Oxfam tweet stirs UK controversy for being too political

A recent report and accompanying tweet by Oxfam Great Britain about the problem of food poverty in Britain has brought the group under criticism. Conor Burns, a Conservative Minister of Parliament (MP), called on the national Charity Commission to investigate Oxfam for its overtly political message. He claims it may violate the groups charitable designation.

“This [campaign]is overtly political and aimed at the policies of the current Government,” wrote Burns in a letter to the Charity Commission.

The tweet that got Burns riled up is that of a fake movie poster titled The Perfect Storm. The stars of the faux film are the very things that contribute to food poverty in Britain, including high food prices and a lack of social security programs. Burns and fellow mambers of the conservative Tory party took issue with what they felt was an attack on the country’s conservative-led government.

“Political campaigning by charities like Oxfam is a shameful abuse of taxpayers’ money. Oxfam is deliberately misleading people – after rising under Labour, child poverty and inequality have been falling under the Conservatives,” said conservative MP Charlie Elphicke, to the Telegraph.

Oxfam’s Policy Director Ben Phillips defended the group’s work in the Huffington Post. He says the organization has been campaigning against poverty for decades and recognizes that the underlying causes of poverty must be addressed to solve the problem.

“[I]t was a tweet intended to highlight the underlying factors that are forcing people below the breadline. As a resolutely non-partisan organisation, we emphatically reject the charge that it favoured one political party over another. Rather it relayed what we know about the factors behind people needing food aid,” wrote Phillips.

The report that prompted the controversy, Below the Breadline: The relentless rise of food poverty in Britain, reveals that the number of meals provided to people in need in Britain rose by 54% to more than 20 million meals in 2013/14. That is despite the fact that the UK is the 7th richest country in the world.

Meals Distributed

Surveying the problem of food poverty reveals the deeper issue of inequality in the UK. Some of the blame falls on reforms and cuts to national social security support. The Trussell Trust, one of the co-publishers of the report, says that some 49% of the people referred to its food bank network are there because they were refused a crisis loan or had trouble with their social security payments.

“I thought the system would protect me. I never thought I would be completely ignored. I feel I was let down hugely. My benefits are my safety net – if they’re removed how are families like ours meant to survive?” says a women identified as Jane in the report, who receives help from the Epsom Foodbank.

A series of broad recommendations are made to solve the problem. Each one starts by saying ‘all political parties,’ rather than targeting any single group. Recommendations include developing and implementing an action plan on food poverty, increasing the minimum wage and reviewing the impact of social security sanctions and reforms. Enabling such changes requires pressure on political parties. Which is why Oxfam called on its supporters to write to their local MPs and urge them to support reforms that address issues of poverty across the UK.

The debate over Oxfam’s campaign falls into a larger conversation about poverty eradication. Michael Kleinman, a long time aid worker, addressed this very issue in an article for the Stanford Social Innovation Review. He openly admits his early career error in believing that aid groups alone would help to propel a country like Afghanistan towards development. Aid is an important part the equation to solve poverty, but politcs play an even more fundamental role.

“Creating systemic change is fundamentally a political process insofar as it involves power—who has power, how those in power act, and especially how those in power allocate resources,” writes Kleinman. “You can’t build a functioning health system, much less a functioning democracy, unless the people and institutions in charge act to make it so. Or, more accurately, are convinced to do so.”

In the case of Oxfam GB, it is pressing on the political levers that will address the problem of food poverty. There may be disagreement over whether the group’s recommendations will solve the problem, but there is little doubt that the very act of charitable work is political.

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About Author

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.