Fixing the System

Have you ever played the game where someone picks a person and you have to try to guess who it is, by asking them: “If x were a kind of weather, what kind of weather would they be? And if they were a pair of shoes, what kind of shoes would they be?”

I was reminded of that game when I visited Oxfam GB’s HQ in Oxford.

For my generation, the word “Oxfam” might conjure up…

– car: brown Nissan Micra

– meal: brown rice and lentils

– weather: mildly overcast

– facial hair: beard

– shoes: open-toe sandals

Following that train of thought, the words “Oxfam HQ” brings to mind a shabby building with labryinthine corridors full of small book-filled offices, with stained beige carpets, peeling woodchip wallpaper and a musty smell. And this is exactly my memory of it from my last visit some time in the 1990s.

You would be hard pressed to pluck out of your imagination the elegantly designed steel and glass building, the designer sofas, a cafe that looks as if it was lifted straight out of a Scandinavian airport, the beautiful glass boxes to meet in with the words poverty and suffering etched into their misted glass, and the table football chill-out zone complete with art-photo images of ‘development in the field’.  The expanse of open-plan modernity that is Oxfam’s HQ stretches over three floors and provides a workspace for hundreds of staff behind a map of the world that offers a glimpse of the dominion the workers here preside over, with their projects, indicators, log-frames and associated paraphernalia.

I wasn’t expecting any of that. All the non-governmental organizations I’d ever been in gave the impression of money scrimped on overheads to be spent on poor people, just as it says on the packet.

So what’s going on? Apparently Oxfam’s glistening designer HQ is much cheaper than the rambling old building – less rent, more environmentally friendly and so on. So this is not to knock them for their move. Nor is it to deny them the pleasures of working in a stylish and well-equipped building. Why is it only corporations who we imagine having these kinds of offices? What is it about the word “development” that would even bring into people’s minds a sense that it might be morally wrong to use money raised in the name of poor people to have those indispensible little luxuries like solid oak toilet doors and Dyson hand driers, or one of those high tech whiteboards that you write on and it transfers what you write to a computer?

On my way back from Oxford, I pass suburban train stations. Huge billboard adverts command attention. A striking black woman, with colourful ‘traditional’ dress garlanded by a string of brightly beaded necklaces, holds out her cupped hands. In them are a handful of grains. I am enjoined to text SYSTEM and offered the promise that Oxfam will fix the mess the world is in. This kind of marketing brings in the bucks, tapping the guilt of well-heeled urban commuters. But the hubris is revolting. A British-based organization claiming that they can make change happen on this kind of scale? Do they have no sense of irony? And does anyone who works there actually believe that they can “fix the system”?

I doubt it. This is an organisation with some of Aidland’s sharpest, most critical minds; their reactions to the poverty porn that their marketing department comes up with is probably similar to mine when faced with the fatuous gaggle of adjectives used to garland garish banners guiding prospective students into my university on Open Days.

But it speaks volumes about something that is badly wrong with the whole aid business.

As the train rumbles through lush English countryside in which some of the wealthiest people in this country live, I carry on ruminating. Oxfam, like all the myriad international NGOs that crowd the development scene, is a non-governmental organization that lacks any formal accountability to states or citizens. What makes them think that they’re able to intervene in this way? What legitimacy are they able to lay claim to? What kind of world do we live in where people from one country can set up shop in another country and announce their presence as being there to “fix” things? Am I being parochial when I wonder about national sovereignty? My imagination begins to wander. I think of the stories I’ve heard of African churches sending missionaries to London to take advantage of the spiritual desert that is inner city Britain. I think of one of these churches setting up an office in my neighbourhood, all sleek and shiny, with a car park full of four-wheel drive vehicles, come to save heathen souls like mine from a fate of moral turpitude.

And I begin to wonder: why don’t we see these international NGOs focusing more of their attention on the role that their own country – and others in the so-called “global north” – are playing in producing poverty and creating the problems that they’re selling us their solutions to “fix”?  Why is it that the debates about aid on TV and in the newspapers so often has them springing to the government’s defence – sometimes speaking more eloquently than the ministers themselves in support of what the government is doing. Is it a case of Too Close For Comfort, as in the title of Hulme and Edwards’ book from the 1990s that looks at how NGOs are getting ever more cosy with governments? If they want to present themselves as “civil society”, why aren’t they saying and doing more to clean up the aid industry and its excesses and acting like the kind of civil society we need ourselves to hold our own government to account? Isn’t it time we started demanding more of them rather than being complicit in this dance of do-gooding and neo-colonial largesse?

Originally written for International Development: Ideas and Actors students in the class of 2012/13.

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