Oxfam GB CEO Danny Sriskandarajah is leaving his post as Director of the £370 million charity, to become CEO of the New Economics Foundation; a charity that is just 1% of Oxfam's size. Is his departure to do with the long-running tensions over Oxfam's adoption of gender ideology, and identity politics?
Previous CEO Mark Goldring stood down in 2018, in the wake of the scandal over sexual abuse by Oxfam staff in Haiti. Sriskandarajah was then recruited and stepped into the role in Jan 2019. In June 2019 the Charity Commission published its investigation report, finding that "The charity’s governance and culture with regard to safeguarding has repeatedly fallen below standards expected and failed to meet promises made."
In 2019 I wrote about sex and gender in an article directed at the international development sector arguing that:
"Organisations concerned with international development and global social change seek to support a world where universal human rights are protected and where people can influence the decisions which affect their lives. This should include holding open the space to allow people to talk about the meaning of the word “women”, and about how the rights of both women and transgender people can be protected. People should not have to be brave to talk about this."
I praised Oxfam’s policy on sexual diversity and gender identity as a step in the right direction, as it calls for removal of laws that criminalize or discriminate based on gender identity, while also advocating for women’s rights. I noted that Oxfam affirms the right to freedom of thought, opinion, expression and association regarding issues of gender identity and sexual rights.
At the time I engaged with staff at Oxfam by email, suggesting they could be clearer in communicating that everyone is male or female, and that work on women's rights does not need to be confused with advocacy for transsexuals. They were polite but I got the feeling that they really did not want to talk about it. I talked to the Editor of Oxfam's Gender and Development journal about writing an article addressing the issue. She was keen, but it was vetoed.
As JK Rowling noted in June 2020 the erasure of sexed language is a trend which the international development sector is leaning into.
Those trying to talk about the issues internally within Oxfam were also coming up against a brick wall. As Julie Bindel has reported in September 2020 "Maria" a staff member at Oxfam was reported for transphobia after defending JK Rowling on an internal message board.
An internal letter signed by 70 staff members was sent to all staff via the intranet, calling for Oxfam’s leadership to “take a stand” and “communicate a zero-tolerance approach to transphobia”. This was posted by Helen Wishart, Editorial Manager, on behalf of the LGBT+ Friends network.
The four page letter highlights the ongoing "division within the feminist movement...on trans inclusion" and says that "Oxfam GB can no longer remain silent on whether trans people deserve a place within our movement and our work".
The letter also refers to an incident where Oxfam took a blog post down and says "this can never happen again". It accuses Oxfam GB of "causing harm to LGBTQIA+" people and described Oxfam supporters who complained of using violent language and hate speech.
It calls on management to make concerted change to "demonstrate allyship with trans on non-binary people" and calls on the organisation to name trans inclusion as a priority in its "gender justice" work (gender justice is Oxfam-speak for its work for women).
It warns against "staff being able to express or share transphobic views with impunity" within the organisation. It invokes white supremacy, colonialism and far-right narratives, and usual arguments that it is transphobic, illegitimate and dehumanising to say "no" to men who desire to be treated as women.
The blog post it refers to, I think is from May 2019, published by Oxfam Intermon (the Spanish Oxfam organisation), which used the word "womxn" to be "inclusive of all in the gender identity spectrum not excluding bi-sexual, intersex, trans womxn". It was deleted following complaints.
In October 2020 Sriskandarajah and the Senior Leadership Team had a choice: give into the demands of the whinging letter writers, or respond robustly saying that Oxfam's mission is to end poverty and that to do this (and to meet its safeguarding responsibilities) it needs to be able to talk about men and women clearly, protect human rights (including freedom of thought and speech) and not be distracted by identity politics.
The Senior Leadership Team decided to cave.
On November 11th 2020 they published a response which included an expansive promise that no one in the organisation should be subjected to "hate speech, discrimination or other forms of harm" and that there should be no place for "transphobia". They promised that Oxfam's "gender justice" work would not exclude anyone who identifies as a woman. They say that they prioritise the lived experience of trans and non-binary colleagues over others, and there is to be no debate on the matter in the workplace. They said they would create "targeted training" to ensure that violation of "trans rights" is appropriately addressed.
As Julie Bindel has written Maria was investigated because of her “transphobic comments”, found guilty of misconduct and was issued with a final warning.
Meanwhile the training was developed. In 2021 Melanie Newman, Julie Bindel and Hayley Dixon reported on training which blamed "privileged white women... demanding that bad men are imprisoned or fired" for exacerbating the root causes of male violence.
Oxfam responded that this training was voluntary, and "the views are not presented as its own but designed to help staff understand the issues."
In October 2021 it was reported that Oxfam had removed a "wonder women" board game from its stores after complaints from trans and non-binary staff.
Meanwhile, Oxfam whistleblowers have also told the press about how they have been accused of being "transphobic" for raising concerns about male prisoners being placed in women's prisons
“He raised his voice, telling me that ‘transphobic prisoners’ were making up such stories and were very likely to be terfs, and this kind of talk harms trans people and can lead to their suicide.”
In May 2022 Oxfam advertised for consultant with intersectional "lived experience" to support its ‘LGBT+ & Friends Network’ & ‘BAME Community’. Requirement included "Understanding of legal parameters of 2010 Equalities Act [sic] & its limitations"
In July 2022 they published a statement on LGBTIA rights. It said:
"Oxfam will not tolerate any form of transphobic discrimination and we are committed to creating a culture which is fully inclusive and consistent with our values. Our places of work should be safe and respectful spaces."
In March 2023 Oxfam produced a 92 page inclusive language guide which expanded on these themes. It was published by Oxfam GB for Oxfam International and written by Helen Wishart "in collaboration with a huge number of people from across the Oxfam confederation".
It says "these principles and language guidelines are designed to prompt thought when using language. They are not set rules and should not be viewed as restrictions." Still with Oxfam management saying they will not tolerate any form of "transphobic discrimination" and responding positively to Wishart's open letter demanding that no staff should be able to express or share "transphobic" views or content with impunity, it does not seem like an environment in which open debate is encouraged.
The guidance says to avoid the terms ‘biological male/female’, ‘male/female bodied’, ‘natal male/ female’, and ‘born male/female’, which it says are "inaccurate and do not respect the identity of transgender people". Instead use AFAB and AMAB (‘assigned female/ male at birth’) and refer to people as "cis". It says to avoid the terms "mother" and "father" as these it says relate to gender not to sex, and not to call anyone "he" or "she" unless they have said that this is their preference. Oxfam's work on maternal health health should be conducted in terms of "pregnant people and "people who menstruate".
When this guidance was criticised Sriskandarajah said it was "an internal document intended to help our staff speak about our work". He accused critics of "transphobia" and offensive language" and said responses were reductive and divisive.
In April 2023 Oxfam International published a tender, looking for a consultant to review and update Oxfam's global Sexual Diversity and Gender Indentity Rights Policy Position.
The aim of the process is "to endure [sic] that it reflects the critical dimensions on SOGIESC and gender and LGBTQIA+ rights dimensions that have emerged overtime to strengthen the effectiveness of the existing policy to various contexts for our internal and external engagements." The consultant is asked to propose a "comprehensive and transformational methodology of Oxfam’s SDGI policy position".
(An interesting guest post published in May 2019 by Oxfam's in-house thinker Duncan Green highlighted the "the way we reach for consultants for some types work ...like an unconscious nervous twitch" The author Elizabeth Cowan notes gender specialists with fancy degrees have a tendency to deliver recommendations like “The project should empower people of diverse and marginalized sexual orientation and gender identities to actualize their ambitions for individual agency through endogenous strategies for self-determination”, leaving project staff scratching their heads and wishing they’d never asked for “advice” in the first place).
In June 2023 Oxfam International produced a video for pride which said that "LGBTIA+" people are preyed on by hate groups online and offline, and illustrated this with a picture of red-eyed tormentors including one who looks suspiciously like it was modelled on JK Rowling and is shown with a "TERF" (Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminist) badge.
The red eyes are thought to be a reference to "Shinigami Eyes" a browser extension which colour-codes social media users as trans-hostile (red) or trans-friendly (green) based on who they follow and interact with.
Following complaints Oxfam international removed that picture from the video.
Where was Sriskandarajah in all of this? He was busy setting up a 3-month research sabatical at LSE which started in May. One of his sabbatical aims was to find inspiring examples of citizens or civil society organisations making positive change that Oxfam can learn lessons from.
I turns out what he was using the time for was fixing up his next job.
So what should Oxfam do? The Trustees should stop appointing consultants to tell them about the "limitations of the Equalities Act" and pay attention to the Equality Act. They should read the judgment in my case and the recent case of Kristie Higgs (a teaching assistant fired for sharing a Facebook post labelled by her detractors as "homophobic" and "transphobic") and consider the legal risk they are taking delegating the setting boundaries on freedom of speech to an extremist staff network.
As Mrs Justice Eady, President of the EAT said:
Experience suggests that issues arising from the exercise of rights to freedom of religion and belief, and to freedom of expression, are invariably fact-specific. Although the public debate around these issues tends to be conducted through the prism of categories and labels, that is not an approach that can properly inform the decisions taken in individual cases.
They should invite in gender critical speakers and encourage gender critical staff to speak up without fear. They should ask themself if they have allowed the organisation to become diverted from its mission of ending the injustice of poverty by adopting the ideology of sex-denial.
Above all they should re-read the independent review of the organisation's safeguarding failures which stated that:
"Oxfam GB should actively recruit both women and men to positions of power and influence within Oxfam GB where their past performance evidences a clear commitment and ability to promote the rights of women, children (given the Oxfam GB victim profile), and other minority groups."
Instead what they have done is adopt an ideology which drives anyone who does not support men undermining women's boundaries out of the organisation. Allowing this to continue is unforgivable.