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The Editorial

‘We are good people’

It began with Oxfam.

John Benton, Editor

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In February The Times reported that it had discovered that Oxfam had allowed three men to resign and had sacked four others for gross misconduct after an enquiry concerning sexual exploitation and bullying in Haiti, when the aid agency sent workers in following the devastating earthquake there in January 2010. As the press got to work, Save the Children, BBC Media Action, Christian Aid and many others were caught up in similar stories, including allegations that women in camps for Syrian refugees found themselves having to offer sexual favours in return for aid from the United Nations. The scandal has led to much national soul-searching.

Not everyone involved with relief organisations is in the work out of pure philanthropy. Perhaps the size of the pay packets of the chief executives of these charities, made public some years ago, should have alerted us.

Virtue signalling

Oxfam, which celebrated its 75th anniversary last year, began with Christian roots among its founding fathers. But, like much else in our country over the same period, whatever Christianity was there has withered and given way to a much more secular outlook. ‘Charity doesn’t need God,’ today’s world assumes. But it seems that one of the major reasons for the depth of soul-searching which is going on is that relief organisations like Oxfam, Save the Children, BandAid and Comic Relief, have begun to fulfill a vital function for secular people and secular society, and what has happened has put a substantial spanner in the works.

Besides the general breakdown of family life and the troubling extremes to which the sexual revolution has now gone, there have been many moral shocks to the UK over recent years – MPs’ expenses fraud, greedy bankers, abuse of the elderly in care homes, etc. But the country was always still able to say to itself: ‘Yes, but we are good people – look at our charitable giving.’ The relief agencies perform the function of soothing the secular conscience and buttressing the nation’s self-respect. In fact, the ring-fenced overseas aid budget of £13 billion acts as an avenue of national virtue signalling to the rest of the world: ‘We are good people.’ The British Government has found this useful. With this in mind, rather parallel to the financial catastrophe surrounding Camila Batmanghelidjh’s Kid’s Company, politicians, and indeed the aid agencies themselves, failed to pay much attention to how public money for overseas aid is being used and what was going on. Of course, it is right and good to provide food and help to areas hit by disaster. But this other agenda, of flagging up what nice people the Brits are, was always part of the narrative. Now the very people we entrusted to showcase the goodness of the UK have let us down very badly.

Why worry?

It is fascinating to ask why secular people should be so keen to be seen as virtuous. Some are so ‘righteous’ as to have withdrawn support for tainted Oxfam. Why would creatures which supposedly are mere accidents of aimless time, energy and chance, worry about taking the moral high ground? It makes no sense. Why should the professed atheist need to be able to tell herself that ‘I am a good person’ when ‘good’ has no foundation in ultimate reality?

Perhaps it is because deep down we know that what Oxfam tries to do is truly good and that good, which is beyond ourselves, is what we were made for, but have failed to live out. Enter the gospel for sinners, the Christianity which first inspired the aid agency.