Oxfam and Conor Burns’ perfect storm of manufactured outrage

Conor Burns, who a few weeks ago reported the British charity, Oxfam, to the Charity Commission, alleging it had broken laws governing what constitutes charitable activity by directly engaging in an “overtly political” campaign, is now calling for all charities to be prohibited from political campaigns using public funds.

Burns was “shocked” (I imagine he gasped, and clasped both hands over his mouth at the sheer horror) at an anti-poverty organisation pointing out that cuts to welfare support might be making things worse for many people.

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Actually, what he was really objecting to was less theposter and twitter campaign, and more the efforts to persuade people to contact their MP with a pre-prepared letter pointing out how many people in the UK need to use food-banks due to the ‘perfect storm’ of high prices, low wages, and welfare cuts. Writing to (Conservative Party appointed) Chair of the Charity Commission, William Shawcross, Burns stated the campaign was “aimed at the policies of the current government”. In interviews later he said:

Many people who support Oxfam will be shocked and saddened by this highly political campaigning in domestic British politics

Burns is my MP, and absolutely apropos of nothing, recently sent letters to all his constituents encouraging us to write to the committee exploring plans to build an offshore windfarm 9 miles off the West Dorset coastline to argue against it (apparently the existence of Europe’s largest onshore oilfield in Poole Harbour is one thing, but wind turbines 9 miles offshore will destroy Bournemouth’s tourist industry).

But back to the issue at hand. I found it interesting that Burns tried to draw attention to the supposed anomaly of an organisation dedicated to anti-poverty overseas undertaking a domestic UK campaign. “Most of us operated under the illusion”, Burns said, “that Oxfam’s focus was on the relief of poverty and famine overseas”. If Burns thinks Oxfam only works on overseas poverty, and not that in the UK, he hasn’t really been paying attention to the work of this, or any of the main UK-based development / anti-poverty NGOs.

But more significantly, it is yet another reminder of the politics of poverty. Wearing my history hat (the favourite of my hats), the comments reminded me of how, in the mid-1960s, charities who sought to focus on poverty, rather than solely humanitarian disasters, were similarly accused of being political, and hence acting outside their permitted boundaries. In the early 1960s, the Charity Commission became concerned with ‘development’ projects being undertaken by organisations such as Oxfam, Christian Aid, the British branch of the Freedom from Hunger Campaign, and other UK charities. It argued that whilst campaigning and raising money for ‘relief’ (in times of natural or human made disaster) was appropriate charitable activity as defined by the law, ‘development’ was not. In a 1962 report, the Commission wrote:

…propaganda and advocacy for legislation, whether in this country or overseas, have been described by the courts as political, and not charitable; so, too, has the promotion of international friendship. (Cited in Jennings, Surrogates of the State)

Two years later, in 1964, the Charity Commission announced an enquiry into the activities of those charities with an overseas development focus (with Oxfam very much in its sights). Luckily, the House of Lords came to the rescue, pronouncing humanitarian aid for development to constitute charitable giving, and the evolution of the main British overseas development NGOs could continue to create the sector we have today.

So ‘development’ and campaigning against poverty has always been political (as any first year Development Studies student could tell Mr Burns). They have also long been the subject of efforts to control and limit by those who feel they are the potential targets of such campaigns. This attack is the latest salvo in a struggle that will continue as long as their are politicians and governments whose interests can be damaged by unhelpful interventions criticising their policies.

So Burns is right, Oxfam’s campaign is political. It is deeply political. But that is because poverty, vulnerability and marginalisation are the result of political decisions: decisions about what welfare is or is not provided; decisions on regulations concerning minimum wages or what types of worker protections are to be enforced; decisions on economic policies; decisions on laws, etc. Burns knows this, of course. Indeed, he campaigns on the fact that political decisions affect people’s wellbeing, arguing for his party’s policies over others. So why so coy about the politics of poverty now?

As for his latest proposals that charity UK-based campaigns should not be funded from the public purse (around which a consensus seems to be building that some reforms might actually appear in October), it is far from clear that this is actually an issue. UK aid channelled through NGOs is given for specific programmes, not to general pots that can be used for any purpose the organisation chooses. But there is an important principle here. Are we really to advocate the closing down of voices of dissent because they challenge government policy?

If you are in government, or any position of power, you cannot expect your policies to go unchallenged if they are causing harm. To try to stifle the ability of NGOs to represent the interests of the poor, or of marginalised communities, is disingenuous, dangerous and indicative of a fear that they may have it right. Moreover, where does the ‘public funds should not be used to support political campaigns’ principle stop? Should academics in British universities be stopped from criticising government policies, in the UK and overseas, because they are supported by the public purse?

This is not to say that campaigns from NGOs cannot and should not be challenged. Their evidence should be challenged; their conclusions tested. Governments can fight back and fight back hard. But to try to pretend that the existence of poverty is apolitical? To argue that organisations whose self-declared objective is to address poverty and the causes of poverty should only be allowed to speak about the policies of other governments, those overseas? What nonsense. If you really believe poverty is not political, Mr Burns, what on earth are you doing in Westminster?

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Conor Burns has pointed out in interviews that the criticism of his comments and actions have come from lefties and supporters of the Labour Party. In the spirit of openness, in case it wasn’t clear, I didn’t vote for Burns in the last election, and won’t be in the future. Whether that devalues my opinions, that’s for you to judge.

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About Mike Jennings

I am a Senior Lecturer in Development Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), London. My work is on the history and politics of international development in sub-Saharan Africa. Research areas include: - The history of development in Africa, from the late nineteenth century to the current day - Politics of East Africa (Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda) - the role of non-state providers (NGOs, FBOs and self-help groups) in welfare service provision - Social aspects of health, including HIV and AIDS, and malaria
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