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Oxfam are Oxymorons

August 31, 2009 – 9:24 pm23 Comments

By Jewin’ the fat

My brother-in-law announced quite casually one Friday night that he was planning to run 100km in under 24 hours. Through the bush. All in one go. At first, our family went through the five stages of an unexpected Shabbat announcement.

Shock.

Disbelief.

Ridicule.

Questioning.

Acceptance.

In the name of Oxfam Australia, he and three of his friends were going to push themselves to their physical limits, along with hundreds of others, to raise money for less fortunate communities in the Asia Pacific. Which, according to the Jewish spirit of generosity and focus on Tikkun Olam and Tzedakah, should have been an inspiring, fulfilling way to spend a weekend.

oxfamahava

Members of Code Pink 4 Peace protest the sale of Ahava products

Except that a few days ago, I read a disturbing news story online which made me reconsider. Oxfam International allegedly dumped Sex and the City star Kristen ‘Charlotte’ Davis from its corps of celebrity ambassadors. Why? Because she is currently contracted as the ‘face’ of Ahava skin care products, which are produced beyond the Green Line.

According to Oxfam, this ‘disputed’ territory, namely Kibbutz Mizpe Shalem on the Dead Sea coast, is the site of “settlement trade” to which they “remain opposed”. According to a source quoted in the New York Post, “From an Oxfam perspective, Ahava is a polarising company and Kristin shouldn’t be involved with it.”

According to an email I received from a representative of Oxfam Australia, the following statement stands as the ‘truth’ of the issue:

“I would like to assure you that the NY Post story (”Sex star, Oxfam split”) is not correct: Oxfam remains committed to maintaining Kristin as our ambassador and Kristin remains committed to Oxfam. Furthermore, this issue in no way changes Oxfam’s and Kristin’s future plans together. We do not currently have plans for publicity work while we work through the Ahava issue. It would indeed be a shame for this incident to be used by others to distract from her great work with us.”

Am I missing something?

If we are going to say there is a conflict of interest (namely, that the operating systems of Ahava and the ideology of Oxfam are in opposition), then why did Oxfam accept Davis’ services as an Ambassador? It’s not like Davis is being paid for her services – in fact, Oxfam benefits greatly from the fact that Davis is a television and movie star (who can forget her turn in Melrose Place?).

But then again, if she isn’t being paid to represent Oxfam (as she is with Ahava), is her personal ideology, or any divergence from the ideology of Oxfam, necessarily an infringement upon the legal or contractual obligations of her volunteer service? What about the thousands of volunteers who walk the streets collecting signatures – does Oxfam care about their personal affiliations? Or for that matter, about those of the hundreds of paid staff they employ?

Raising money to build clean water filters in schools or provide micro finance to women in underprivileged communities is honourable, vital work. As Australians with means, we should give generously. But without prejudice?

Can we afford to deny these deserving communities financial aid on the basis of our political affiliations, or conversely, are we to ignore the unfair politicisation of charity work as we blindly give money to an organisation that no longer sees the wood for the trees? Can we legitimately support certain initiatives like Oxfam Trailwalkers, while feigning ignorance about the differences between Oxfam’s clear ideological persuasions and our own?

When it comes to Kristin Davis, at what point does it become hypocritical to be paid by an Israeli company, while volunteering for an organisation that raises money for Palestinians?

When it comes to where we donate our ten percent, are we being hypocrites? If you are for one cause, do you automatically need to be against another?

Is humanitarianism a zero sum game?

(Read the original article here.)

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23 Comments »

  • Chaim says:

    Anti-Israel stances has always been the catch-cry and unifying force of all left wing groups… and all Arab states.

    I wonder why?

    there are alternatives to Oxfam..

  • frosh says:

    Oxfam has long presented me with a conundrum.

    On one hand they seem to be doing some very important work in the 3rd world, but on the other hand, I have been aware of their anti-Israel activity which I find highly objectionable.

    Chaim, I don’t have a good answer to your question, only to say a lot of people and organisations adopt opinion/attitude that is fashionable and never make the effort to learn the facts and understand the issues for themselves.

    I’d be interested to hear about these alternatives you allude to.

  • Chaim says:

    Here are some alternatives:

    http://www.charitynavigator.org/ – helps you find good charities

    charitywater.org/

  • Chaim says:

    Also:

    asiafoundation.org/ – persistently top rated on all charity watch-dogs

    another charity finder: charitywatch.org

  • Larry Stillman says:

    It’s not a zero-sum game. There are winners and losers in the world, and Oxfam, like many aid organisations, aims to help the underdog and not be seen to be supporting unlawful activity.

    ” a lot of people and organisations adopt opinion/attitude that is fashionable” (Frosh).

    I think that’s a bit too simplistic an answer to what is going on with Oxfam.

    Oxfam is very concerned that whatever it backs or sells is not associated with exploitation or illegal activity. Thus, I know they are very wary of donations from minining in the developing world because of the exploitation of workers.

    They have been highly critical of the Hong Kong garment industry as another example.

    SO the problem with Ahava is a problem of international law–a non-recognised occupation (like that of Northern Cyprus).

    For Oxfam’s ethical code, see http://www.oxfam.org.uk/resources/suppliers/ethicalpurchasing.html.

    See also http://www.oxfam.org.uk/resources/countries/palterr_israel.html for work in Israel and Palestine.

    And yes, Oxfam has funded a number of Israeli and Palestinian civil and human rights organisations, which of course have outraged the right.

    BUT I don’t like boycotts of Israel because they set up precisely the reaction they shouldn’t — which is resistence to dealing with the facts of occupation, annexation and exploitation.

    Thus, it easy to forget that settlements with a great lifestyle or spectacular geography a aren’t innocent bits of geography, but tied in with Israel’s political- military strategy that has not brought about a lasting peace, but instead, are a prime cause of resentment and enduring conflict.

    See http://www.haaretz.com/hasen/spages/878955.html

    “The huge area allocated to the settlements is most conspicuous in the small communities of the Jordan Valley and Judean Desert. Kibbutz Mitzpeh Shalem, population 180, for instance, has jurisdiction over 35,408 dunams – about the size of Petah Tikva. Kibbutz Kalia, population 271, on the Dead Sea shore, has jurisdiction over 25,304 dunams.”

    “The majority of these settlements were established on the eastern margins of the West Bank. This construction intended to satisfy the security ideology surrounding the necessity of an Israeli civilian presence in the peripheral areas. ” http://www.peacenow.org.il/site/en/peace.asp?pi=57

    Now, as many of ‘you’ know, lots of Israelis and Jews abroad oppose the occupation…so it ain’t just an Oxfam problem of products that are mislabelled.

  • Just like sport can’t escape politics, charity (especially when it operates on a global scale) inevitably gets caught up having to take sides. If you operate in third world countries with corrupt governments and officials who have their own agendas, you have to “make deals” in order to be able to do your work. These are anything from bribes to maintaining a particular stance on a political issue.

    So the charity forms a view that in order to continue its work, it needs to make some compromises. They probably consider that “on balance”, they are doing enough good that the political stuff doesn’t matter. Yes, I’m giving them the benefit of the doubt here.

    (It’s a little like the way journos in the West Bank and Gaza are only allowed to keep reporting if they say the right stuff).

    The good news is that there is no shortage of charities and there are plenty of watchdog organizations to tell us which ones put our money to the best use, how much they pay their executives or spend on administration, how much of our dollar actually goes to provide services, and how politically compromised they are.

  • Chaim says:

    Larry: No one suffers from donating instead to alternative charities that do the same work if you do not belive in the political stance of Oxfam. It is not a boycott to disable or bancrupt them. It is a question of trust with our money and what it is used to support.

    I disagree with the term occupation and their veiw of the “settlement problem”. Everyone is entitled to their own opinion but I do not have support them unless there is no alternative.

  • Larry,

    Kibbutz Mitzpeh Shalem, population 180, for instance, has jurisdiction over 35,408 dunams – about the size of Petah Tikva. Kibbutz Kalia, population 271, on the Dead Sea shore, has jurisdiction over 25,304 dunams.

    This is a meaningless comparison designed to overstate the issue. They aren’t planning to fill it with high-density apartments like Petah Tikva – it’s farming land for a Kibbutz!

  • ariel says:

    Tikun Olam is about fixing our own Jewish backyard and allowing it to be an example to the rest of the world.

    Donating to Oxfam and charities like it should not be a priority for the Jewish community. Instead, donate to UIA, JNF, Meir Panim, Yad L’Achim, etc.

  • ariel,

    That can be a can of worms. Tikun Olam is different things to different people, and the Reform movement, for which it’s a very important principle, does not agree that the Jewish “Olam” comes first.

    Many people choose to ignore the entire phrase in Aleinu – “l’taken olam b’malchut Shaddai” – “to repair the world as the Kingdom of God”. And then there is the principle in the Talmud that “aniyei ircha kodmin” – “local comes first”.

  • ariel says:

    David, i love releasing the worms!
    But there is something about any group who tries to fix other peoples backyards without first looking in their own.

  • frosh says:

    Thanks for the links Chaim.

    I took a look and it seems the CEO of Oxfam (USA) earns close to $US 250k.
    And at a lot of similar charities, the CEO earns far more than this. For example, at CARE (USA), the CEO earns over $US 400k.

    Now, I have no objection to a business person making a large income from their own business nous, but I do find it a bit objectionable that someone takes home such a large pay packet from a charity that they encourage people (on far lower incomes than themselves) to donate to so they can support the underprivileged.

    “Every dollar you give makes a difference… to what we can pay our our CEO” :-)

  • frosh,

    I hate Oxfam as much as the next right wing Jew, but on the matter of CEO remuneration, I disagree with you. Large NFPs need professional management and must pay market to attract them. These are multinational orgs with expenses in the hundreds of millions. You can’t get a CEO to do that job for $100k. A better and more common metric of efficiency is admin costs as a percentage of total expenses.

  • Larry Stillman says:

    I am very puzzled by the tone of this-because because Oxfam is in controvery over Ahava, you ‘hate’ Oxfam?

    You mean you condemn support for the poorest people in the world? I respectfully suggest you both need a bit of perspective.

    Really, really silly.

  • eli says:

    Perhaps you might consider the Jewish World Service
    “AJWS was established in Boston on May 1, 1985 when Larry Phillips and Larry Simon, together with a group of rabbis, Jewish communal leaders, activists, businesspeople, scholars and others came together to create the first American Jewish organization dedicated to alleviating poverty, hunger and disease among people across the globe.”

    There is a full disclosure statement of their financial’s on the website. Including payments for salaries.

    I am sure they will accept donations from Australia

    Just a thought and covers off the need to give to non discriminatory fund.

  • Daniel says:

    There are plenty of people who will donate to Oxfam.

    There is nobody who will donate to Jewish charities and welfare organisations other than Jews.

    And before I receive the usual arguments about being insular or the ‘greater good’, I should point out that Jewish welfare orgnisations indirectly help the greater community, by freeing the burden on general welfare requirements.

    For example, if every ethnic community looked after its own aged the way the Jewish community does, Australia would be a better place.

  • Larry,

    “hate” was the wrong word. However, I do consider Oxfam compromised as a charity because of the political stance they choose to take.

  • Larry Stillman says:

    You also need to distinguish between the different Oxfams all over the world.

    Oxfam Oz does very little in the Middle East. I believe that they got 1/2 million from the Australian government for relief work in Gaza and this was administered by Oxfam UK

    Now, to boycott Oxfam Australia because of that, despite the huge amount of work they do in Asia and Africa seems a bit disproportionate.

  • rachsd says:

    Hi Ariel and Daniel,

    I think in a globalised world, where we know about misfortunes everywhere, Jews (like all other people) have a responsibility to give locally and globally, to Jews and non-Jews.

    Remembering that there are some people who aren’t part of a tight-knit community, or aren’t part of a community with means, it seems obvious that the approach, each community to its own, is both inequitable and problematic.

    If I am not for myself who will be for me, If I am only for myself…

    I try to keep the halakhic rule to give between 10-20% of one’s income to charity, and it’s my understanding (although to be honest I’ve never seen any of the sources for this) that this amount is supposed to be directed to charities for the poor. Under this definition, a fund such as JNF doesn’t count as a charity at all.

  • frosh says:

    Hi David,

    I think in recent years we have seen that the salary of the CEO (or any employee) is not a good guide to their value. How many CEOs on stratospheric salaries have run companies into the ground?

    Truly talented business people who develop their own businesses are entitled to the wealth that they generate. However, I am very sceptical of the worth of highly paid employees in companies funded by mum & dad shareholders,tax payers, or charity money.

    For example, In the US in the last year, even as banks took $US 175 billion in tax payer funded bailout money, they still paid out over $US 32 billion in bonuses (let alone base salaries). This is criminal, or at least it ought to be.

    If a company has to take tax payer money or charity money, it really should not be paying any employees enormous salaries or bonuses.

  • I agree with you regrading stratospheric or obscene salaries (e.g. multi-million dollars with bonuses).

    In order to attract good talent to a NFP, you must offer a reasonable salary that is comparable to that of a similar sized company in the for-profit sector. If you could earn $350k managing a $50m company, why on earth would you accept half that or less to manage a NFP of a similar size?

  • frosh says:

    Hi David,

    I would distinguish between two broad types of fundraising.

    Type A: Raises money simply by asking people for donations.

    Type B: Raises money through a more two-interactive approach, for want of abetter term. Examples of this might be Paul Newman’s foundation which raises money through selling salad dressing etc in a competitive and open market. Other examples not quite at this level but nevertheless distinct from Type A might be holding movie nights, concerts, or gala dinners where proceeds go to charity etc.

    While I am happy to support by types of charities, I have an expectation that when I donate to charities that primarily use Type A fundraising, that these funds are not being spent on exorbitant executive salaries.

    In contrast, if the CEO of Paul Newman’s company earns a massive salary, well I have less of a problem with this since they are not asking people on average salaries to dip into their pockets.

  • Frosh,

    I don’t think it’s reasonable to draw a distinction along those lines. Modern NFPs are adjusting to the changing behaviour of the current/emerging generation of donors, and having to do all sorts of things in order to bring home the bacon.

    It’s also quite timely that The Age “exposed” the fundraising techniques of the large NFPs in outsourcing face-to-face collection to professional marketing companies. The lack of disclosure regarding commissions paid for this is very concerning.

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