Nota bene: The dangers of siding with Oxfam

The Life You Can Save is a registered non-profit organization. It’s founded by a man, Peter Singer, who is very, very keen on giving in the most effective way you possibly can. Given the number of other places that your money can go, that means he’s set the bar incredibly high when he asks that you donate directly to TLYCS.

TLYCS, more than just about any other organization, lives entirely on the strength of its own credibility. TLYCS makes recommendations about where to send your charitable donations, and the only way that it has any clout whatsoever – the only way that it can effectively send marginal dollars to places where they do a lot of good – is if people consider it to be of impeccable trustworthiness.

Which is what makes its reaction to the current Oxfam scandal so utterly incomprehensible.

I do understand that TLYCS would want to have some kind of reaction to the scandal. Oxfam is on its list of recommended charities, and so people are naturally going to be asking if they should still be donating their money to it. But when your entire project rests upon asking people to trust you, the last thing you want to do is come across as a disingenuous partisan.

A quick rewind about the scandal: A significant number of Oxfam staffers sent to Haiti in the wake of the earthquake there behaved very, very badly. The country director admitted to using local prostitutes at his residence and was allowed to resign; others were fired for offenses like “sexual exploitation and abuse of employees”, “bullying, harassment, and intimidation”, and “fraud/corruption”. The details of the scandal have only recently emerged, and it took Oxfam more than seven years to give an unredacted version of its internal report to the Haitian government. On top of that, there are separate but similar allegations regarding Oxfam employees in Chad and South Sudan.

Oxfam’s official statement says that it is “shocked and dismayed” at the allegations (which it’s known about for years), and “appalled” that any of the fired individuals ended up working for other aid agencies – an outcome its leaders could easily have prevented by picking up the telephone. Meanwhile, hearings have already been scheduled in the UK parliament.

This is big news, then, and a great opportunity for any observer or interested party to re-examine their priors. Especially TLYCS, where Oxfam has always been something of an outlier among its recommended charities. While all the other charities have a relatively narrow focus and relatively quantifiable outcomes, Oxfam is a massive, sprawling organization which is hard to fully comprehend, let alone quantify.

Yet instead of taking a critical look at Oxfam and at its own decision-making processes, TLYCS decided to put up a disingenuous and highly defensive post, making three points they said were “worth noting”.

The first links to Oxfam’s own internal effectiveness reviews, and adds that the organization operates “in 52 countries, across 227 different programs involving over 1000 projects”. TLYCS can’t possibly judge that many different operations, and nor can its partners like GiveWell, so that alone seems like a bit of a red flag. Has Oxfam become too big to manage? TLYCS doesn’t ask; instead they simply say that the programs “are designed to help end world poverty,” and leave it at that.

Secondly, TLYCS tries to roll out some kind of ghastly “everybody else was doing it too” argument, without any kind of real evidence. They even seem to believe that “Oxfam is in fact best-practice in handling in-country misconduct,” which is ludicrous on its face, not to mention deeply offensive to many organizations which handle such things in a much better manner.

Finally there’s a bunch of conspiracy-mongering about when and why the story emerged, along with a dark warning about how reduced donations to Oxfam could “adversely affect aid programs that are benefiting millions of impoverished people”. For an organization which claims to be awaiting the outcome of formal investigations, TLYCS certainly seems to have jumped to its own, none too credible, conclusions.

At some point, TLYCS owes its supporters a clear statement of what exactly it’s looking for, in the formal investigations — what kind of findings would suffice to cause Oxfam to be dropped off its list of recommended organizations. But before it even does that, it should explain exactly what the connections are between Singer and Oxfam (Singer is on an Oxfam leadership council, for starters).

Among the questions TLYCS must now answer: Does Oxfam need to pass the same tests that the rest of TLYCS’s charities need to pass? To what degree can Singer simply push a favored charity onto the list? What kind of third-party diligence was done on Oxfam before adding it to the TLYCS list? Who wrote this TLYCS blog post about Oxfam? And, most importantly, did anybody stop to think what the effect of the post would be on TLYCS’s reputation? Because almost everybody reading it is going to come to the conclusion that TLYCS isn’t nearly as trustworthy and objective as it makes itself out to be.