Storm in a tea cup?

Oxfam storm

Did you see the Channel 4 Dispatches programme “Breadline Kids” broadcast last Monday (9th June)? It told the stories of three families which found themselves needing to use food banks so the kids didn’t go hungry. Instead of the programme stoking a (social) media outrage about children going hungry in Britain today, there was a storm about Oxfam’s poster used in conjunction with the programme to draw attention to a new report, Below the Breadline, about food banks produced by Oxfam, Church Action on Poverty and Trussell Trust.

Oxfam was accused of attacking the Government instead of helping poor people. But even the way I’ve written that last sentence betrays how the way news is presented changes the way it is perceived. “Helping poor people” casts Oxfam in the role of all-powerful benefactor and leaves “the poor” as passive, helpless recipients. I could have written that Oxfam should have been “tackling poverty” instead of attacking the Government. It is the different ideas about what tackling poverty means that causes the debate.

I read with amazement the comments on Twitter from people no longer wanting to give money to Oxfam because, all of a sudden, Oxfam was too political. What had upset people so much? Suggesting that unemployment, high prices, zero-hours contracts, benefit changes and child care costs all contribute to the crises that cause people to need help like food banks. If people had jobs with reasonable hours and decent pay, affordable child care and a benefit system that provided a genuine safety net, then people wouldn’t need to give money to Oxfam for their work in the UK.

This is the heart of the issue for me. Poverty is political. It has individual causes at times, but mainly it is caused by decisions we (or our elected representatives) make about the way society is run. And its solutions are political as well. “Helping poor people” is only a short-term crisis solution – Trussell Trust will be the first to tell you this. Quite apart from demeaning and diminishing the resources that people have to help themselves, “helping poor people” is not enough. Unless we change the structures that keep people poor, we will need to go on giving money to Oxfam or rice pudding tins to food banks. Children will continue to go to school hungry and worry about whether there will be any meals at home over the weekend.

Charities like Oxfam, Church Action on Poverty and Trussell Trust have a responsibility to speak out against the causes of the injustice that they are working to alleviate. This makes what they do political. And if the injustice is a result of the policies of whoever is in power, then charities will speak out against that government. As responsible citizens we can support them and speak out against injustice as we find it. Protest and campaigning is a key part of the struggle against poverty and injustice. Giving money might make us feel better for a while, but it doesn’t absolve us of our responsibility or change the fundamental causes of injustice.

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3 thoughts on “Storm in a tea cup?

  1. It’s hard to support people who are affected by these things without becoming political in the process. But I think overall the best route is to look at the bigger picture. Becoming too political reduces Oxfam’s support base, thereby reducing their effectiveness. On the other hand, continuing to function as a support for those in need encourages people of all political persuasions to be involved in providing the aid that’s required.

    The more people who connect with Oxfam the more the world can change in the right direction.

    You don’t need to become overtly political to still have the right message and do the right thing.

  2. I agree that organisations like Oxfam shouldn’t become aligned to one political party or another – is this what you mean by being overtly political? But I think they need to speak out about what causes the symptoms they are dealing with because what we really need is a cure not symptom management. In this case, the comments in the poster are based on a detailed report by Oxfam from a couple of years ago.
    I disagree about reducing Oxfam’s support base – that is, I don’t think it is so important if people are turned off. The research I looked at for my dissertation suggested that it is the quality of supporters which matters, rather than quantity, if we want to see a change in behaviour (beyond giving money) which impacts causes not just symptoms. That is to say, Oxfam and other similar charities have got very good at raising money, but not at retaining supporters. There is a high turn-over of givers, rather than longer-term, engaged supporters. So organisations are left with a choice. Focus on givers, don’t worry about turn-over, and continue to treat symptoms. Or engage with supporters, talk about values, don’t be afraid to speak out and be bold, and build a supporter base which is likely to impact society and change structures, but potentially take a (short-term) drop in income. A number of organisations are really grappling with this at the moment. Oxfam is one, Church Action on Poverty is another, as is Christian Aid. But the one that is really going for it at the moment is Tearfund – see here http://www.tearfund.org/en/about_you/campaign/lets_talk/ or take a look at this project from Church Action on Poverty http://agoodsociety.org/

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