Monday, August 21, 2006

The disappointing truth about Oxfam

Oxfam is not what you think it is. It markets itself in a straightforward way as an aid organisation working to overcome third world poverty. What it doesn’t tell you in its marketing campaigns is that it has a left-wing political agenda which is central to its activities.

Did you know, for instance, that Oxfam has set itself the task of overturning masculinity on a global scale?

Oxfam should really call itself Oxfem, as its activities are based on feminist patriarchy theory.

Patriarchy theory begins with the liberal idea that what matters is our freedom to choose to act according to our individual will. This means that having the money and social power to enact our will is a crucial good.

Men have more of this kind of formal, public power; patriarchy theorists can’t allow that this is due to the innate temperament of men, so they claim that gender roles are merely oppressive social constructs and that the male prominence in public life is due to a power grab by men as a class at the expense of oppressed women.

The conclusion drawn by patriarchy theorists is that there is a systemic gender inequity in society which must be overturned in the interests of social justice.

The theory doesn’t work on several levels. First, the original premise is too limited. Yes, it’s good to have individual choice, but this is not the only good in life. People get married despite the inevitable limitations placed on individual autonomy, because they want to experience other important goods, such as marital love and fulfilling our instincts to be husbands and fathers, and mothers and wives.

Second, it’s true that issues of power do inevitably play a role in social life, but not as exclusively as patriarchy theory suggests. You can’t understand the male effort to be a breadwinner solely in terms of power relationships; it has much to do with a man’s instinct to provide and to contribute to the well-being of his family through competitive activity. Similarly, patriarchy theorists are dismissive of the traditional maternal role because they view it as having an inferior power status within a patriarchy; women who pursue the motherhood role, though, are likely to do so because they consider it important to their own children and to their communities, and not out of any consideration of power relationships.

Third, the idea that gender is a social construct flies in the face of both common sense and modern science. The two sexes are hardwired differently and are not interchangeable; if social conditioning does exist, it is to try to draw out the better qualities within masculinity and femininity, rather than to create them from scratch.

None of this, though, has occurred to our Oxfam activists. They remain mired within a 1970s style patriarchy feminism. They proclaim on their website that:

Throughout the organization, we will base our work on a common understanding that gender equality is key to overcoming poverty and suffering.

And they mean it! For instance, Oxfam through its website suggests that a helpful way to think about men and masculinity would include:

the invisibility of gender issues to most men and the notion of the ‘patriarchal dividend’ (i.e. the privileges that all men draw upon simply by virtue of being male) … the dominance of specific forms of (‘hegemonic’4) masculinity; how masculinities are actively constructed; the costs associated with masculinity for both men and women; and the dynamic nature of masculinities over time.

Here we have some of the key themes of patriarchy theory: the idea of men as a privileged class; the idea that masculinity is a construct; and the idea that masculinity is harmful for both men and women.

Note too the term ‘hegemonic masculinity’. If you scroll down to the footnote you get the following explanation of the term:

‘Hegemonic masculinity’ is a concept that draws upon the ideas of Gramsci. It refers to the dynamic cultural process which guarantees (or is taken to guarantee) the dominant position of men and the subordination of women.

So Oxfam is happily guided in its philosophy and work by the ideas of Gramsci, the founder of the Italian Communist Party. Gramsci is famous for his idea that a direct revolutionary assault on the capitalist state was unlikely to occur in the developed West, as the bourgeoisie ruled not just by force, but through assent. The bourgeoisie had won this assent by achieving “hegemony”: by having its values dominate society culturally. Gramsci, therefore, counselled a “long march through the institutions”, in which Marxists would aim to win key positions of cultural power, and influence millions to their own beliefs.

Consider then that Oxfam believes that masculinity is harmful and that the way to overcome it is to work toward an anti-masculine cultural hegemony. How does this work in practice?

One example is the Oxfam attempt to “capture” schools. Oxfam declares on its website:

Governments have a responsibility to develop gender equality in teaching through the courses and practical materials they provide. Teacher education needs to equip teachers to promote an understanding of the profound nature of gender inequity … Ensuring that gender equity is a central theme throughout a programme of teacher education … is likely to ingrain understanding more effectively.

What does Oxfam suggest in practice might be done to favour girls in schools? One “reform” they propose is:

Methods of evaluation and assessment: examinations tend to dominate assessment, but other methods should be used, such as continuous assessment.

Oxfam also recommends changing ways of “teaching, learning and interaction within the classroom”, including:

the breaking down of hierarchies and power networks .. Head teachers and teachers would have a greater understanding of the conditions which lead to bullying, racism, sexism, and homophobic behaviour … some value would be placed on students’ experience and knowledge, with students being more actively involved in planning and evaluation of their work. Students would be encouraged to challenge narrow-minded concepts, and prejudices, and envision an expanded and divergent future.

And on it goes. You can see from these quotes how politically motivated Oxfam is; they don’t just want to provide an education for the poor, they want to rework the nature of education to achieve “hegemony” for their own political philosophy.

I’ll finish with one last example of the central role of patriarchy theory in Oxfam’s work. Oxfam’s UK Poverty Programme commissioned a report “Men, Masculinities and Poverty in the UK”. In the executive summary of this report we read:

Oxfam’s approach to poverty – the importance of gender analysis

The study highlights the importance of coherent gender analysis … Gender analysis is central to Oxfam’s understanding of the root causes of global poverty … if gender relations are to be transformed …

Changing masculinities, changing men

… masculinities are actively ‘produced’ by individuals, rather than being programmed by genes … It is sometimes argued … that being ‘natural’ masculinity is impervious to reform. But our research demonstrates the reverse … Clearly there are risks involved in attempts to reshape masculinity …

The quote “masculinities are actively ‘produced’ by individuals, rather than being programmed by genes” highlights the liberalism which is ultimately at work behind all of this.

If you’re a liberal you believe that your very humanity is defined by your ability to shape who you are through your own individual will. The idea that a man will be shaped in a significant way by a natural inborn masculinity conflicts directly with this liberal belief.

So what the Oxfam liberals have done is to try to make masculinity fit in better with liberal theory; first, by insisting it is multiple (so that there is a choice between types); second, by insisting that the individual actively produces it, rather than masculinity itself shaping the individual; third, by denying that it is genetic and consequently hardwired; and fourth, by asserting that it can be reformed and reshaped according to rational, political, human design.

I doubt that we should be too worried about the effect of all this on traditional masculinity; it will endure despite Oxfam wasting aid money pursuing such objectives. Still, people who donate money to Oxfam in good faith should know that it is not simply the aid organisation it presents itself as in its advertising, but a political organisation with a radical agenda based on patriarchy theory.


  1. After reading your post I think we may need to support oxfam some more

  2. Terrible! We should seriously consider not supporting them in future.

  3. Not willing to support your own claim? I love anon cowards who're willing to say whatever they want, but unwilling to put their name next to it.