Overrated: Dame Barbara Stocking

Oxfam’s former chief executive now stands accused of complacency and hypocrisy

Daniel Johnson

(Illustration by Michael Daley)

“They pretend to be Mother Teresa, but they’re not.” The Dutch journalist Linda Polman, scourge of international aid organisations, is speaking of people like Barbara Stocking. For 13 years, she was chief executive of Oxfam, having risen up the NHS hierarchy and then moved smoothly from the public to the voluntary sector. Unlike Mother Teresa, who was denigrated for her saintliness by the likes of Christopher Hitchens, Dame Barbara had never faced any serious criticism until last month. Now president of Murray Edwards College, Cambridge, she found herself in the midst of a firestorm when The Times revealed that in 2011 Oxfam had covered up a sex scandal by its staff in disaster-stricken Haiti. Interviewed on BBC’s Newsnight, Dame Barbara looked shifty and evasive. Her claim to have responded adequately when she became aware of the scandal quickly crumbled, as it emerged that Oxfam had failed even to inform other aid agencies, let alone the police, while the Charity Commission never received a full report. Within hours of her car-crash interview, Oxfam was engulfed in a crisis from which its reputation may never recover.

How did Dame Barbara get it so badly wrong? In person, this daughter of a Rugby postman comes across as straightforward and sensible. She knows how to speak the jargon of the bureaucrats in Whitehall and Brussels, how to twist the arms of politicians, but also how to appeal to the tender consciences of donors. She inspires trust.

No doubt this explains why her board of trustees never held her to account, not only for the “full-on Caligula orgies” in Haiti but for any of the cases of sex abuse and exploitation that took place on her watch. But Dame Barbara seems to have taken a lenient view of predatory behaviour by her senior staff. Under her, staff were merely “discouraged” from using prostitutes “because we cannot infringe on people’s civil liberties and we know it would be impractical to think we could explore a total ban.” Not so much a ban as a nod and a wink from Dame Barbara. The country director for Haiti, Roland van Hauwermeiren, was given a month’s salary as a payoff and quickly moved on to take another senior job with an aid agency in Bangladesh. What was happening under Dame Barbara may or may not have amounted to institutional paedophilia, but it is clear that the organisation failed to protect victims, many of them under-age, from criminal conduct by aid workers in the often chaotic circumstances of aid operations. A wave of resignations revealed the frustration of those within Oxfam at the culture of complacency at the top.

Part of the problem was that under the Stocking regime, Oxfam simply grew too fast. It became Britain’s largest second-hand bookseller, using monopoly power to squeeze out private bookshops from the high street. Oxfam shops paid low rents and taxes, little for staff and nothing for stock. Dame Barbara was evidently a natural empire-builder, rapidly extending the charity’s activities into scores of countries with thousands of staff, often in partnership with the private and state sectors. Before the scandal, its income was more than £300 million a year, including a great deal of taxpayers’ money. Though Dame Barbara boasted that she visited 40 countries a year, Oxfam had become too big for any one executive to control.

It was also on her watch that the charity became much more involved in political campaigns, notably against Israel. Barbara Stocking herself was a fierce critic of the Jewish state, especially during the various Gaza crises. But her partisan support for the Palestinians not only aligned Oxfam in practice, though never officially, with the anti-Zionist Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign against Israel, but distracted her attention from the appalling behaviour of her own staff. The insufferable smugness of Oxfam’s worldview owes much to Dame Barbara. Her preachiness, which once seemed merely holier than thou, now looks like rank hypocrisy.

Under Blair, Brown, Cameron and May, the Barbara Stockings of the voluntary sector could do no wrong. Priti Patel, the only minister who tried to change the culture at   DFID, was sacked for her pains. Now that the Oxfam scandal has opened the “culture of denial” in the aid sector, Patel says she warned at the time against “predatory paedophiles”. She claims “I knew this was going on” but her own civil servants resisted her whistleblowing. If even cabinet ministers could not force charities to clamp down on abuse, it is no surprise that their leaders have never been held to account.

The question now is: will Dame Barbara step down as president of Murray Edwards College — or will she have to be pushed? Her presence has become an embarrassment to her college and university. Her DBE is probably safe, but at the time of writing she has yet to face a full reckoning — or even to issue a detailed apology for her failure of leadership. As an expert in milking the public conscience, she might like to start by examining her own private conscience. The ethics of admitting trans students to an all-female college are, it seems, simple compared to taking responsibility for Oxfam’s disgrace.

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