Haiti is a long way from Petersfield.
Indeed the connection between the day-to-day running of our Oxfam bookshop and the people working on the frontline of famine, war and disaster has always been a very long, and sometimes invisible, thread.
Many of our volunteers – including me – volunteer in the bookshop for our own reasons and they often don’t much include daily thoughts about crisis in Yemen, the Syrian nightmare, the disaster of an earthquake or Tsunami.
But every book we sell is a small piece in a gigantic jigsaw that helps Oxfam to help people – and Oxfam is a good thing.
Oxfam is a big bureaucracy and it gets things organisationally wrong – we see domestic bits of that in the shop.
Every big organisation does too. The lines of communication, feedback mechanisms, the transparency of decisions, the view from the top and the differing views from the sharp end – it doesn’t matter if you are IBM or Oxfam, these are always issues.
Someone perceptively said on the radio this week that when you set up a charity on day one your focus is the ‘client’ – by day two it is protecting the reputation of the charity to keep the money coming in.
And I am sure that protecting Oxfam’s reputation played a part in how the organisation handled what happened in Haiti – and no doubt, other bad stuff elsewhere.
I was in the pub last night and was talking to someone who said his wife had worked for another charity and had seen frontline workers coming back from some war torn nightmare or another and their behaviour showed their strings were very taught and sometimes snapped.
They had people repatriated for wrong doing – there won’t be an international charity out there of any significant size that has a not faced very wrong behaviour by some of its staff.
Someone also said to me that if the Ministry of Defence was asked to account for the behaviour of every British serviceman who was serving abroad or on peace keeping duties, there would be a very long list of sexual misdemeanours.
This is not to excuse what happened in Haiti but it is to say that charities, like Oxfam, have people who go places the rest of us won’t, to help in ways that we hope make life better for people who have little.
And, yes, yes of course no one in the position should exploit those people or their colleagues – in any shape of form and of course too, the vast majority of charity workers on the frontline, don’t.
And, yes of course, Oxfam should have acted better at the time – Oxfam has apologised, profusely and if any charity will get its safeguarding act together now you can bet it will be Oxfam.
And, I expect every other charity in the sector is racing around trying to make sure that they stay out of media sight and get their house in order too.
Meanwhile, using Oxfam as a stick to beat the aid budget, is just plain wrong.
Penny Mordaunt, the relevant minister who as a friend said last week ‘ sees a bandwagon a mile off and races to get on it,’ should of course demand more action and transparency – but what good does it do to reduce Oxfam’s funding?
Back in Petersfield, I was in town the other day doing errands and was stopped three times by regular customers saying they felt that Oxfam, though not coming up smelling of roses, was being unfairly hit.
I have not been in the shop for a few days so called in briefly this morning, and was gratified to see that donations had kept coming in, there were customers in the shop and that Oxfam’s trading director was due to come in to talk to people about what was happening.
I am very much hoping that our customers – many of whom probably see us as a good second hand bookshop first and foremost – stay with us and think, as they usually do, that buying from or donating books to Oxfam, is a good deed as well as a pleasure.