Oxfam should get its house in order

British-founded charitable confederation Oxfam has come under fire after it published a 92-page inclusivity guide which labels English as “the language of a colonising nation” and encourages staff to avoid using terms such as “mother”.

Oxfam, established in Oxford during the Second World War, traditionally focuses on poverty alleviation and disaster relief. But like many charitable organisations, it appears to have lost its sense of direction in succumbing to radical identity politics. This “inclusivity guide” is an utterly bizarre document – warning against supposedly “colonial” phrases such as “headquarters”, suggests the term “local” may be exclusionary, and says “people” could come across as “patriarchal”. The guide argues for the replacement of “expectant mothers” with “people who become pregnant” and the dropping of the phrase “feminine hygiene”.

In a truly laughable interview with Good Morning Britain, the CEO of Oxfam GB, Dr Dhananjayan Sriskandarajah sought to defend the new inclusivity guide: “What we’re learning is if we’re going to end poverty, we need to take people with us. And using inclusive language is an important way of showing dignity and respect”. The document, much like many so-called “inclusivity guides” I have come across, is in fact deeply exclusionary in nature. The calls to remove female-specific terminology amount to an attack on traditional notions of motherhood – the fundamental erasure of women. It may be controversial for some who have decided to depart from reality, but all pregnancies involve expectant mothers – biological females who are carrying their unborn offspring. But men with children are not spared by the document, which also encourages its staff to avoid using the phrase “father”. This is ultimately an assault on sex-based notions of parentage and conventional understandings of the family – something which reflects the cultural disdain for supposedly reactionary and hierarchical institutions in so-called “progressive” quarters.

Quite frankly, Oxfam should not be wasting its time and energy on matters of “language policing” – it needs to return to the bread-and-butter of instructing its staff on their duty to support the most vulnerable, instead of exploiting them. In April 2021, the UK once again suspended aid funding for Oxfam after fresh allegations of sexual exploitation and bullying were made against its staff. Oxfam workers in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) were suspended following the claims. It had previously served a three-year ban after evidence of sexual exploitation by staff in Haiti came to light in 2018. In February that year, The Times alleged that Oxfam covered up claims that senior staff working in Haiti in the wake of the 2010 earthquake used prostitutes, some of whom may have been underage. Among the male staff accused of sexual misconduct was Oxfam’s then-director of operations in Haiti, Roland Van Hauwermeiren, who allegedly used prostitutes at a villa rented for him by the charity. Before taking charge of Oxfam’s response to the 2010 earthquake – which, according to a study by the University of Michigan, resulted in the region of 160,000 casualties – Van Hauwermeiren left the medical charity Merlin in 2004 after being accused of hosting sex parties in Liberia, where the organisation was meant to be helping the population to rebuild their lives after the country’s four-year civil war.

The reality is that the recent record of Oxfam is far-from-stellar when it comes to protecting the most vulnerable. Recent cases of sexual exploitation which stretch from Central Africa to the Caribbean make a mockery of Oxfam’s claim that it strives to empower women to improve their livelihoods. Ironically, the charity’s website states that it seeks to “address many barriers to women’s economic empowerment, including…vulnerability to exploitation”. While it supposedly wishes to “work with businesses to address gender equality at multiple levels”, it would do well to look within and consider how well it treats women through its co-called charitable activities. The new inclusivity guide reads as some sort of anti-female charter which deprives women of their sex-based uniqueness.

Oxfam needs root-and-branch reform in order to restore public trust in the institution – one that has inflicted great damage upon itself through a string of scandals surrounding sexual exploitation and mental abuse. If it thinks that it can wash away its chequered history in war-torn countries and nations ravaged by natural disasters by coat-tailing ‘fashionable’ cultural trends and ‘educating’ others on pronouns, then it is sorely mistaken. Instead of modernising the so-called “colonial” English language, it would do well to strengthen its internal code of conduct when it comes to interacting with vulnerable women and girls living in eviscerating poverty. And crucially, it should not de-emphasise the importance of parents – however well the charity sector operates, a stable family unit very much remains the finest safety net known to humankind.

One can only hope that Oxfam, this once-respected charity, has a much-needed period of inspection and then re-focuses on its original purposes of alleviating poverty and providing effective disaster relief. But I won’t be holding my breath.

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