11 July 2023

Oxfam is up to its old anti-capitalist tricks again…


What is it with Oxfam?

This huge international charity, founded in 1942 as the Oxford Committee for Famine Relief to help the starving citizens of Nazi-occupied Greece, has over the decades done excellent work in the developing world, or what we must now call the Global South. But in recent years it seems to have lost its way.

There was the scandalous behaviour of its operatives in Haiti and Chad , and later in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and the inadequate way in which Oxfam reacted to reports of gross sexual misconduct, intimidation and bullying. This meant that the organisation has twice been temporarily banned from bidding for UK government aid funds , which constitute a significant chunk of its income.

There have been accusations that Oxfam has been consistently anti-Israel if not outright anti-Semitic, and in 2015 its Belgian affiliate was accused of indirectly funding Palestinian terrorism.

Closer to home, there have been claims that its charity shops, paying lower business rates and exempt from VAT, have contributed to the decline in the British High Street and destroyed private businesses, especially in the second-hand book trade.

In March this year, the charity waded into the culture wars by publishing a 92-page document urging its staff to change words such as mother and father to the more inclusive ‘parent’, and expectant mothers ‘people who become pregnant’. A few weeks later, this standard-issue wokery was followed up by an extraordinary video post celebrating Pride Month, but appearing to depict JK Rowling as a hateful ‘Terf’.

Leaving all this stuff aside, a constant in Oxfam’s public personality for several years has been its taste for full-blooded attacks on the capitalist system, asserting that it’s a rip-off that immiserates the poor – a claim naturally accompanied by demands for massive political intervention and confiscatory levels of taxation.

So every year to coincide with the Davos meeting of the World Economic Forum, Oxfam issues a report attacking billionaires and big business and advocating redistribution on an unprecedented scale. Often these claims are based on dodgy statistics and misinterpretation of data, while the policy proposals are naïve in the extreme.

These annual diatribes are supplemented by occasional one-offs in a similar vein. Last week we saw a prime example, when Oxfam joined forces with ActionAid to claim that 722 large corporations obtained over $1tn ‘windfall profits’ in each of 2021 and 2022, while ‘one billion workers across 50 countries took a $746bn real-term pay cut’ in 2022.

Following on from this, Oxfam and ActionAid proposed a tax of 50%-90% on these windfall profits to raise between $523bn and $941bn. This could then be used to ‘help people struggling with hunger, rising energy bills and poverty in rich countries, and to provide hundreds of billions of dollars to support countries in the Global South’.

Here’s Oxfam International’s Interim Executive Director, Amitabh Behar:

‘People are sick and tired of corporate greed. It’s obscene that corporations have raked in billions of dollars in extraordinary windfall profits while people everywhere are struggling to afford enough food or basics like medicine and heating… a few increasingly dominant corporations are monopolising markets and setting prices sky-high to line the pockets of their rich shareholders. Big Pharma, energy giants and big supermarket chains shamelessly fattened their profit margins throughout both the pandemic and cost-of-living crisis’.

Is this actually true? Almost certainly not. A look at the methodology the report’s authors employ suggests that they’re up to their old tricks again.

To measure ‘windfall profits’ they compare profits in 2021 and 2022 with the average 2017-2020 profits – but without adjusting for inflation. By contrast the fall in workers’ pay is a real-terms fall. So they are not comparing like with like. In any case, it is a stretch to assume that all increases in profits are down to price-gouging, without making allowance for changing sales and other factors which determine profits. It’s hardly surprising, for example, that ‘Big Pharma’ – one of Oxfam’s regular pantomime villains – has made increased profits given the enhanced demand for vaccines during and after Covid.

The mechanism for collecting and distributing the extra revenue Oxfam’s proposed taxes could theoretically raise (in practice it would be far, far less) is non-existent. The whole exercise is simply another stick with which to beat the capitalist dog. No doubt it makes the people who write this sort of report feel self-righteously angry. But what good does it do?

In reality, everything Oxfam does depends on the capitalist system. The food and water it distributes are produced by someone for a profit. So are the vehicles to deliver it. So is the equipment it uses to dig wells or to build schools.

Somewhere in the dim recesses of the charity’s brain, this is surely recognised. In its annual report, for example, Oxfam acknowledges its partnership with corporates such as IKEA and Unilever. I imagine many such partner businesses will have made some of those ‘obscene’ windfall profits. You need a thick skin to partner with Oxfam. Perhaps rather more would join them if the anti-business rhetoric was toned down a couple of notches.

Ultimately this rhetoric, like the behaviour of the charity’s staff , is the responsibility of Oxfam’s trustees. Few of them have much business experience, and those who do tend to be at the cuddlier end of the economy. The Chair of Oxfam GB also chairs Guardian Media, and used to occupy a similar role at Channel 4. Other trustees have worked in marketing, in law firms or for other charities and quangos.

Perhaps they should recruit a few trustees who’ve worked in the grittier parts of the economy and have a more positive view of business than the virtue-signallers who seem to constitute a large proportion of its employees.

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Professor Len Shackleton is an Editorial and Research Fellow at the IEA and Professor of Economics at the University of Buckingham.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.