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(Illustration by Michael Daley)

“They pretend to be Mother Teresa, but they’re not.” The Dutch journalist Linda Polman, scourge of international aid organisations, is speaking of people like Barbara Stocking. For 13 years, she was chief executive of Oxfam, having risen up the NHS hierarchy and then moved smoothly from the public to the voluntary sector. Unlike Mother Teresa, who was denigrated for her saintliness by the likes of Christopher Hitchens, Dame Barbara had never faced any serious criticism until last month. Now president of Murray Edwards College, Cambridge, she found herself in the midst of a firestorm when The Times revealed that in 2011 Oxfam had covered up a sex scandal by its staff in disaster-stricken Haiti. Interviewed on BBC’s Newsnight, Dame Barbara looked shifty and evasive. Her claim to have responded adequately when she became aware of the scandal quickly crumbled, as it emerged that Oxfam had failed even to inform other aid agencies, let alone the police, while the Charity Commission never received a full report. Within hours of her car-crash interview, Oxfam was engulfed in a crisis from which its reputation may never recover.

How did Dame Barbara get it so badly wrong? In person, this daughter of a Rugby postman comes across as straightforward and sensible. She knows how to speak the jargon of the bureaucrats in Whitehall and Brussels, how to twist the arms of politicians, but also how to appeal to the tender consciences of donors. She inspires trust.

No doubt this explains why her board of trustees never held her to account, not only for the “full-on Caligula orgies” in Haiti but for any of the cases of sex abuse and exploitation that took place on her watch. But Dame Barbara seems to have taken a lenient view of predatory behaviour by her senior staff. Under her, staff were merely “discouraged” from using prostitutes “because we cannot infringe on people’s civil liberties and we know it would be impractical to think we could explore a total ban.” Not so much a ban as a nod and a wink from Dame Barbara. The country director for Haiti, Roland van Hauwermeiren, was given a month’s salary as a payoff and quickly moved on to take another senior job with an aid agency in Bangladesh. What was happening under Dame Barbara may or may not have amounted to institutional paedophilia, but it is clear that the organisation failed to protect victims, many of them under-age, from criminal conduct by aid workers in the often chaotic circumstances of aid operations. A wave of resignations revealed the frustration of those within Oxfam at the culture of complacency at the top.

Part of the problem was that under the Stocking regime, Oxfam simply grew too fast. It became Britain’s largest second-hand bookseller, using monopoly power to squeeze out private bookshops from the high street. Oxfam shops paid low rents and taxes, little for staff and nothing for stock. Dame Barbara was evidently a natural empire-builder, rapidly extending the charity’s activities into scores of countries with thousands of staff, often in partnership with the private and state sectors. Before the scandal, its income was more than £300 million a year, including a great deal of taxpayers’ money. Though Dame Barbara boasted that she visited 40 countries a year, Oxfam had become too big for any one executive to control.
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caroline jill turner
July 31st, 2018
9:07 PM
"Complacent almost complicit" in institutional paedophilia, despicable, insufferably smug. Why is my College thinking of letting this woman come back as President and role model?

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