees. He was in Haiti in January 2012 reporting for the Mail on Sunday on the second anniversary of the earthquake. By that point, the international humanitarian response was under the cosh for  incompetence and wasteful use of funds.

As an unreformed critic of UK aid, Birrell was on a mission to uncover dirt. On his desk were the facts that the UK’s largest overseas development charity had raised the formidable sum of $98 million from its Haiti appeal; and there was that curious Oxfam press release about “staff misconduct” in Haiti.

We know now, from Oxfam’s internal investigation report of 2011, that no fewer than 40 witnesses were interviewed. How could an investigative journalist of Birrell’s experience and sense of purpose have missed such a scoop?

Having survived unscathed over that anniversary period in January 2012, Oxfam may have felt that the crisis had passed. In subsequent years Duncan Green has never shied from references to his “somewhat notorious” article, even presenting it as a case study for books about international aid. These nostalgic posts may now become case studies from a rather different perspective.

There may be some quirky loose ends in this tale but so what. My own view is that Oxfam’s mistakes in 2011 have attracted disproportionate opprobrium. If charity governance is forced to accept a further layer of regulation, I hope it will focus on the more sinister picture of senior management culture that has come to light at Save The Children.

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The great Nairobi guesthouse swimming pool dilemma – cast your vote now – from Duncan Green in From Poverty to Power, January 2012

Haiti and the shaming of the aid zealots Ian Birrell reports from Haiti for the Mail on Sunday in January 2012

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