Why the money development charities spend in Britain is so vital to their work

An Oxfam campaign launch in 2014. Oxfam International via flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

To the Daily Mail, Britain’s overseas aid budget is taxpayer money “splurged” on “handouts for terrorists and killers”. The newspaper is actively campaigning for Britain to reduce the amount it spends on development aid abroad, so more money can be spent on social care at home.

How things have changed. A little more than 20 years ago, the Daily Mail accused Oxfam GB of “insulting” Britain for setting up a programme working with poor people in the UK. The newspaper’s editorial on September 3 1994, met the news that Oxfam was considering setting up a UK poverty programme, with outrage. It read:

To the ragged, starving, desperate peoples of Africa, Asia and South America, Oxfam’s new found ‘obligation’ must look like a sick joke.

Daily Mail from 1994. Author provided

On the same day, a piece in The Times argued that Oxfam’s cash was needed in the “Third World, not Britain.” A day later, The Mail on Sunday was adamant that Oxfam’s “charity must not begin at home”.

But Oxfam went ahead with its plans. As my continuing research has highlighted, it set up a programme in 1996 working, for example, with struggling hill farmers in the Peak District and families coping with unemployment and low pay in London, Manchester, Cardiff, Thornaby and Glasgow

Oxfam GB is not the only charity working with poor communities in wealthy countries. Islamic Relief provided drinking water in Gloucester after the UK’s 2006 floods. In the US, Oxfam America campaigns to improve conditions for farm and poultry industry workers and is now lobbying to overturn US President Donald Trump’s ban on Syrian refugees entering the US. In Denmark, Save the Children has worked since the 1940s on safeguarding vulnerable children in Denmark and Greenland.

These “domestic” programmes are of enormous potential value for supporters of international development charities. They offer new ways of seeing development, which do not divide the world into zones of “them” and “us” (often very distant from each other). They can also lead to more adult conversations between charities and their donors about the links between poverty and power.

Home truths

British development aid has very particular responsibilities to the poor in those countries once exploited as part of Empire or currently at the receiving end of unjust trading agreements. But this must not be replaced with a new type of colonial endeavour, with donors seeking to portray parts of the world as passive and grateful recipients of generous British largesse. Those who donate to development charities urgently need a more nuanced understanding of what development is.

Working in your own “backyard” can be a politically high-risk but worthwhile strategy for development charities. It lays bare the complex realities of how social change takes place. Work with poor communities in Britain can reveal the radically political nature of what a charity can do quite safely and quietly “over there”. For example, helping farmers adapt to climate change or addressing domestic violence in Uganda involve multi-layered interventions, working with local and national politicians to encourage behaviour change throughout society.

When international development charities try to talk about poverty and injustice in British society, they are often accused of meddling in politics as if development work and politics are entirely disconnected issues.

Take, for example, Oxfam’s current work in the UK in Tower Hamlets, one of London’s poorest boroughs. In its campaigning work with the First Love Foundation, the charity asks the question: how can people be poor even when they work hard?

By questioning why hardworking people in Tower Hamlets still struggle to find secure accommodation and feed their families, Oxfam is forcing British citizens to consider that some people’s interests are excluded from national and local policies. If poverty is so commonly seen through the lens of benefits and the idea of the “deserving” and “undeserving” poor, citizens can become blind to these power imbalances.

Without thinking through these possibilities, which are all deeply political, charity donors will never be able to grasp what “development” is – wherever it takes place. Neither will they be able to understand why it is important nor why the UK’s commitment to 0.7% GNI is the least the country can do.

The domestic programmes of large charities such as Islamic Relief and Oxfam GB offer new ways of seeing development and thinking about poverty. By working on poverty in the UK, they explode the myth that poverty is something that happens only “over there” and to other people. The reasons why people become and stay poor are present in British society too. Work to address these causes is inevitably political, in the same way that development work overseas is political in Uganda, Myanmar or Afghanistan.

If these charities do not start having adult conversations with their supporters about the deeply political nature of development, wherever it takes place, this domestic work will be of no use. Rather it will play into an agenda in which work “at home” is pitted against work “overseas”.

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