Tuesday, 10 July 2018

More in common across the Border

If you haven't already come across it, I do recommend 'The Marches' by Rory Stewart, which I finished shortly before crossing the Border between Scotland and England. Indeed, it is one of those few books which has been so absorbing that I will read it again.

The Marches is a fascinating account of Stewart's 600 mile walk from the south to the north of this 'Middleland', including along Hadrian's Wall. Its Roman beginnings provide historical perspective. It is also a moving portrayal of Stewart's relationship with his father. Both had been military men, but from different times and traditions. Stewart's father was a proud supporter of Britain's colonial past. Stewart himself is not.

The Wall, that dividing line across Britain, was of course a military installation for the supreme colonial power of the time, Rome. Stewart considers the Wall in the context of his own experience of dividing lines in Afghanistan, where he used to serve as commanding officer and across which he also walked and wrote about in The Places In Between.

As Stewart states, the Wall was NOT a border between England and Scotland, though it is commonly described as such. There could be no such purpose to its construction, for, at the time it was built, those countries did not exist. In fact, there were no racial, cultural or national differences between the people living to the north of the Wall and those to the south. The Wall cut indiscriminately through tribal lands and their inhabitants, leaving them forever separated from members of their families, communal meeting places and holy sites. Stewart helps us see the Borders landscape through the eyes of those tribesmen, their view suddenly and forever constrained by this blank edifice, like those of the Berliners of fifty years ago or modern Palestinians and Mexicans. Too often, he implies, we have adopted the Romans' perspective because of our admiration for their impressive engineering skills. Rarely do we consider the impact of their actions on the indigenous population.

Roman investment in the Wall was huge, with many forts to be built, maintained and manned by shivering Spaniards and other Provincial troops. All of them needed to be provisioned and their leaders kept in the style not necessarily to which they were accustomed, but comfortable enough. Several centuries later, the British did the same in Afghanistan, India and south-east Asia, as well as many of the countries in Africa and the Middle East.

In fact, the Border between Scotland and England was not firmly fixed until relatively recently, after the Act of Union in 1707. In the 7th century, the Kingdom of Northumbria extended as far north as the Firth of Forth, one of the reasons why the great abbeys and their lands and sites of pilgrimage, even the little priory of Abercorn just outside Edinburgh, were part of the Pictish Northumbrian Church and managed by the Bishops of Lindisfarne or Hexham. There was no Scotland then, or England.

Stewart's contention is that borders create differences, just as the Wall created differences, between people, between families, between communities, between societies. Borders rarely mark differences which are already there. He writes interestingly about the great Borders families. Allegiances were far more to local lords than to any monarch far away in Edinburgh or London. The allegiances of the Afghan tribesmen encountered by Stewart in his travels, were similarly local rather than national, separated as clans were by deep valleys and high mountains, and dependent on the protection of the nearest warlord.

That does not mean of course, that the skirmishes and attacks across the the England/Scotland border were not serious. They were deadly serious. However, they did not always take place because of some great national purpose. They were as likely to happen within the cross-border cultural tradition of cattle raiding, common still among pastoralists in northern Uganda, Kenya, Mali or Nigeria. The Borderlands were often perceived as almost ungovernable by the established political powers. The King of Scotland was no more able to control the Border barons than the King of England, despite the fact that both monarchs might call on them in time of military need. Sometimes a great family like the Douglases - or even a minor family like Rory Stewart's - would fight on one side and sometimes on the other, depending on marriage ties or promised rewards. National armies might sweep across the indeterminate dividing line, but after Flodden and the last death in battle of a ruling monarch, the Scottish King James IV, it was clearly a risky business. Anyway both English and Scottish monarchs had enough problems controlling their own nobles.

Border raids eventually petered out after the Act of Union. After all, what was the point? England and Scotland were one kingdom now, and, as the eighteenth century progressed, an increasingly prosperous one. That prosperity was largely associated with joint ventures by the two united countries. Those joint ventures principally consisted of raiding other people's countries for slaves, occupying and colonising their land and pillaging their resources to feed the ravenous maws of the British Empire. Not that much different from the Romans.

Divisions have often been as much internal and social as military and national. Scots fought on both sides during the Battle of Culloden. It is doubtful whether the population of Lowland Scotland wept for the destruction of the Highland clans. Much social transformation in both countries came about during peacetime as the result of agricultural and industrial factors, not armed conflict. The Enclosures in England and Scotland's Highland Clearances were caused by evictions and confiscations by local landowners. In both countries, they resulted in depopulation, emigration and a drift towards industrial cities like Manchester and Glasgow.  Landscapes were changed forever. It is difficult nowadays to imagine the bare moorlands of Cornwall or the north of England as the cultivated areas they used to be, or to recall the time when the Highland straths were populated by townships on what is now only 'empty' land, ruined crofts and shooting estates. English and Scots working people sometimes have more in common than they realise.

So, what do I, an English woman who has lived in Scotland for 47 years, feel about relationships between the two peoples?

Firstly, I don't feel that there are any significant differences between ordinary Scots and English people. I have friends and family on both sides of the Border. Speaking to English friends is little different from speaking to Scottish friends, apart from the accents. After all, in any community, we tend to mix with those who share our outlook and views on life. Cultural differences, literature, music, Mystery plays, Highland dancing and the Notting Hill Carnival enrich rather than divide. Caithness compared with Lanarkshire, Teesside compared with Suffolk: individual regions may be as different from each other as any national differences between England and Scotland. Learning about other areas is one of the benefits of living in a unified yet diverse country.

I do wonder, however, how much learning actually happens. There are still too many inhabitants of Scotland who think that 'England' is London's Oxford Street and who have never penetrated beyond it to meet some of the 52 million English people who live outside the capital. Interestingly, I have never met an English person who does not admire Scotland, even if their admiration may be a bit 'shortbread' and 'tartan'. When I say I live in Scotland, English acquaintances always say how lucky I am. I haven't come across that reaction, I have to admit, in reverse.

That doesn't mean that life is always difficult as an English person in Scotland. Most of the time, you don't even think about it. However, prejudice, when it shows, can take one's breath away. My first experience of it was shocking, personal and quite unexpected. It was also a very long time ago, when I had already lived in Aberdeen for two years. As a student at both university and training college, I had experienced no unpleasantness at all, which is hardly surprising. Universities are generally open institutions, drawing their staff from many backgrounds and countries.

When I got my first teaching job, however, it took only a week or so for departmental colleagues to protest to the headteacher about my appointment, demanding that I receive a lower salary than them as I 'only' had a degree from an English university. Fortunately, the headteacher gave them short shrift, though the teachers concerned took some pleasure in boasting about their complaint to me afterwards.

It was ignorance, of course. They had no experience beyond the Aberdeen area and their own education system, and no idea what study at an English university involved. Fifty years ago, entry to Scottish universities was by examination grades alone and often a year earlier than in England. English universities, in comparison, were very selective. Scottish and English education systems were different then, and remain different now. I am not going to go into this, but, believe me, there are benefits and drawbacks to both.

While ignorance is to be regretted, vindictiveness based on ignorance is unacceptable. If the Vice Chancellor of Durham University had ever found out the contempt with which a degree from that university was regarded in Scotland, he would have been appalled.The humiliation was hard for me to bear.

That bias against employing English teachers in Scottish schools persisted for many years, yet all that was required was for someone official to work out equivalencies among qualifications. Even at times of shortage, English friends, including experienced and qualified science and maths teachers, some of them ex-heads of department, were unable to get jobs in Scottish schools, in fact, were not allowed to be appointed. At one time, four such science and maths teachers in the school where I worked were restricted to operating as technical assistants while the classes which they could have taught were supervised by history and French teachers. Yes, some English teachers like me made it through, but it was usually difficult and we didn't always feel welcome. I have never noticed any differences in capability between teachers educated and trained in England and those who went through equivalent processes in Scotland. Teachers on both sides of the Border have more in common in their commitment to children, than any superficial differences originating in the location of their training institutions.

You might think that after that unpromising start, I would be desperate to return to England. Well, to be honest, I was a bit unhappy to begin with. However, on the whole, I have been quite content to remain here in Scotland. In the past, unsure of my welcome, I sometimes used to pass myself off as Welsh, courtesy of my paternal grandfather. I wouldn't bother about that now. Attitudes towards the English can vary depending on where in Scotland one lives. I never experienced any disparaging comments at all when I worked in the Highlands and Islands and life here in the south-east of Scotland is mostly event free. Unpleasant incidents tend to be restricted to encounters with people I don't know, usually on public transport. I have to stress however, that while they are still infrequent they tend to be upsetting because of their unpredictability. I have had fists shaken in my face, and once had to be escorted off the Glasgow train at Waverley Station by an older man who placed himself between me and the young men harassing me.

What does bother me, though, is that on the very rare occasions when I have recounted such incidents to Scottish friends, they haven't really believed me. For them, Scotland is the best of all possible worlds. For this reason, I think it is best not to talk about harassment or prejudice, though to deny them means they go unrecognised and unchallenged.

During and after the Scottish referendum in 2014, I really wanted to move back to England. I had experienced a run of relatively minor but unpleasant incidents. That feeling of dislocation faded, however, as Scotland settled back into near-normality. Yet the discomfort returned recently when newspapers were filled with pictures of flag-waving nationalist crowds marching through Glasgow and the central belt, more reminiscent of Hungarian right-wing populism than democracy in action.

Banners displaying the legend "Tory scum out!' were shocking, as was the presence of the ethnic nationalist group Siol nan Gaidheal. The reluctance of the Scottish government to condemn nationalist bigotry of this kind was disappointing. There are good people in the SNP - John Swinney, Kenny MacAskill, Tommy Shepherd - who surely do not regard Conservatives as 'scum', no matter how much they may disagree with them. Such attempts to dehumanise groups of people make for a dangerous precedent.

Attempts to intensify internal divisions are made worse by ongoing religious bigotry which still survives in the central belt. Why was Arlene Foster invited to support the Orange Order in Fife? Why are Orange marches still tolerated? Last week, marchers spat on a priest. The year I moved to Edinburgh the Orange Order marched down Princes Street on the first day of the Edinburgh Festival, photographed by fascinated foreign tourists who thought it was some kind of quaint folk tradition. I was brought up in a Lancashire mill town with a large Catholic population, and cannot remember anything like an Orange March ever taking place. It sometimes seems as difficult for Scots to live with each other as to live with their English neighbours.

Speaking of which, of course, it is now football which divides. I don't actually care who wins the World Cup. I tend to support the underdog, so hopelessly cheered along Panama in their game against England and supported Sweden because I think it's a better country. Stuart, like many of his Scottish friends, is supporting England but, like me, was dismayed by the pictures of boorish English fans jumping on ambulances and displaying their underwear. I certainly don't think that football as a sport is a force for good in a divided world.

Presenters and pundits are thoroughly irritating whatever team they are pontificating about. If Scotland had got as far as England, its commentators and supporters would have been just as annoying. It is, after all the country which sang 'England didnae qualify' on that rare occasion when Scotland actually did. Bragging is repulsive, whoever does it. So is the spitefulness demonstrated by SNP MPs who forced a vote in the Commons and then walked ridiculously slowly through the lobbies to prevent their English counterparts from watching the game. All as petty and childish as the 'Anyone but England' trope. The more savvy attacks on the World Cup team avoid using the term 'English' but are, nevertheless, transparent. And no, they are not just 'banter'.

Sparked off by the World Cup are the trivial ongoing grievances which have been flooding through Facebook and online journalism again: Scottish bank notes occasionally refused in English shops and, this week, not being able to use your Glasgow bus pass in London. I wonder how many Birmingham bus passes are accepted on the route to Govan?

Nevertheless, the venomousness currently expressed by many Scottish football fans about the English team is said to be significantly less than it used to be twenty years ago, or so asserted England-supporting Kevin McKenna and other Scottish journalists this week. Stuart, who knows about these things, would agree. Perhaps things are getting better, at least on the sports pages.

It may seem as if this post is a long resume of resentments. In actual fact, what is clear is how lacking in substance most of them are. Not even the most passionate Scottish fan is going to demand separation from England on the basis that England got further than Scotland in the World Cup and bragged about it. I hope not, anyway. Political resentments can be something else, however, though not for this post.

Soon the World Cup will be over and the bitterness will die down again. Friends, we hope, will return to being friends, whatever teams they supported. And that friendship extends on both sides of the Border for, as the ruins of Hadrian's Wall tell us, we are, after all, the same people.

Or, as Jo Cox put it, 'We have more in common than that which divides us.'

[The photos in this post were taken at Chesters, a cavalry fort on Hadrian's Wall, not far from Corbridge.]

Monday, 25 June 2018

Flodden, an unexpected symbol of friendship

This ground, known as Flodden Field, was once a field of battle, enmity and carnage. But today, there is the spirit of reconciliation, co-operation and, above all friendship.

So run the words on the information board erected at the bottom of the path which leads up to the Flodden Field memorial. I was taken aback. I really hadn't expected anything like that. I thought this site would be the English counterpart of Bannockburn.

Stuart hadn't wanted to visit Flodden. In his words, it was because 'the Scots had made an arse of it'. I wanted to visit, however, because a friend had told me what a moving experience she had found it. Stuart is being nice to me these days because I've been ill, so we went.

Flodden Field lies above the village of Branxton, on the English side of the border between England and Scotland. And for most English people, who almost certainly have no idea what happened here, and for others from across the world who make up the majority of this blog's readers, it is probably necessary to explain the events of which, for a day or two,  this tiny hamlet was at the centre. Scots, of course, or at least Scots who know a bit of history, are only too well aware of these events and quite a few of them, like Stuart, don't really want to be reminded.

So, here goes, in a nutshell. Scots can skip over the next bit.

In 1513, King Henry VIII, the English king, was at war with France, as part of the War of the League of Cambrai - a war between the mainland European powers. King James IV of Scotland, which was allied to France under the Auld Alliance planned to attack the English in order to divert Henry away from the French. Henry had asked James to join the English side. They were, after all, brothers-in-law for James' wife Margaret was Henry's sister. James refused. For this breach of his peace treaties with England, James was excommunicated. So far, so complicated - but it gets worse.

James sent advance notice to the English of his intention to invade in a month's time, as one did in the Middle Ages, apparently. That gave Catherine of Aragon, Henry's wife and Regent while he was in France, time to raise another army and collect the banner of St Cuthbert from Durham Cathedral. That banner had led the English to success in previous battles.

James invaded England, as he had said he would. He took up a strong position on Branxton Hill, and then, unwisely, launched an attack on the English downhill and across marshy ground. Historians have pointed to the old-fashioned Scottish weaponry, the pike, as ill-suited to that kind of attack, and to the fact that the Scots placed their officers in the front line, as among the other reasons for the disaster that followed. James was killed and with him the 'flower' of the Scots nobility.

As the Branxton board puts it:

On that fateful day, near five hundred years ago, it was the hills, the valleys, the rivers, the streams, the hidden denes, the boggy ground, that were the key to victory. It was here, where today cattle graze and crops flourish, that cannonade crashed and men fought and died.

Ballad makers on both sides of the border sang of the losses at Flodden Field for centuries after. Here is a stanza from the lovely Scots lament, Flowers of the Forest.

We'll hae nae mair lilting, at the yowe-milking,
Women and bairns are dowie and wae.
Sighing and moaning, on ilka green loaning,
The flowers of the forest are all wede away.

After the battle and its terrible losses, the Scots expected the English to invade. Indeed,  the people of Edinburgh threw up a city wall, still called the Flodden Wall, to protect them from attack. In fact, the English made no attempt to invade Scotland,  despite its vulnerability under its infant king.  King James V, son of James IV,  was only 17 months old when he was crowned, immediately after news of the defeat reached Stirling Castle, where Queen Margaret had anxiously been waiting to hear of the outcome of the battle.

You might expect the English to regard their victory over the Scots at Flodden with a similar triumphalism to that of the Scots who still consider their victory at Bannockburn in 1314 as the defining humiliation of their hated English foe.

Far from it. While the Scots still sing of Bannockburn at every sporting event and nationalist demonstration, particularly when confronting the English, the English have long forgotten their victory at Flodden. They certainly don't sing about it every time they face the Scots across the rugby pitch or recall it when they want to be particularly insulting to a hapless representative of their historic enemy, as happened to me only two days ago.

Back to the Branxton noticeboard.

It was here, on the quiet byroads and deserted tracks, that opposing armies once trod. And it is here, that this story of success and despair should be told.

For, at Branxton, there is no National Trust or English Heritage visitor centre. How different from Bannockburn. Indeed, no stirring account of the victors' triumph and the crushing of the defeated is inscribed indelibly into the national psyche of the English. Remembering has, instead, been left to the villagers of Branxton. And this is what they say.

Branxton is the small village that encompasses this hugely important and yet relatively unknown historical site. We hope that our efforts will inform and educate, and bring visitors to this part of the Borderlands, and help consolidate the bonds of friendship across the Border that are today, the hallmarks of life hereabouts.

I would love to say that I have seen a sign like that in Scotland about the English, a sign that celebrated a 'spirit of reconciliation, co-operation and, above all friendship', but there, I haven't.

In fact, Scotland was never conquered by England, contrary to popular belief. However, less than a hundred years after Flodden, it was the Scottish King, James VI, James IV's grandson, who in 1603 set in train the eventual union between the two countries. Inheriting the English throne from the Tudor Queen Elizabeth, the last of that Anglo-Welsh dynasty, he brought about the Union of the Crowns. His descendants, the Scottish royal family called the Stuarts, ruled England for the next hundred years.

And so we now have a United Kingdom, thanks to James VI and the Scots.

Sunday, 3 June 2018

Picking up the threads after chemo

It's time to get back to where I was. No, that's not quite right, as no one can ever get back to where they were, particularly if the previous few months have turned one's life upside down.

No, it's more like picking up the threads, and weaving them into something quite different from the diagram on the pattern one believed one was following. I had thought I knew exactly what life had in store for me. A year ago, I was expecting just a few more journeys to Malawi to complete my work. More importantly, I was also looking forward to some real travelling, for interesting and beautiful though Malawi is, I spend most of my time in the office or on the road. Worthwhile though my work is, it has also had significant opportunity costs. Among these costs has been time to explore the rest of the world. I had been looking forward to making up for it by embarking on journeys to a range of exotic and far-flung destinations.

Ah well, some mischievous sprite must have been listening to my ruminations, for even these tentative plans to see the world collapsed. I haven't travelled anywhere for months, for the medical reasons set out in my earlier post Thank you, Scotland's NHS.  There has been no visit to Ethiopia, nor to any of the regions of India. I haven't visited Namibia nor the Tanzanian savannah. South-east Asia remains completely unfamiliar, as are central and southern America. I've never been to Russia. So many places to visit and so little time. While I have been frequenting the Edinburgh Cancer Centre, my friends have been exploring the world. Despite living vicariously through their Facebook posts, I must admit to twinges of envy.

I have been fortunate. Mine was one of the most common cancers and has been caught early. In fact, a few years ago, I would simply have undergone surgery and radiotherapy. The prognosis would still have been very good.

However, like most women these days I was also offered chemotherapy which would, I was told, add an extra 5% to my chance of surviving into old age. And I accepted. Whether this was the right decision, I am now not so sure.

Everyone knows that chemotherapy can cause nausea and sickness. We all know that you are likely to lose your hair, and not just on your head either. These side effects were, in my case, the least of the problems. Medical staff control sickness quite successfully. A bald head is upsetting, but not painful, though lack of eye lashes results in sore and constantly weeping eyes. You don’t feel great, but, nevertheless, you can soldier through side effects like these. (Rapunzel, Rapunzel, let down your hair)

And not all people suffer all possible side effects. The drugs used may differ for different people. Some drugs are particularly harsh.

No, the side effects which really made me wonder if it was all worthwhile were those I was not warned about. It is only recently that I have started to google them. These side effects have included agonising pain in the marrow of every single bone and every single tooth, terrible mouth sores and desperate exhaustion which sometimes made it difficult to climb the stairs to bed, let alone the three flights to the flat itself. My eyesight developed problems which made writing and driving difficult. My muscles still ache as if from some endless marathon, while the stinging sensation in my hands and feet are signs of damaged nerve endings, a temporary condition, I hope. Some potential side effects like damage to the heart can be serious. Damage to bones makes fractures more likely, despite ongoing treatment.  Drastically reduced white blood cells may result in dangerous infections, even sepsis, and require rapid hospitalisation.

The oncology department can mitigate most of these conditions, but not all of them, and not necessarily completely. In some people, the side effects may, apparently, persist to some degree for ever. Nevertheless, for patients with many other kinds of cancer such effects are clearly worth the pain and discomfort.

However, was the chemo worth it for me?

That is a difficult question to answer.

What if some of these side effects continue, as they may? That may put paid to any more serious foreign travel to unusual destinations. This ‘first world problem’ may sound like the whining of a spoilt child. I have, after all, benefited from the some of the most advanced treatment anywhere in the world.

However, there are a couple of other issues worth considering.

Firstly, I did not have an unusual or difficult-to-treat cancer. I think it is justifiable to ask whether losing a couple of years now, ‘losing’ as in experiencing a reduced quality of life during the active early years of retirement, is completely compensated for by having a couple of extra years of life in one’s late eighties. Over the last few months, I have scarcely seen my grandchildren, because of the risk of infection but also because I just wasn't up to it. I have largely missed the progress and milestones of the three youngest, and the sporting and other successes of the eldest. The disruption to these relationships has been difficult.

Secondly, there is the issue of how NHS funds are deployed. Now, don’t get me wrong, I am not ungrateful. I am aware that the treatment I was offered, an offer which I could, I suppose, have turned down, was proposed in good faith as providing the best possible long-term prognosis. After every three-weekly out-patient appointment and occasional unscheduled hospital visit, I would return home with at least one bag filled with remedies for the side effects of chemo – not just numerous anti-nausea tablets, but steroids, anti-fungals, anti-virals and anti-biotics. I received painkillers, of only moderate effectiveness, mouthwashes and eye drops. At one stage I was put on medication for my heart. All these remedies made things a bit better. However, what did they cost in financial terms, not just for me but for all the other women with early-stage breast cancer like mine?

Indeed, what did the chemo itself cost, not just the pharmaceuticals, but staff salaries and the organisational processes by which treatment is managed?

Excellent support systems like the Cancer Helpline provide telephone triage for those suffering serious side effects and organise immediate treatment if necessary. While the out-patient wards where routine chemotherapy is given run like clockwork, unscheduled visits to assessment clinics can reveal a system under severe stress. Hard-working staff convert out-patient cancer clinics into impromptu hospital wards for daytime and overnight care. After admission, I have waited five or six hours for a doctor, quite rightly when other patients suffer from far more serious conditions, but still upsetting and uncomfortable. Trolleys may be used instead of beds. I have observed patients in severe pain sit up on chairs for hours when not even trolleys were available. We may have had a bad winter, but surely weather does not affect cancer.

The question has to be asked: can we afford all this care for people like me?  I would quite probably have made a satisfactory recovery after lumpectomy and radiotherapy, with relatively few side effects and a quicker return to normal life.

In different contexts, other questions may also be asked.

Shortly before she died, Tessa Jowell called for increased research into the treatment of brain tumours. Her intervention raises questions about the relative neglect of less common cancers.

Recently in England, thousands of older women of a similar age to me, were found to have missed their final mammogram because of problems in the breast screening programme. Some are said to have shown symptoms of cancer.

These stories got me thinking about how comparatively well resourced primary breast cancer is. When caught early enough, the disease is to all intents and purposes survivable. The system grinds into action and patients like me work their way through various well-planned procedures.

The reaction of some well-respected oncologists to the breast screening debacle was interesting. They wrote that women who missed their final screening should not be overly concerned. They would be fine. In the west, routine screening may have led to over diagnosis and, perhaps, over-zealous treatment.

Might the money spent on chemo for people like me not be better spent on researching and developing treatment for more obscure tumours like Tessa Jowell’s or, indeed, not on cancer at all but on widespread and distressing conditions like dementia?

There is general acceptance that the health systems both north and south of the border are underfunded. One answer, rightly, is to decide whether to increase funding to meet the level of need. However, we also need a debate about whether in some circumstances some high-tech treatments are unnecessary or may not be worth the discomfort they result in.

Until now, I have not discussed this issue with anybody apart from Stuart and one or two close friends because I know how fortunate I am to have been diagnosed so early and to have received medical treatment of the highest quality.

And this is where my post finished yesterday evening, to be uploaded today.

At least, that was until I heard on the car radio that a major research study in the States had concluded that 70% of women with the most common early stage breast cancer did not benefit from chemotherapy.


Who knows whether the treatment I received was, strictly speaking, absolutely necessary? At the end of the day, good medical treatment depends on patients’ trust. It is for researchers and practitioners to follow the latest evidence and provide advice according to their professional judgement. I do not doubt for one minute that that was what happened in my case. If medical thinking has moved on, then that is all to the good, even if it is quite galling to consider that my chemo might not have been necessary after all.

All this is academic now. Best to move on, pick up the threads and get the most out of life, however different the pattern is turning out to be from the one I had in mind.

Saturday, 24 February 2018

Developing a sense of proportion about the aid scandal

I didn't expect to be writing another post on the aid controversy quite so soon after the previous one. However, the media furore has continued.

For those of you who have been living on a desert island, the headlines were originally triggered by a couple of sensational and poorly-written articles published in The Times 10 days ago, about the behaviour of Oxfam aid workers in Haiti in 2010,  and a petition against international aid organised by The Daily Express and coincidentally delivered to the Prime Minister by Jacob Rees-Mogg MP at the same time.

The story has been picked up by media outlet after media outlet and now involves most major international aid organisations.  A couple of days ago it was Brendan Cox and Justin Forsyth who bit their bullets. When working as senior executives at Save the Children (StC) they had apparently sent some ill-judged tweets and emails. Justin Forsyth's messages were apparently about the appropriateness of the outfits female staff wore at work. Clearly a misdemeanour almost on a level with child rape. He has now resigned from his post as deputy executive director at UNICEF, not because of the StC emails but because he felt that to remain would lead to further attacks on international aid. Clearly ill-judged tweets trump the needs of the people of DR Congo, the Yemen and South Sudan, and of the Rohingya in Bangladeshi camps.

Today it was the turn in the spotlight of Plan International which had sacked 10 workers for sexual misconduct over the last two or three years, and the Red Cross who had taken action against 21 who had paid for sex. Like all charities, they have been raking through disciplinary records going back years, in order to feed the frenzy. Well, that will have distracted a few of them from doing their substantive jobs. The newspaper-reading public don't seem to be quite so interested in the conduct of workers in those charities which support British people, or indeed, in removing their financial support.

The irony as far as Oxfam International is concerned, was that the original report on the misdemeanours in Haiti had been reported by their senior officer in charge of Latin America and the Caribbean when they happened. About seven staff were reported as using prostitutes in Haiti, out of 10,000 Oxfam staff at the time. One in 10 British men is said to make use of prostitutes in our own country.  (Clare Short's figures, see below). The incidents were reported in 2011, though not picked up widely by newspapers at the time.

Ironically, most of the last fortnight's media 'revelations' have come from this, Oxfam's own report, published by the BBC. As Patrick Cockburn pointed out in todays' The i Newspaper, the hypocrisy of the media has been 'breathtaking' in describing Oxfam's action as a 'cover up'.

'...had Oxfam not reacted so quickly to allegations of bad behaviour by its staff in Haiti, there would have been no report and probably no scandal. Instead, it sent an expert investigation team, identified those responsible for misbehaviour and dismissed them. It did all this in the middle of a cholera epidemic which was to kill 7,500 and which Oxfam was trying to stem. Had it not done so, and had there been no report, it would not be in such trouble now.'

Oxfam took action and immediately implemented new safeguarding procedures, retrained staff and set up a new safeguarding unit. Oxfam's new procedures for dealing with internal sexual abuse were commended by researchers at Tufts University last year for encouraging more complainants to come forward.

One of the first Oxfam employees to be interviewed last week was Helen Evans, until two years ago head of Oxfam's new safeguarding unit, who recounted the increasing number of allegations of sexual abuse gathered by Oxfam's own researchers from three international teams over previous years. The transcript does not report the total number of allegations by the time she left, though she stated that in 2013/2014 there were 39, a number which increased in later years. Oxfam currently has 5,300 paid employees worldwide.  No direct comparisons have been published for comparable organisations or for publicly-funded organisations working within our own country.

Evans' report was discussed by the Trustees. However, she was disappointed that she was not invited to talk to it. When Channel 4 asked what recommendations she had made, she stated that she had requested 'more resources', C4 did not ask a follow-up question about the nature of this resource, however, I would imagine it meant more administrative support for evidence gathering and action, as Evans had already mentioned that her admin support was only part-time.

And she has a very valid point, although - in my personal and relatively uninformed opinion - she hadn't a hope in hell of receiving any significant additional support. ALL charities are under major and increasing pressure to REDUCE administrative costs. Currently Oxfam quotes a figure of 10p in each pound donated being spent on 'support and running costs'. Many of the nasty online comments this week have accused the charity of spending all or most of its money on administration. 'Support and running costs' includes aspects of governance, human resources management and safeguarding for their own staff and also for those people they serve (11.6 million in Oxfam's case).

I myself know from my limited contact with the governance of aid organisations, how strictly the Department for International Development (DfID) monitors every aspect of spending.  Contrary to media reports, Oxfam does NOT receive large amounts of taxpayers' money. It received £31.7million from the UK government, which is about a quarter of a percent of what the government spends on foreign aid each year.

Most of Oxfam's funds come from individual donations from the general public. Many aid organisations are reliant on grants from charitable trusts. Charitable trusts will usually specify that they should spend NONE of the grant they receive on running costs.

All this leaves charities with a dilemma. How on earth are they supposed to run international operations in some of the world's most challenging countries if  'the British public' we keep hearing about in the media, do not believe they should spend money on administrative costs? They just can't 'win'.

What private business, what local council, what national agency or government department could spend as little as 10p in the pound on governance, human resources, training and running costs and do their work effectively?

And do their work effectively if they had to carry it out in Haiti (or DR Congo, or Yemen, or South Sudan, or in the refugee camps of Bangladesh)?

What do we know about Haiti? Slave rebellions, the Duvalier family, the Tontons Macoutes, corruption, gang rule, overthrown governments, military interventions by the USA and devastation by tropical cyclones. And that was before the earthquake in 2010. If you've read The Comedians by Graham Greene, you'll know a bit about the middle part. If you've read the newspapers, you should know about the more recent natural disasters.

So, Haiti was not a stable well-run country before 2010, though it could have been described as a stable poorly-run country. Was it a country in which sexual exploitation was unknown, do you think? Where prostitutes didn't exist? Where child trafficking didn't exist? Where people had decent housing and sanitation and enough to eat?

And then came the earthquake. And then came the aid workers, among them a few sexual predators - unknown, of course, in any British-based public service or private business - and some lonely men living away from their families. Lonely women as well, of course. In stressful circumstance, sexual relationships within the organisations would be more or less inevitable, if unpalatable to the 'British public' who wouldn't dream of having sex themselves without a wedding ring or when away from home. Sexual relationships with members of the local population not allowed, but rules occasionally contravened. An interesting article by Phoebe Greenwood in The Guardian (see below) describes the situation in her own organisation, StC, well.

As Patrick Cockburn also wrote today, 'Prostitution in Haiti is the result of the terrible poverty, not the availability of aid workers as clients.'

And all this happened while living in 'luxurious' villas, as the popular press insists on repeatedly pointing out - in the case of Oxfam in Haiti, large houses on the top of the hills, whose original owners built them there to take advantage of the fresh air and clean water. The poor lived in jerry-built houses and shanty towns on the hillsides and in the valleys.  Now, this description is significant. Remember, it was an earthquake. Hardly any houses were left standing, and certainly not enough to rent. Greenwood ended up living in a tent in the valley, with dogs who had gorged on human remains trying to break in, because StC's existing compound was already full of temporary accommodation.

Oxfam arrived later than the other organisations as its role was to respond to the subsequent cholera outbreak by constructing water and sanitation facilities. It was able to rent the houses on the hill because their wealthy owners had left. However, even if they had not had to rent houses, and had had sufficient solid accommodation of their own, it would still have been better than that of the general population. Development organisations tend to be housed in solid, often colonial, houses, with water and sanitation, security walls and gates and compounds big enough for buildings or marquees to be erected for outdoor meetings (to avoid the costs of air-conditioned halls). Permanent staff rent locally. During humanitarian crises, office compounds can be used for temporary structures.

None of this should have to be said. It is obvious.

In South Sudan, where public order has completely broken down and communities been utterly destroyed, more than half of underage girls are married to older men, often with existing wives, by the time they reach puberty. Young men do not have sufficient cows to buy them. Child abuse of various kinds is endemic. Mothers cannot feed their children. The majority of women in some areas, as in DR Congo, have been raped. Terrible if any aid workers add to this misery, of course, but they do not cause it and have been reported and dismissed for exploiting it.

Sexual exploitation, as I pointed out in my previous post, is not unknown in Britain. Only a couple of days ago, Newcastle Safeguarding Children and Adult Boards published an independent and highly - if briefly - publicised report on a number of cases involving vulnerable people.

Can we just stop here now? Have The Times, The Telegraph, The Daily Mail and The Daily Express, not to mention Jacob Rees-Mogg, now done enough to persuade us all to remove our funding from these irresponsible aid organisations? These organisations which keep people alive by means of their humanitarian work during disasters, as well as their targeted development work and conflict resolution to make such disasters less likely to happen.

We don't need to listen to our sometimes poisonous popular press. Read the Gates Foundation Report. That will tell you what work has been done, and what improvements have been made. It will also, however, tell you how all that has been achieved can be lost if we give up now.

As Aid organisations, we will take every step to right our wrongs and eradicate abuse within our industry, Open letter from 22 charities published in Huffpost blog, 22 February 2018
Aid organisations 'truly sorry for sector's failings, BBC News, 22 February 2018
Oxfam scandal: Nine charts which show what charities do, BBC News 22 February 2018
Reality check: How much UK charity money goes to Oxfam?, BBC News, 12 February 2018
What Oxfam can learn from charities which survived scandals - and one which didn't, Mark Lancaster University), The Conversation 23 February 2018
Don't cancel your donation to Oxfam - double it, Gib Bulloch, Huffpost blog, 22 February 2018
Stop the sexual assault against humanitarian and aid workers, Dyan Mazurana and Phoebe Donnelly, Tufts University, USA, 2017 (it includes a section on Best Practice: Oxfam Global)
BBC Haiti Country Profile - worth scanning the full timeline from its 'discovery' by Columbus in 1492 until the present.
Oxfam loses 7,000 donors since sexual exploitation scandal, Jessica Elgot and Karen McVeigh, The Guardian, 20 February 2018
Sexualised atmosphere among aid workers in Haiti disturbed me, Phoebe Greenwood, The Guardian, 13 February 2018
The toxic effects of the Oxfam scandal have weakened us all in the aid sector, Kevin Watkins, 13 February 2018
Oxfam boss Mark Goldring: 'Anything we say is being manipulated. We've been savaged.', Decca Aitkenhead, The Guardian 16 February 2018
Save the Children apologises to female employees over ex-boss, Nadeem Badshah and agencies, The Guardian, 20 February 2018
The Comedians, by Graham Greene,  Wikipedia entry
Drinking, dancing and death, Duncan Campbell, The Guardian 17 December 2005
Seeds of Fiction: Graham Greene's adventures in Haiti and Central America 1950-1983, by Bernard Diederich, 2012
BBC DR Congo Country profile
Democratic Republic of the Congo, Wikipedia entry
BBC South Sudan Country Profile
Children 'forced to watch rape' in South Sudan, BBC News, 22 February 2018
How the international community has failed South Sudan, The Economist, 16 February 2018
Red Cross staff reveals 21 staff paid for sexual services, BBC News, 24 February 2018
Oxfam scandal: Helen Evans Channel 4 interview, full transcript published in The Spectator blog, 13 February 2018
Clare Short attacks 'hysterical coverage of Oxfam scandal' and claims 'entire aid sector smeared', Paul Waugh, Huffpost, 23 February 2018
Unicef deputy quits after inappropriate behaviour claims, Patrick Greenwood, The Guardian, 22 February 2018
Final Joint Sector Case Review concerning sexual exploitation of children and adults with needs for care and support, by David Spicer for Newcastle Safeguarding Children Board and Newcastle Safeguarding Adult Board, February 2018
Nobody is safe in an era of puffed-up scandals, Patrick Cockburn, The i Newspaper, previously published in The Independent as The overreaction to Oxfam's failings is part of a deeper and more damaging malaise, 23 February 2018
New Foundation Report highlights remarkable progress against global poverty and disease, warns future progress in jeopardy, Press Release, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, 13 September 2017

Wednesday, 14 February 2018

I'm still supporting Oxfam

The excitable elements of the Press must be rubbing their hands in glee. This is the news story the more sensationalist of them have been longing for, as have our usual demagogues. On Thursday, The Times produced a critical report on the conduct of some Oxfam workers. It took all of twenty four hours for Jacob Rees-Mogg to be knocking at the door of Number 10 demanding that Britain's aid budget should be stopped. Shome coincidence, shurely.....

The trigger for this frenzy was, of course, the shocking news about sexual misconduct among some of Oxfam's aid workers during the earthquake in Haiti in 2010 and in Chad in 2006. Here were well-paid staff working for one of our most respected charities making use of the services of local prostitutes, some of whom may have been underage, though we don't know that, and all of whom probably lived in desperate circumstances. Some women may have sold sex in order to put food in their children's stomachs. That practice is common across the developing world - and elsewhere - and is inevitably going to increase during a disaster. Wrong that the vulnerable should be taken advantage of, though, dare I say it, the women no doubt appreciated the money.

Those aid workers who were guilty were of course dealt with at the time, within the limits of current procedures. In fact, the whistleblower, Paul Caney, was a high-level official in Oxfam's own Caribbean and Latin American team. He had gone right to the top of Oxfam with his report. Safeguarding procedures have since been revised and tightened up. An old story, therefore, but for some strange reason suddenly resurrected to coincide with Rees-Mogg's bid for power. It is the foreign counterpart of right wing campaigns against homegrown 'benefit cheats'.

Since the story broke a couple of days ago, other international aid organisations have indicated that some of their staff too may have engaged in similar behaviour. Worse, the director at the centre of the Oxfam case, 'let go' without a reference, has since gone on to work for other organisations, including currently, CAFOD. Others implicated may have done the same. Clearly, references are not always checked and some charities had weak management procedures. Charities employ internal disciplinary methods, as they did in this case. The effectiveness and appropriateness of such methods should, of course, be questioned and revised if necessary.

Sad to say, none of these stories comes as an enormous surprise - except, of course, to the pontificating popular press. Sexualised behaviour is prevalent in many of our own European and American workplaces, as recent well-publicised cases have demonstrated. It would be surprising if the aid world were completely immune from similar behaviour. It is common among other expatriates like oil workers, after all. People living in foreign countries and away from their families, particularly those working in challenging cultures and environments do tend to develop wilder social lives than they would be likely to have in the humdrum context of Great Britain. Not good, but not surprising either.

Inevitably, the allegations against Oxfam have broadened in focus as bandwagons have been jumped on. What started off as a justifiable concern about weak safeguarding procedures and the use, seven years ago, of prostitutes from within a vulnerable community led to separate allegations of a male-dominated management culture. Then came reports that volunteer assistants in British Oxfam shops had been propositioned, events dating back four years and dealt with at the time. I wonder if they are the only workers in Britain's retail sector to experience such behaviour?

None of this conduct is, of course, unfamiliar to us, or specific only to the aid sector, as recent events in the entertainment industry, in the political world and in some of our best-known financial institutions have shown. A number of the better quality newspapers are now raising questions about why reports of these really quite old events are resurfacing just now. Are we completely sure it has nothing to do with politicians' leadership ambitions, supported by the rightwing press? It is easy to whip up the anti-liberal brigade in Brexit Britain. Lucky Rees-Mogg, not only does he get a resurrected story like this playing straight into his hands, but also the newly announced support of Aaron Banks, the UKIP campaigner, transferring to him the financial resources once devoted to Nigel Farage. Rees-Mogg is well set to continue to play the moral crusader, confident in the allegiance of his self-righteous supporters on social media, who have never undergone any foreign experience more challenging than a two-week package holiday in Benidorm.

However, let's think about what we are saying here.

People who work for big aid organisations are paid professional workers, like those in all industries, and so they should be. No one wants millions of pounds of charitable donations and government money to be disbursed by unaccountable amateurs without the necessary management skills. Senior aid workers have to control large budgets and manage a diverse range of people. The days when 'good works' were principally carried out by missionaries and volunteers are long gone. These days, senior staff are similar in background and skills to those working for other public agencies, the oil industry or big infrastructure and engineering projects. As senior managers, they bring with them highly developed skills and relevant experience. They are expected to work to high professional standards and be accountable. Many of them have gone on to play significant roles in our public life.

That a few senior aid workers in a small number of foreign settings fail to live up to these standards in their private lives is disappointing but hardly surprising. Their failings makes them little different from their counterparts in private and public organisations elsewhere. A few may be bullies, or use sexualised language or overly-physical gestures. Some may make use of prostitutes, including, possibly, the underaged. No one, however, is suggesting that such attitudes and behaviour are typical of all aid workers in our charities. Nor is anyone suggesting that where workers have demonstrated this behaviour in private, it has had a major impact on their working lives and the service they provide for the poorest. To do so, if unfounded, would be quite unjust.

Nevertheless, you may argue, there is a difference between charities and businesses. Aid organisations are supposed to support the most vulnerable, not prey on them. They are dependent on public funds and private donations. The aid workers paying for prostitutes were doing so with salaries provided by other people's money, as is true of public sector and not-for-profit workers everywhere. It seems as if the monitoring structures within Oxfam may not have been effective. In that case, let them be answerable for this and go through whatever reviews and restructuring are necessary, but let us not start arguing that in that case we should withdraw our aid from vulnerable communities across the world.

Sexual exploitation is all around you in the developing world. Stuart and I remember the middle-aged men bringing young women into our hotel in northern Cameroon. They did not look like young girls, but who could really tell? Were the men aid workers or expatriate engineers? Who knows?

In Kampala, we stopped eating at our favourite restaurant when by 7 o'clock in the evening the prostitutes started trooping in. Even in quiet Lilongwe, I can immediately spot the 'working girls' in my local restaurant. How do I know? The dizzy high heels, the short tight dresses so different from the modest outfits worn by ordinary Malawian women, for whom even knee-length skirts are considered 'short'. These young women sit at the bar, waiting for men to approach them. Most of the men patronising them are white and foreign. Lonely businessmen or charity workers? Who knows?

In what ways is prostitution of this kind different from its counterpart in Scotland? After all, there are 'working girls' in Leith, just down the road from us. Men using the services of prostitutes are rarely if ever prosecuted in Britain, not just Haiti.

For one thing, prostitution in Edinburgh is carried out in relatively unfrequented areas or off the street in a sauna. Girls come out later in the evening and are not obvious in the kinds of restaurants we would go to. Out of sight, out of mind. Yet, we also know that women are trafficked into the sex trade in Scotland, just as they are in the developing world. Some may have their own personal or social pressures, be trying to support a drug or alcohol habit or just trying to help their families to survive. Few prostitutes either here or abroad make completely free choices, except possibly those working in high-end escort agencies.

Even worse than the accounts of prostitution are those of child abuse. When we were staying in the diplomatic quarter of Dhaka, we would regularly see a middle-aged white man in a rickshaw, with a gaggle of children hanging off it. He worked for an NGO, I've no idea which one. Nobody seemed to be addressing the potential or real risks those children faced. They might well have been pimped by their parents. Who knows? However, this is not just the situation abroad. In our own country, the Rotherham cases have demonstrated how authorities can be blinded by cultural prejudices. Many people have been tardy in recognising abuse happening in residential settings here. Why are we, in the country which nurtured and indeed lauded, Jimmy Saville, suddenly expecting safeguarding to be better in disaster-ridden countries abroad,with poorly functioning governments and inadequate communications? How self-righteous we all are!

While current news stories relate to a small number of expatriate aid workers, the conduct of local staff is much more likely to fall below the standards expected. Recent reports from refugee camps in northern Uganda tell of 'ghost' recipients of aid, embezzlement, bribery and trafficking of women and girls. Uganda's support for refugees used to seem impressive. I think it probably still is impressive, but not quite as impressive as we previously thought.

UN Peacekeepers have long been implicated in sexual violence in countries such as DR Congo. The reported incidents are almost certainly a small proportion of the total. Many such peacekeepers come from countries with male-dominated cultures, in which men may consider that they have a 'right' to sex. Such attitudes may influence their behaviour in the countries to which they are assigned.

We would be wrong to assume, however, that the examples given here are typical of all relationships between aid workers and the local population. Many develop normal personal relationships within and beyond their teams, as they might in their own countries, or as do workers in other industries. The majority of such relationships are mutually respectful; indeed, many such couples develop long-term partnerships. Bullying and exploitation are the exception, not the rule.

As you can see, I am well aware of the weaknesses in some of our attempts to deal with some very intractable issues in the developing world. However, they are weaknesses which are typical also of our own society, not just of foreign aid workers. The sloppy journalism which has characterised writing about this topic has been quite shocking in its sensationalism, lack of balance and emotiveness. Some of the anecdotes being shared on Twitter and elsewhere are simply that. Linda Polman's article in The Times following the one by Sean O'Neill's which started all the hysteria, is extremely one-sided, personalised and devoid of concrete verifiable evidence. The anecdotes and stories it recounts in some cases date back twenty or thirty years. O'Neill's article is straightforward tabloid journalism. It appeared 'out of the blue' seven years after the incidents it describes, apparently deliberately timed to coincide with power struggles taking place within the toxic culture of the Tory party.

This is a witch hunt. If aid is cut off, as most of these writers are suggesting, the weakest of our fellow human beings will be the inevitable and main casualties. Fortunately, even in the Tory party, voices of reason are beginning to prevail. Andrew Mitchell has spoken effectively on the BBC and written a good article for the Evening Standard and the 'i', as has William Hague, both of whom know rather more about international aid and foreign countries than Jacob Rees Mogg. Penny Mordaunt, the Secretary for International Development, is refusing to be pushed into decisions by her more extreme colleagues.

This is not to say however, that we should not take such abuse seriously and deal with it when it occurs. When such abuse occurs, however, what is behind it?

Firstly, there is the issue of power and how it is distributed. This is often accompanied by a belief in male 'entitlement', just as in Hollywood. Westerners may be treated with too much deference. Partly this is because they manage the resources. Partly, these attitudes go back decades, to colonial times, when the word of the local district officer or, sometimes worse, the memsahib, often went unchallenged. It is difficult for people to say 'no', particularly if they fear they may lose access to food or support for their family.

Secondly, humanitarian workers experience highly pressurised lives, particularly during disasters. They see a lot of death and suffering in appalling circumstances. The problems they deal with may seem insoluble. Some of them may even, reluctantly, have power over life or death, particularly if they have to ration scarce resources. Sometimes workers may have to select those children who will benefit from supplementary feeding while turning away those whose fate is already sealed. In so doing they may have to ignore the pleas of desperate parents. Such workers almost certainly benefit from more generous food allocations than the people they serve, for otherwise they would be unable to do their jobs. Inevitably there may be 'guilt' attached to this. Yet, most such aid workers do not benefit from having the support of their families around them, or partners with whom they can share the pressures. The impact of such stress on them as individuals can be overwhelming.

It is hardly surprising that some of these workers may play hard when off duty to compensate for living hard during the long hours they work, day after day. These pressures may result in wild drunken parties or intense relationships within expatriate teams, some of which may also verge on the exploitative. At some point a line may be crossed, as clearly happened in Haiti, Chad and, no doubt, other countries, though it is surprising that not much has been said about this. (For more on crossing the line, though within a different context, read Emma's Story: Love, Betrayal and Death in the Sudan, by Deborah Scroggins) The stories so far have been about a small number of dysfunctional men in a small number of countries. Unacceptable but hardly representative of the whole of the aid industry or even of Oxfam's work in the 90 countries in which it operates.

Many critical voices this week have pointed to the 'luxurious' circumstances in which aid workers live. Again, these comments show a complete lack of understanding about the context. Yes, such workers will often lodge in 'big' houses. I can only speak of the countries in sub-Saharan Africa where I have lived. There it is difficult to find mid-range housing except in the urban centres. Aid work is mostly carried out in remote rural areas and small towns. In settlements twenty miles or further beyond the capital, the choice may be between mud, pole and grass-thatched huts, or if you are lucky, two-roomed baked-earth cottages with beaten earth floors, and large old ex-colonial houses. Most sanitation will be provided by pit latrines. In Uganda, even the hotels in which Stuart and I delivered training only offered delegates the use of pit latrines.

Aid workers must be housed in sanitary conditions. That much surely is obvious. In Uganda, only 10% of households had flush toilets and then mostly in cities. Ony 8% had electricity. Piped water within houses was a rarity. Aid workers need access to clean water and proper sanitation or they get sick and are of no use to anyone. They need electricity, usually provided by a generator, because access to the internet is vital to modern ways of working. It also makes life safer. They need a secure environment with proper walls and fences and guards, because robbery is very common. This kind of environment is not 'luxurious'. It is essential for them to do their work. Have any of the critics ever lived abroad?

Is it fair that the past activities reported this week should lead to calls for aid to be cut or for aid organisations to be disbanded altogether as some politicians and media sources in Brexit Britain seem to be demanding?

For urgent humanitarian aid, there is no alternative to providing direct support on the ground. Such support is virtually impossible to mobilise from within countries in which law and order have broken down, health systems have succumbed to epidemics or transport systems have collapsed following earthquakes or floods. You need very highly trained specialist staff to deal with such situations, able to operate under extreme pressure. They are unlikely to be without some flaws. As far as I know, sainthood is not one of the qualifications required. Living and working abroad all one's life in these kinds of circumstances can lead to a loss of one's bearings and, in a very few cases, a hardening of emotional reactions or even a destruction of one's moral compass. The stories in the press which recount instances such as these are mostly anecdotal, however. They are not the outcomes of objective research studies.

Effective humanitarian action needs resources, and those resources need to be managed effectively. Governance in developing countries, particularly those in the middle of disasters, can be seriously lacking. Sometimes the necessary technical skills are only available from specialist organisations. And abuse of resources and of people is just as likely - in fact, even more likely - to be carried out by local staff under pressure from their extended families as by expatriates.

For those of us who work for smaller charities, the demeanour of staff in the bigger agencies can be irritating - their sense of entitlement, their sometimes superior attitudes, their domination of the working context. Nevertheless, there is absolutely no doubt that organisations like Oxfam, Save the Children, UNICEF and their like are responsible for amazing achievements. They transform lives across the world. We should be proud of their successes, while supporting them as they deal with their weaknesses. Can I ask if you, my readers, work for perfect organisations? When you identify weaknesses in your businesses, do you demand that they should be closed down?

The current media frenzy plays into the hands of those who have always wished aid work ill. Right wing politicians such as Priti Patel and the tabloid press have made no secret of their scepticism about the worth of international aid. The issue no longer seems to be about improving the governance of our charities. There is a real danger that the current hysteria will put an end to aid in its entirety. If it does, then millions of the poor and weak will suffer in some of the most dangerous places on earth. Oxfam's work with the Burmese Rohingya, in DR Congo and in the Yemen, for example, will end.

So, what would Jacob Rees-Mogg, the Daily Mail et al like us to do about aid? Stop giving it, of course. In the case of Oxfam alone, let me remind you, that means we should no longer:
  • help communities across Africa and Asia deal with climate change
  • campaign to improve global trade rules so that they are fairer for poorer coutries
  • help smallholders grow and market their crops
  • develop water resources in drought-ridden agricultural areas of Ethiopia and northern Kenya
  • provide access to clean water and sanitation in South Sudan, Pakistan, northern Sri Lanka and Zimbabwe
  • train people to fight gender-related violence in Zambia
  • provide sexual health information in the Philippines and elsewhere
  • help female survivors of gender violence in Iraq rebuild their lives
  • address severe malnutrition in DR Congo
  • provide free health care to mothers and children under five in Sierra Leone
  • provide low cost clinics in rural Georgia
  • improve education in Zambia, building community schools for orphans without the resources to attend government schools
  • help women and young people start up businesses in the slums of Nairobi and other urban centres
  • provide non-polluting bio-sanitation centres in slums so that people can shower and use safe latrines
  • train midwives and birth attendants in sub-Saharan Africa
  • etc etc etc etc
If our sensationalist press got its way all this work by this one charity alone would stop.

And what if DfID withdrew from all the work carried out by all its funded charities? The impact would be enormous. In Malawi alone, the following projects would end:
  • support to groups working to prevent violence against women and children and to develop traditional and formal justice systems
  • support for sustainable infrastructure developments
  • provision of capital and technical assistance to small and medium agricultural businesses so that they develop resilience to climate change
  • action to prevent school drop out and keep marginalised girls in secondary schools
  • provision of health services to poor communities, which to date has treated 4.3 million under-fives for pneumonia, 63,000 patients for TB, enabled 2.3 million deliveries by skilled health workers, extended family planning to 363,000 users, treated 416,000 adults for HIV, immunised 2.4 million children, treated 25 million children for malaria, and distributed 10 million bednets
  • improvements to ethical and professional standards within the civil service, introducing merit-based recruitment and performance-based human resource management
  • help to survivors of violence against women to enable them to achieve justice
  • improvements to public finance and budgeting
  • work to develop disaster-resilient communities.
Odd isn't it that no one suggests that the Catholic Church should be closed down because of the behaviour of some of its priests, or that football clubs should be disbanded because of the predatory behaviour of some of their coaches. Aid organisations, however, are fair game.

Let's punish the poorest people in the world for the behaviour of a few maverick senior managers. That'll teach 'em!

Sources for this article

Don't cut foreign aid because of  the disturbing behaviour of individual workers at Oxfam, i Academics (Luisa Enria, University of Bath, The 'i' Newspaper, 13 February 2018
British aid makes the world a better place - we should be proud, Andrew Mitchell, The Evening Standard, 13 February 2018
Don't let right wing Brexiters exploit the Oxfam scandal, Marianne Taylor, The Herald, 12 February 2018
What is Oxfam's real crime?, Richard Murphy, Tax Research UK, 10 February 2018
Charities watchdog demands answers from Oxfam over Haiti scandal, Jamie Grierson, The Guardian, 10 February 2018
Oxfam's Haiti scandal may have big consequences for Britain's foreign aid target, Stephen Bush, The New Statesman, 12 February 2018
Oxfam in Haiti: It was like a Caligula orgy with prostitutes in Oxfam T-shirts, Sean O'Neill, The Times, 9 February 2018
The Oxfam row is no reason to cut foreign aid, Matthew Ancona, The Guardian, 11 February 2018
Aid worker who used prostitutes: 'Judge me by my actions not by what I do in my time off', LBC, 11 February 2018
Refugee Funds Scam: There is no place for fraud UN tells Uganda, All Africa, 13 February 2018
Oxfam scandal - Would you still donate?, Huffpost UK Politics video
Oxfam scandal: William Hague warns cuts to aid would be a 'strategic blunder', Richard Vaughan, the 'i' Newspaper, 13 February 2018
The Oxfam scandal is a reckoning for the boated, decadent aid industry I saw at first hand, Richard Dowden, the 'i' Newspaper, 13 February 2018
We need to increase the foreign aid budget following the Oxfam Haiti scandal, Matthew Norman, The Independent, 11 February 2018

You may also find the following posts interesting:

Making aid work

Charity, aid and blackmail 

Friday, 9 February 2018

Rapunzel, Rapunzel, let down your hair!

A couple of weeks ago I was idly flicking through my copy of the 'i' newspaper over breakfast, when my attention was caught by a short article written by a freelancer. I can't remember her name and I didn't keep the article, but this is the gist of it. The writer had just discovered how 'empowering' and 'liberating' it was to shave all her hair off. Silly trivial stuff. The 'i' clearly had an awkward little space at the bottom of a page and had tried to fill it from the discard pile.

Attention seekers - models, pop singers - often shave off their hair in order to reap the 'shock horror' tabloid headlines which will add two minutes' more recognition to their public profile. I did wonder, however, what it felt like to be a long-term sufferer of alopecia reading that article over a morning bowl of Rice Krispies. Even I, a short-term sufferer, felt rather queasy and, indeed, quite irritated by a spoilt little twenty five-year-old making self-regarding and superficial sweeping statements about an issue which for many people is quite upsetting. Despite being a robust and sanguine cancer-sufferer, I had found it quite unpleasant day after day, after the most recent bouts of chemotherapy, to keep clearing the plughole or sweeping the floor to remove thick clumps of hair.

My decision to have a hairdresser shave off the rest of my hair arose from such irritation and disgust. Despite the supportive presence of my daughter-in-law, I did not find the shaving experience 'empowering' or 'liberating'. Both at the time and since, I have found it difficult to look at myself in the mirror, especially when I have forgotten that I am hairless and just catch sight of that strange smooth sphere, with two ears sticking out like handles. I have never considered my ears to be particularly unsightly, but I do now.

Since then, I have made sure that my head is virtually never uncovered. I have a range of caps of one design or another. I even wear one at night, for being hairless means being cold. A few years ago I did have a friend who on losing her hair during chemotherapy, refused point blank to wear a cap, let alone a wig. She did not want to 'hide' behind her hair covering. People, she felt, should accept her for what she was. Brave for more than one reason - the north east of Scotland isn't that warm even in the height of summer. However, most of the women I meet in the chemotherapy ward these days wear their caps and and wigs, as I do myself. Several aspects of chemo are unpleasant; one might as well not add distress about one's appearance to them. Even today, only my husband and daughter-in-law have actually seen me without a head covering. All Skype calls to grandchildren are carried out with my head firmly bewigged.

So, what of my wig, then? Well, the wig is splendid, much better than my 'real' hair ever was. It is lighter in colour as I couldn't get an exact match, and far thicker and fuller. Indeed, I am seriously thinking of wearing that wig for the rest of my life for, like many women, I think my normal hair is awful. It is lank and flat and never holds its shape. It only takes a couple of raindrops or a puff of steam and any pretence of styling immediately collapses. And as for hats! Just two minutes of a hat, and my hair used to emerge clinging to my scalp for dear life - as well it might, given what was in store for it! Mind you, on the rare occasion I have worn a hat with my wig, I have soon discovered that divesting myself of my head covering, usually in a public place, has resulted in my taking off my hair as well. How mortifying can that be!

Hair means so much to us, particularly to women. My father and husband, both of whom had lost most of their hair by the time they were thirty, seem to have been quite unfazed by the experience. Not for them a Donald Trump comb over. For women however, it is different. This was explained very effectively by two alopecia sufferers who were given a slot on one of the news programmes recently. It had taken years for them to accept the inevitable and, eventually, to embrace it. Not for them the twenty five-year-old journalist's ersatz and unnecessary bravado.

Most women I know despair about their hair. It is either too straight or too curly, too silky or too wiry. It is either not blonde enough or too dark. Hairstyle provides a very satisfying battleground for teenagers and their parents. It certainly was for me. I didn't scandalise my parents by dying it lurid colours. No, my rebellion was to do with the length.

Coming from what once had been a Plymouth Brethren background, I was brought up to believe that a woman's crowning glory was her hair. My parents really did think, when I was a girl, that the Bible had ruled that women should not have their hair cut. All the female family members wore their hair in buns of one sort or another, including both my mother and grandmother. Our hair was never cut, but could be tidied up by running a lighted candle up and down a twisted hank to singe the ends. Bonkers! I used to be terrified.

But just think about it. There was God, not long after millions of ordinary people had slaughtered each other in concentration camps and refugees were still tramping across the length and breadth of Europe, categorically insisting that the really important issue in life was to do with the length of one's hair.

Now, in the 1950s, little girls wore their hair in bobs, usually with a big floppy bow to one side. Not me. I was condemned to plaits - the only girl in both primary and secondary school to be inflicted with them. They came down nearly to my waist and made excellent bell ropes for tugging on and not just by my brothers. Bullies not only sniggered at the old-fashioned styling, but routinely yanked at these plaits in playgrounds and corridors. How I pleaded with my mother to have my hair cut, but to no avail. God had decreed.

So it was, that at sixteen, just when all the other girls at school were trying to grow their hair into long 1960s curtains, off I went to the hairdresser's with my friends and came back with a very trendy bob. It transformed my appearance, boosted my confidence and completely changed the way other girls treated me. My mother, astonishingly, and it has to be said, apologetically, accepted my unilateral action. Her only concern was my father, who actually just capitulated with a few nominal grumbles about the beauty of long hair. Neither of them could have denied how much better I looked. A major rebellion which had terrified me for days in advance, just fizzled out.

Yet, that little anecdote does illustrate how very important the way we wear our hair is to our self esteem and our image of ourselves. No longer the dowdy old-fashioned butt of incessant teasing, I was released into that wonderful experience of being just the same as everyone else. Which is, after all, what most teenagers want.

Because of the importance of hair in our culture, for a woman to lose her hair can often be seen as a loss of femininity. 'Old maids', as my generation was brought up to call them, were often laughed at for their thinning hair. Just think of The Witches, Roald Dahl's popular novel for children. Remember the horror when the witches are revealed to the main character, removing their wigs and displaying their horrible bald heads. My granddaughter found The Witches terrifying.

The opposite is also true, of course. Western fairy tales have often featured heroines, usually princesses, with long flowing locks. Rapunzel is a case in point. 'Rapunzel, Rapunzel, let down your hair!' just wouldn't work otherwise. Disney versions of these fairy tales have only strengthened the concept of long hair as a symbol of desirable femininity. There is scarcely a school girl or twenty-year-old who doesn't have long hair. Yet very long hair can be impractical. Having eligible and ineligible princes attempting to climb up it must have been particularly excruciating for poor passive Rapunzel. Her authoritarian father had clearly no idea how painful it must have been - or perhaps he just didn't care.

Other cultures do not seem to have quite as many hang ups as we do about hair. Several of my ex-colleagues in Uganda had their hair cut very close to the scalp, and very elegant it looked too. That is how the President's wife wore her hair, and it was required of pupils in most schools. Shorn heads are traditional among many African women and very practical, though it is interesting that 'natural' African hair is coming back into fashion, what used to be known as an 'Afro' hairstyle. Fewer women these days, it is said, are 'relaxing' their hair to make it straight like western hair, and consequently easier to manage. When I lived in Uganda I had to be sure not to buy 'relaxing' shampoos by mistake. My naturally lank straight-as-a-die hair would not have survived such treatment.

Whereas many West African women enjoy wearing the most wonderfully elaborate scarves, tied in a myriad of imaginative ways, many East African women have tended to focus on the hairstyle itself. I was astonished in Uganda by the creativity and variety of my friends' hair styles. Whereas we western women wore the same old hairstyle day after day, our African colleagues seemed to change their styles on a weekly and sometimes what seemed like a daily, basis. Many East African women also wore wigs, usually straight ones. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, the famous Nigerian author, has spoken interestingly about African women's inventiveness and pride in their hair. 

This flexibility in changing one's hairstyle, however, had its drawbacks, for Stuart and me. As westerners, we were used to using hairstyle as a clue to identity. However, many is the time in both Uganda and Malawi when I have walked into a room and completely failed to recognise the colleagues with whom I was working just the day before. Factor wig wearing into the equation and no wonder we never recognised anyone!

One of my closest friends in Uganda was Christine, our office manager. One day she would have close cropped hair, another day she would have cornrows and yet another day she would have long extensions. Some of these styles took two or three hours of excruciating manipulation by the hairdresser to set in place. Our repeated failure to recognise Christine became an ongoing and affectionately shared office joke.

Well, I never was intended to be a Rapunzel: too impatient for life in a tower, though a recent injury to my foot has meant that I am spending longer in our third floor flat than any sensible person would choose. My teenage rebellion meant that I long ago put paid to random princes taking short cuts by way of my hair. My rejection of princesshood, however, has possibly gone too far. Nobody wants to completely lose their hair, whatever a hapless juvenile journalist might think and not even when one no longer believes that it is one's God-given crowning glory. Splendid though my wig might be, thank goodness that my real hair in all its lankness, straightness and shapelessness will eventually grow back.