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Disaster zone

23 February 2018

OF THE three sentences in Professor Mary Beard’s Twitter comment last weekend, the least controversial was: “Overall I still respect those who go in to help out, where most of us we not tread.” The pool of specialists prepared to work in the dangerous chaos of a post-disaster region is relatively small. The pattern has emerged, therefore, of an international workforce who move frequently from one aid agency to another, and whose employment history is hard to check. Aid workers must carry a degree of personal responsibility for their behaviour. But, as Oxfam has acknowledged, their employers are culpable for the lack of transparency that has allowed offenders to transfer easily to other charities.

It is important, however, to try to understand why the Oxfam story has generated such heat. One element, of course, is the hostility to the concept of overseas aid in certain quarters, most notably in sections of the media (see Paul Vallely). Sex scandals are useful weapons in a fight against a rival, such as the BBC; a political faction, such as Remainers; or an inconvenient policy. There is nothing in the Oxfam scandal to suggest that crises in the developing world need any less attention; and yet at the select committee on Tuesday, Matthew Rycroft, the Permanent Secretary at the Department for International Development, is now talking of a “huge crisis for the aid sector”.

There is more to the reaction, however. The aid worker, in a sense, has become a secular ideal, equivalent to the 19th-century missionary, distributing our largesse — in this instance, material rather than spiritual — to the benighted foreigner. He or she is the guardian of the consciences of all who have donated to a particular cause. Aid agencies, naturally enough, have done little to dispel this image, presenting themselves as trustworthy recipients of finances that we might not otherwise give to “foreign concerns”. To discover that such people can be venal feels like a betrayal — even though what is being betrayed is only an ideal, and by only a few individuals. It would be different if the public outrage were directed at the high incidence of sexual predation which occurs when public order breaks down after a disaster, as in a war zone. But to acknowledge that would be to argue for more funding for overseas aid, not less.

The Church should be forewarned. As the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse begins its public investigation into abuse in the Church, using the diocese of Chichester as a case study, another ideal — that of the safe, reliable pastor — is likely to come under further pressure. Without sensible report­ing, all priests and church officers might find themselves defined by the inquiry’s findings.

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