Oxfam admitted that some employees engaged in sexual misconduct while doing disaster work in Haiti. Photo: Reuters
Flying Sand
by Niall Fraser
Flying Sand
by Niall Fraser

Oxfam scandal highlights the real sickness in society: huge problem of worsening wealth inequality

We have witnessed a media orgy of outrage over the sexual behaviour of fewer than a dirty dozen individuals that took place almost a decade ago and which will only damage the interests of the most vulnerable, writes Niall Fraser 

Dealing properly and effectively with the problems, issues and events thrown up in daily life would be impossible without context, right?

Imagine for a moment you are on a very busy bus heading for work, late, and are therefore – like everyone else on board – in a very bad mood. The driver applies the brakes way too heavily at a junction, everyone lurches this way and that, and a painful blow is delivered to the back of your leg by the sharp edge of what you think is one of those infernal wheeled suitcases.

Oxfam’s Hong Kong arm lost hundreds of donors. Photo: Ricky Chung

However, when you turn around to confront your inconsiderate fellow passenger, you discover that it is a frail old lady in a wheelchair who is clearly in a worse situation than you. Obviously, you react accordingly.

Context is everything, I think we can agree on that.

Oxfam says former Haiti director admitted hiring prostitutes, contradicting his new denials

Why then is it that when it comes to the bigger issues and events which punctuate all of our lives and impact on them both personally and collectively in much, much more significant ways, do we suspend the use of context and its close cousin, historical perspective?

I bring this up because of the ongoing sex scandal surrounding the global anti-poverty charity Oxfam, and the morphing of that particular case into a general atmosphere of hostility towards charitable giving, particularly to the big, global aid providers such as Oxfam.

ahkjh. Photo: EPA

Before making the point I want to make, I must stress that this in no way excuses the exploitation – sexual or otherwise – of vulnerable people in desperate situations, and when such treatment is found to have taken place those responsible should be dealt with accordingly.

So let’s be clear. I do not know if Oxfam – the Hong Kong incarnation of which reportedly  lost 715 local donors who collectively gave the organisation more than HK$1.1 million a year in 11 days following the prostitution scandal involving just over a handful of staff employed by the charity’s British arm – and its fellow travellers in the international aid community are angels or demons.

But I do know the following. 

Explain This: what does it mean to be poor in Hong Kong, and how many people live in poverty?

Two weeks before The Times newspaper in London broke the  sex scandal story earlier this month, Oxfam produced a report entitled “Reward work, not wealth”, this followed another published in 2017 which catalogued the huge and growing problem of poverty in the de-industrialised, so-called rust belt of North America.
Oxfam workers sorting out clothes donated for Vietnamese boatpeople in Hong Kong. Photo: SCMP

Both reports pulled no punches and provided (whether you agree with their conclusions and methods or not) a powerful counter-narrative to the prevailing wisdom that the world is coming out of the doldrums of the 2008 financial crash and that happy stock markets mean a happy world.

Why the UN is investigating extreme poverty … in America, the world’s richest nation

Among the findings of the “Reward work, not wealth” report were the following:

1. The year 2017 saw the biggest increase in billionaires in history, one more every two days. 

2. This huge increase could have ended global extreme poverty seven times over. 

3. Some 82 per cent of all wealth created in the last year went to the top 1 per cent, and nothing went to the bottom 50 per cent.

For the record, an Oxfam report on Hong Kong, published in 2016, found that the wealthiest families here earned 29 times more than the poorest, concluding that the poorest would need to work for 2.4 years to make as much as the wealthiest earned in a single month. 

Oxfam is a ‘safe’ target for those who want to point fingers. Photo: AP 

Tellingly, in the work-not-wealth report, Oxfam interviewed 70,000 people from cities which make up a quarter of the world’s population and the vast majority said the planet’s problem with wealth inequality needed to be dealt with either “urgently” or “very urgently”.

Google news search “Oxfam, work not wealth” then do the same with the words “Oxfam sex scandal’’ and you will see the disparity in results for yourself. 

Oxfam is also a “safe” target. It is disliked by those it points the finger at universally, from Beijing to Washington and all points in between.

Charities must abide by the highest standards

There has been little or no fact-based argument put forward to counter the damning findings of the three Oxfam reports I have referred to above and what they say about the sickness at the heart of the society in which we live. 

What we have witnessed is a media orgy of – often faux – outrage over the sexual behaviour of fewer than a dirty dozen individuals which took place almost a decade ago and which in the end will only damage the interests of the poorest and most vulnerable among us who make up the vast majority of the human population.

All I am asking is, why Oxfam? Why now? 

Sex sells, mud sticks and in the absence of any decent fact-based arguments, screaming sleaze will always do the trick.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Oxfam sex scandal will hurt only the poor