An Open Letter to Oxfam

Dear Trustees of Oxfam NZ

My partner, Mary Jenkins and I have been regular contributors to Oxfam for many years.  We, like many others, have been disturbed by the revelations in the Guardian concerning misconduct and poor management in Haiti, Chad and now other places.  These examples of exploitation, by representatives of an organisation dedicated to helping others, are part and parcel of a larger dysfunctional social world that has been, and is still: largely hierarchical, white, privileged and patriarchal in nature.  Such attitudes and behaviours, though easy to brand as archaic are all too alive and operative in the so called modern world.  The entire question/challenge of how we collectively express compassion and care for beings caught up in suffering – the stated aspiration of most charities and socially motivated NGOs – is now up for consideration and inevitably those who would like any excuse to shut down these expressions of humane living will use this and similar situations as an opportunity to do so.  If politicians of some countries can cut medical support for their own citizens in order to pay for increased military spending, then cutting support to non-citizens will come to look attractive and do-able.  This is obviously a bleak trend.

We believe that much good has been done in the world by Oxfam and similar organisations.  Part of that good is demonstrated in tangible results; the clean drinking water and improved lives of people who have been helped.  A more hidden, but hugely important though rarely acknowledged good, is the example that such organisations provide in the wealthy world for attitudes to life and living in which it is natural and right to care for each other.  In this sense, Oxfam needs to be more than an aid charity.  It needs to be a demonstration of healthy living so that the way we do charity is itself a major aspect of the charity that we do.   Everything is interdependent.  What I do affects you.  What you do affects me.  What humans do affects all other species. What the biosphere does affects humans.  We are in this together.

We would like Oxfam NZ to do even more than they already have in acknowledging the disturbing situation that is so harming its reputation.  We would like see Oxfam (and in particular Oxfam NZ) being pro-active, in a sense welcoming this wave of bad press as an invitation to do everything possible to facilitate a way of making Oxfam more responsive to the social reality of a profoundly ecologically interdependent living world.  We are not suggesting this as a P.R. job to keep donations coming in, but as a thorough in-house exploration that will lead to actual improvements in the culture of aid work.  Oxfam should recognise that a percentage of staff will always have their own personal unresolved issues and that these can sometimes contradict the very aspirations of Oxfam.  Steps seem to be happening in Oxfam International to make whistle blowing easier.  This is good, but we need to do more than identify problem situations and then effectively police them.  Oxfam needs to have preventative mechanisms in place that might diminish the likelihood of such situations arising at all.  We should recognise that emergency response to disasters can be stressful work and so have in place support systems for staff, who may see themselves as close to being tempted to use their status and position for personal gain.  We are thinking of some kind of opportunity for them to share their concerns, needs and uncertainties with trusted mentors who might council them and help them find new ways of dealing with their conflict before it turns into a disaster.  Oxfam ought to not only look after people struck by disaster and disadvantage but it must also look after its employees paid or otherwise.  If the carers don’t look after the carers, who will do so?

I realise that the above suggestions can sound simplistic and naive and that Oxfam may have already considered these issues in depth but the question of ethics and wholesome action is something that will always be an ongoing concern to any social-action organisation. We urge you to keep these discussions alive and public, as part of the transparency, openness and aspiration for mutual trust that is necessary for an organisation such as Oxfam to continue to be viable and valuable for future generations.

Mary and I will continue with our automatic contributions for now, but we will be looking for some sign of positive response to these situations in the near future.

We would very much like to hear from you and to see some action on this.
with good wishes from two concerned supporters
Tarchin Hearn and Mary Jenkins


At 6:30pm on the evening I e-mailed this to Oxfam, Rachel Le Mesurier, the executive director of Oxfam NZ phoned to thank us for the letter and assure us that many of the points are already being considered. She also gave a general invitation for the next time we are in Auckland to come and talk with their board about this. It was a pleasure to speak with her.

Finally, this poem, written in 1995 seems relevant


My finger is pointing and my mouth is saying “ethics”
My finger is pointing , “Look at him and look at her.”
My finger is pointing and my mind feels very righteous.
My finger is pointing over here and over there.
My finger is pointing but it seems to be quite maddened,
It runs around in circles in a tanglement of parts.
My finger is pointing, it fascinates to watch it
My finger is pointing and it’s pointing to my heart
My heart it seems is aching, it wants so much to care
Replaced by pointy finger, that scratches here and there.
It’s time to take that finger, and join it to a hand
To reach out with some goodness and help where helping can.
It’s time to see that ethics is not the finger part.
Its time to see that ethics rises only from the heart.