Last week, we updated Oxfam’s inclusive language guide, an internal document intended to help our staff speak about our work. The guide explores the role of language in tackling poverty and the words we choose to use when talking about, for example, gender, migration, race and disability.
Like many other progressive organisations taking this approach, we faced an onslaught of criticism.
Perhaps not surprisingly, we were quickly accused of “wokery” of the worst kind, of wasting money, banning words and being ashamed of Britain’s heritage. The Daily Mail splashed “Beyond Parody” across its front page (its anti-wokery almost beyond parody in itself); Piers Morgan weighed in with a sarcastic tweet that “very poor people” really wanted “to be addressed by the right preferred pronoun”; and, before we knew it, our own tweet had been viewed more than 5m times.
Over the past few days, I’ve taken time to consider the responses and, amid the heady mix of transphobia, offensive language, racism, thoughtful criticism and supportive comments, to see if I could understand why people are worried about our approach and what we can do to respond to their concerns.
The first complaint seemed to be that producing the guide shows Oxfam is wasting money, and instead we should just get on with fighting poverty. These concerns are built on the assumption that fighting poverty simply involves delivering things, such as food or money, directly to beneficiaries with few or no overheads. Any bureaucracy to manage or improve the work of the charity (such as this guide, or indeed any paid staff) is then considered wasteful.
Development charities cannot pretend to use donor money solely for feeding people and building loos, while surreptitiously using some funds to cover core costs and campaigns. We need to be upfront about the fact that good quality programming needs overheads, that systemic change needs campaigning, that treating people with dignity is a critical part of ending poverty.
This is not just the right choice to make, it’s also the best way to inspire the next generation of supporters. Talking about the importance of decolonising aid or about trans-inclusion may not feel popular, for now at least, but it will help us to transform the development sector into something more fit-for-purpose in the 21st century.
Words are powerful. In recent weeks, I’ve visited Oxfam teams in the Occupied Palestinian Territory and in Ukraine. In both places, we’re taking practical action to improve the lives of people in need, but I was also reminded by individuals I met that dignity and solidarity are just as important. When I asked what more we could do, the answer was use our voice: to champion peace and justice, to express solidarity, to ensure people living in challenging circumstances know they are not forgotten.
The second criticism seemed driven by headlines claiming Oxfam has banned mothers and abandoned women. The variety of brilliant Mother’s Day displays in our network of shops over the weekend suggests otherwise. Despite our guide saying we’re not “banning” any words (stating in its introduction that it is “just a guideline” and “not intended as a prescriptive document”), and despite the use of “parent”, “carer” or “guardian” being commonplace in all sorts of contexts, we became a target for those who hate what they see as “woke gone mad”.
Our guide tries to encourage a considered and nuanced approach to how we refer to people, yet it sparked a reductive, divisive response. Clearly, there is still much to be done to win hearts and minds, to allay fears and to show the centrality of our work with women and girls around the world.
I was perhaps most surprised by the strand of criticism that suggested pronouns don’t matter in the global south and that this obsession is a western creation. There are so many communities around the world in which notions of gender are more nuanced than simple binaries. There are also many societies in which sexual minorities are among the most persecuted, and therefore the most poor and vulnerable. Understanding the intersectional nature of the factors that shape poverty, and changing our approach accordingly, has to be an important part of how we operate as an international organisation.
Last, we faced criticism that Oxfam is ashamed of its heritage. The fact that we said English is the “language of a colonising nation” seems to have hit a particularly raw nerve. To me, it’s difficult to argue against the fact that English (alongside French, Portuguese and Spanish) is spoken by as many people as it is because of colonisation. In many parts of the world where we work, English is seen as the foreign language of the coloniser. Being aware of this isn’t about carrying a sense of shame of Britain’s past; it’s a pragmatic recognition of a reality we need to take into account when we communicate. This kind of progressive internationalism has been at the heart of Oxfam’s approach for all of its 80 years.
Just this month, the chair of the Charity Commission, Orlando Fraser, urged charities to avoid “inflammatory rhetoric” and to model a better kind of public discourse, one that makes our society kinder and more cohesive. It’s a responsibility that Oxfam takes seriously.
In the end, Oxfam only has one agenda: to beat poverty. Our vision is of a kinder and radically better world. The last few days have shown just how challenging that is, but they have also served as a reminder of the importance of the task.
This article was originally published in The Guardian. Read it here.