Friday Fictioneers – The Meeting

fatima-fakier-deria-3
Photo Prompt © Fatima Fakier Deria

The meeting broke up early. You’d think it would take days to reach such a decision, but only fifty-three minutes had passed, I walked with the President in the gardens. On the lawn a peacock called, the sound rasping and full of anguish.

“All of them?” I said. “Must they all die?”

The President brushed hair from her eyes. It was a weary gesture. “You know the answer. If even one survives, this will get out.”

Beyond the walls, I heard the rumble as the tanks moved off.

 

Friday fictioneers is a weekly challenge set by Rochelle Wisoff Fields to write a 100-word story in response to a photo prompt. You can find other stories here

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102. The bots are reading your mind! Not

Do we need to be scared of big data and its claimed spooky ability to know more about us than our partners, to mould our behaviour like puppeteers?

An e-mail dropped into my inbox today from Amazon. I won’t name the book or the author the tech giant’s algorithm was trying to market to me. Usually I delete Amazon’s recommendations unread, but this time I looked at the book. Not because I expected I’d want to read it, but because I wanted to understand the marketing. The book was described as “An emotional psychological thriller with a twist.”  That already annoyed me: why both psychological and emotional? And, yeah, of course it has a twist. The only thing it didn’t tell me is what reading level I need in order to follow the prose.

I began to read the taster. It began with an odd question. That was designed to intrigue and to hook my attention. The meaning of the question is explained by the bottom of the first page, in case my patience flags. There’s a hammer-beat of short staccato sentences, designed to lunge for my heart. There’s a bit of backstory. Hmm. Backstory on the first page? That’s a mistake when we’re supposed to be in the relentless attention-grabbing now.

The machine algorithm is marketing something to me I wouldn’t read in a million years. Primarily because it feels like it was assembled by a machine according to a formula. Facebook’s algorithms keep showing me pictures of cute dogs. Actually, it’s my wife who’s keen on cute dogs, not me.

My point is despite all that machine learning and big data, these two tech giants still have little clue who I am and what I like.

facebook fingers crossed
Image credit Wired

 

So, exactly how afraid should we be of Cambridge Analytica? The data breach that allowed the company to harvest the details of 50 million Facebook users is undoubtedly serious. But did it get Donald Trump elected President of the US? Did similar dirty tricks swing the Brexit referendum in the UK?  Let’s examine what they’re able to do with the data.

The core of the data analysis seems to be a personality quiz app, developed by a Cambridge University academic and downloaded by 27,000 people. The quiz broke people down into groups, dominated by traits like agreeableness, openness, neuroticism etc. We’ve all done such tests in magazines. There are 72 different online personality tests available on the website of Cambridge University’s (not to be confused with Cambridge Analytica) Psychometrics Centre. Clearly this is not an exact science.

What was different in this case was the ability to look for correlations between the personality quiz results and Facebook records, such as what people liked. Here it does start to get a bit more sinister. For example, a 2013 research paper by three academics from the Psychometrics Centre showed that it was possible to predict intimate information about a person from their Facebook likes, information such as sexuality and political leanings.

In some cases, the correlations were pretty obvious – liking the “No H8” campaign and being gay. In others they were less clear. For example, users who liked the “Hello Kitty” brand tended to be high on “Openness” and low on “Conscientiousness”, “Agreeableness”, and “Emotional Stability”. They were also more likely to have Democratic political views (75%) and to be of African-American origin (82%), predominantly Christian (69%), and slightly below average age.

While it’s not precise, what this does is allow micro-targeting. Instead of standing at a hustings and bellowing the same message to everyone, a political candidate can whisper different messages to different groups – threat messages to the fearful, for example, and optimistic messages to the bold. The Cambridge Analytica whistle-blower, Christopher Wylie, said this is exactly what the company did.

Was that enough to lose Hilary Clinton the US presidential election? We don’t yet know. A scientific test would require demonstration that micro-targeted ads outperform random ads in changing consumer actions. But my guess is that Cambridge Analytica was better at marketing itself to sleazy clients than it was at targeting and changing voters’ behaviour. Predicting personality attributes is not the same thing as changing behaviour. And, despite the hype, it’s not at all clear that the algorithm is any better at prediction than a human would be.  If Amazon can’t even get my reading preferences right, what chance big data can make me vote for someone whose politics I don’t like?

101. The novel as self-discovery

I don’t just write – I write myself at the same time as the stories. Or at least, I explore myself in the act of writing, and discover things I didn’t know.

There are now enough novels under my belt (five) to constitute an oevre (yay). As an avid analyser, I can now explore what this tells me.

  1. Each novel is a in a different genre. The first is an amalgam of detective, sci-fi, and psychological thriller. The second, is literary travel– a journey of the mind coupled with a journey to an exotic location. The third, historical fantasy. The fourth, an amalgam of historical and detective. The fifth is again literary, and a romantic political thriller. So, if I don’t follow a genre (almost certainly a marketing mistake) what do my books have in common that marks them as mine?
  2. The main male character is almost always flawed and, at least in part, hard to like. They are often unreliable narrators. The only exception to this is the historical fantasy novel.
Scream2
Edvard Munch The Scream
  1. The stories are almost always told in close third or first person by a single narrator. Again, the historical fantasy novel is the exception. In this one I experimented with multiple point-of-view characters.
  2. The stories are multi-threaded. There is usually a surface narrative which conforms roughly to a genre format, and then there are other threads. The fifth book, The Tears of Boabdil, does this is spades. There is a fairly simple story of an undercover policeman attempting to penetrate what he believe is a terrorist cell, and falling for the sister of the cell’s leader. Yet there is little of the tension you would expect from a thriller because the narrator gives away in the first chapter most of what subsequently happens. This follows the advice of Boris Fishman

If your story has a secret reveal it from the top.

The drama of the story is in how the protagonist deals with his secret.  But there are also magic realist elements of a parallel story of a wandering minstrel in Moorish Spain. What connects both of these strands, which begin to interweave, is a commentary on truth in which identity becomes the story we tell ourselves and other people.

  1. There is a common human preoccupation behind all of these stories. The main character is usually confused or conflicted about what is really important to him. Though there are antagonists in all but the literary travel story, the real barrier to be overcome is internal. Many of the lead characters are of dubious sanity. There is often a helper character who is female and who is usually strong and whole. In some of the stories, the confusion gets the better of the protagonist. In others, he overcomes his barrier.
  2. There is a political (with a small “p”) preoccupation behind many of these stories. Part of what the protagonist confronts is social injustice, and the way in which different cultures or sub-cultures get labelled as “other”. The politics is most explicit in the historical fantasy novel, which tracks the attempt of two very different Kings to maintain the integrity of their realms and the allegiance of their peoples.

Now that is all pretty interesting to me (though whether it is to you, only you can say). I hadn’t set out with the intention of writing flawed protagonists. Noble heroes are much easier to like (though arguably much less interesting). Readers identify with heroes, but their sympathy is engaged by flaws. So I guess, a first principle of my writing is

Your protagonist doesn’t have to be likeable, but s/he does have to be interesting

Clockwork orange
Malcolm McDowell as Alex in A Clockwork Orange

Am I using my characters’ flaws to explore something in myself? Possibly, but if so, I don’t know what it might be. The characters all have different flaws. I don’t think they’re me, though each of them has some aspect of me. I didn’t consciously decide to write conflicted protagonists. It just happened. So, I reassure myself that I just enjoy the depth that a flawed character allows.

Meaning snoopy

The preoccupation with what things mean is definitely me, and the idea that we are all stories is certainly a recurring theme. The first book is even called Identity.

Facts are everything that exists. Stories are the connections between them. Stories tell us what goes with what, what is important and what is unimportant, who to praise and who to blame.

The multi-threading is also a signature. I like stories with layers, especially where the layers “rhyme”.  Just as a piece of music is dull if it only has a simple beat and melody, so with a story.

Complexity rewards the reader’s attention when s/he recognises recurring motifs. Complexity also adds ambiguity, blurring certainty. It makes the reader part of the story’s construction, because there is no single reading, there are as many stories as there are readers. A story only belongs to the author up to the moment of publication. From then on, it belongs to the readers.

complexity

Images and metaphors from myth and religion recur frequently in my work, even more so in the short stories. Which is odd really, since I’m not religious. Or maybe I am, and I just don’t know it. I wrote a story, Cara’s Saga, which is a deliberate bricolage (a delicious French world, meaning a construction from a variety of a diverse range of things). And that, of course, is the attraction of bricolage. The story invents a world which is part Inca, part Australian aboriginal, part Canadian northwest seaboard, wrapped up in a homage to Norse sagas. I loved writing it. The Sumerian goddess Ishtar is a character in The Tears of Boabdil.

And there’s a clue there to the pre-occupation underlying it. I’ve been planning to write for most of my working life, but decided not to (at least not write fiction) until I could write whatever I damned well pleased without having to worry about whether it was commercial. I always imagined I’d write science fiction. And yet, I’ve written very little of that genre. I like to explore different worlds, both for the curiosities I encounter there and for the underlying music of the universal human spirit at work. It turns out that the most interesting worlds to me are not those with elves and dragons (I actively dislike elves and dragons), or empires in other galaxies. The most interesting worlds are those inside people’s heads. I’m interested in the ways that people understand things, and how that makes them act.

Stories should take us to places we’ve never been before, and introduce us to characters we’ve never met before. The writer constructs a new world for us. But you don’t have to cross galaxies to do this. Inside every head there is a world which, to the rest of us, is unimaginably different and strange. Since we can never enter these worlds in reality, it’s the job of fiction to take us there and show us our friends, our partners, and our children as they really are.

If we were all aliens beneath the skin, that would be as scary as the pod people in the classic (McCarthy era and anti-communist) sci-fi movie Invasion of the Body Snatchers. So the work of fiction is not to render people as “other” but as (at least in part) delightfully like us. We have to be able to understand and empathise with the alien universes inside their heads.

I think getting a handle on how those mystifying creatures around me think and feel and construct meaning is my main motivation for writing.

And that’s probably why I’m so drawn to religion and myth. I wasn’t even really aware of this until I was doing a reading at a “Lit Live” event in Frensham and the poet, Jo Young asked me why I used so much religious reference. The impulse is literary, not a religious. These are simply great stories, the best our species has created. And why are they so great? Because they have been the glue which binds communities and peoples together. They express universal longings and fears, and explain, in their distinct and unique ways, cultures to themselves.

Religion and myth are a wonderful toolkit of story pieces.

electronic hobbyist

Like an electronic hobbyist, the writer can take characters and themes and events from them, and plug these into the circuit board of a story. And when narrative current is passed through them, they resonate with deep energy that draws in the freight of hundreds or thousands of years of storytelling.

Friday Fictioneers – Naming

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Photo Prompt © Björn Rudberg

We called them the witch’s tits. On account of their shape, you know – sharp cones. Before we named the peaks, this was just an ordinary mountain track. Afterwards, well you could feel it, the cold I mean, a kind of chill in your heart as you rounded the corner.

I think it was Harry who named the force – Ishtar, an ancient Queen of Heaven, who destroyed her lovers. Anyhow it was Henry She took for her own that day. We heard a wail and he vanished. That’s why we made the warning sign. Nobody takes this road now.

 

Friday fictioneers is a weekly challenge set by Rochelle Wisoff Fields to write a 100-word story in response to a photo prompt. You can find other stories here

Friday Fictioneers – Lights in the Sky

camera-ted-strutz
Photo Prompt © Ted Strutz

When the lights arrived, Michael wasn’t there to see them. The radiance danced, coruscated, the night sky was incandescent. Reflections glimmered on the unblinking eye of Michael’s camera lens. No shutter click caught the secret for posterity.

Under the trees, Michael indulged a secret of his own, more furtive, less cosmic. He closed his eyes and shuddered. “Yes, yes. Don’t stop”

 

Friday fictioneers is a weekly challenge set by Rochelle Wisoff Fields to write a 100-word story in response to a photo prompt. You can find other stories here

Friday Fictioneers – Legend

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Photo Prompt © Sandra Crook

Perhaps it was because his parents called him Darius. Bearing the name of an ancient conqueror carries its own risks. At all events, Darry played a long game only he understood.

“Who does it harm?” he’d say when we questioned his project. For 25 years he quarried and shaped, assembled and carved. In secret, he overwrote the landscape of his extensive estates with temples and amphitheatres, statuary and canals.

“Darry,” I said to him one day, “this is a Disneyworld, a fantasy.”

“Now.” He nodded. “Sure. But in a thousand years, who’ll be certain?”

Darius was inventing a legend.

 

Friday fictioneers is a weekly challenge set by Rochelle Wisoff Fields to write a 100-word story in response to a photo prompt. You can find other stories here.

 

100. How to increase visitors to your site

So you want to draw more people to your site. There are three ways to do this

  • Produce great content.
  • Make sure people know about it
  • Be incredibly famous

How do you do these things? The secret of being incredibly famous still eludes me, so I’ll concentrate on the first two topics.

How do you produce great content?

great content
Anatomy of great content

Apart from being talented (which, of course, you are) what can you do to produce great content? Great content is, at least in part, stuff that other people want to read. Nathaniel Tower writes a blog which I really like. In January 2018 he published a helpful post on writing what people want to read. In summary, his 5 tips are:

  1. Write about something that answers a commonly-asked question.

He recommends using something like Moz Keyword Explorer to find out what questions people are asking. This will tell you that 11,000-30,000 people a month are asking questions about writing.

You can also use the stats from your own site to identify what search terms drew people to your posts. In my case for example two frequent search terms were variants of “formula for flash fiction” and “scenes, sequels and MRUs”. These drew people to two of my most popular post – Scenes, Sequels and MRUs and My Secret Formula for Flash Fiction.  This tells you it’s worth putting some effort into thinking about your titles.

  1. Write about something that will help people.

Like, for example, how to drive more visitors to your site. Last year I tried this in a big way, with an online writing course. It never took off because I’d neglected the third of my three principles – fame. I’m not a famous writer, so why would anyone listen?

  1. Write about something that’s controversial or polarising

Nathaniel gives the example of his post on whether you should write every day. He advises that you cover both sides of the controversy so you engage all the readers rather than turning off half of them.

  1. Write about something you’ve never seen written about before
  2. Write about something that means a lot to you

 

How do you make sure people know about your site?

If I was writing as an expert, I’d try out all the ideas and then tell you the result. But I’m writing as I learn, so I’m going to share the experiment with you instead. These are some of things I’ve tinkered with and intend to try more systematically over the coming year

  1. Join an online community

This has been far and away the most successful strategy I’ve used. In the first nine months of this blog, I got an average of 53 views and 23 visitors per month.  WordPress has 74.6 million blogs and receives 21 billion page views per month. That’s an average of 281 views per blog per month (if the reads were distributed evenly, which they’re not). So my hits were distinctly below par.

In the next year, views of my site jumped over 10-fold to 592 a month and unique visitors to 174.

blogstats 2

This wasn’t because my content was so much better. One simple thing changed in February 2016 – I joined an online community. Friday Fictioneers is a group of writers that varies between 70 and 100 people a month, producing a hundred-word flash fiction each week. Posting these stories exposed me to a bigger audience, not just for the weekly stories but also for my other content.  Why not join it too? It’s managed by Rochelle Wisoff .

Since joining the community, my stats have continued to build slowly. In the 10 months to January 2018, views grew a further 22% to an average of 721 a month and individual visitors rose 28% to 222 a month.

The slow growth coming from Friday Fictioneers will take a long time to reach the next level (say 1,000 hits a month).  But this strategy worked so well that it may be worth finding other communities. The difference between a community and the other approaches is that it’s not a one-off: you’re engaging permanently – building credibility, trust and relationships.

Strategies I’ve tried

Strategy Average increase in reads Permanent change
Online community 540 Yes
Cross post in other communities 15 1 follower
Author interview 20 No
Guest posts 1 No
Mentions by others 40 No
Mention others 9 No

Other writing communities

However. I have tried other communities in the past – Webook, a writers’ community about to go into liquidation, as well as publishing online on Wattpad and on Big World Network. None has been as effective as Friday Fictioneers.

materiality-of-research-writing-in-the-classroom
Image © Vladimer Shioshvili

Authors Publish suggests four communities worth joining.

  • Lit Hive aims to be a community that unites writers with readers. The most widely read book received 19 comments, the most recent over two years ago. The discussion boards seem equally inactive.
  • Scribophile is a large members-only community of writers and claims 858,776 critiques for 145,608 works, an average of just under six responses per work. Being a closed group, it has the advantage that it shouldn’t prevent you submitting your work elsewhere.
  • Writers Network is another writing community.
  • Writers Café is another writing community. Its server was achingly slow when I tested it.

2. Engage more with readers and potential readers

I have probably not been as generous as I should be in reciprocating readers’ interest. I pretty much do respond to all comments, but I don’t necessarily reciprocate follows and likes or build a conversation. Some ideas are:

  • Follow more people (particularly if they follow me)
  • Join in the conversation on others’ sites
  • Build and maintain an e-mail list with unique content for regular followers and attentive commenters. There’s a saying in marketing about the importance of e-mail promotion “the money’s in the list”. This is the strategy I’m currently experimenting with.

The reason I haven’t done these things isn’t aloofness. It’s shyness. I engage with friends and colleagues I know well, but it takes me out of my comfort zone to do that with strangers. In a very British way, it just seems pushy. The whole language of “building your author brand” just makes me a little queasy.  But, building trust and relationships I understand. So of course, I have to spend time outside my comfort zone if I want to engage with the community of other writers and readers. The idea of building relationships (rather than selling) is fundamental here.

 

3. Engage other people’s readers

Engaging other people’s readers might help make the next jump.

  • Guest posts. Invite other people to do guest posts on my blog and solicit invitations to post on theirs. I tried this a little bit in the past on A Writer’s Path (with over 26,000 followers), which didn’t generate much evident short-term boost to my stats, but then I haven’t explored this systematically. I have a guest post coming up 4 May on Dee Cee Taylor’s blog It’s All About Books as part of a blog tour to promote the Climate Fiction anthology Nothing is as it was (in which I have a story) to be published on Earth Day 22 April by Retreat West Books.
  • Reblog other people’s posts. Hopefully they’ll reciprocate.
  • Interview other people. I had intended to establish a regular series of interviews with other writers. I did one in 2015, a conversation with A U Latif, author of Songs From the Laughing Tree I never got around to doing any more, until this February when I published an interview with Claire Fuller.

Claire Fuller

I can track an additional 19 reads this brought to my blog, so this isn’t going to boost my followers into the thousands. However one friend did say “Would love to see you post more such interviews. So helpful to compare another writer’s process with mine, get new ideas for approaching research, see how things evolve.” So it falls into the category of posting what others want to read.

  • Mention other people in your posts and tell them you’ve done so. For example, I wrote one post thanking some writers for their support. Their friends did read the post.
  • Write a “top ten” list, any top ten list, it doesn’t really matter. For example, the top ten sites for advice to writers. This is a much more intricate take on the previous idea. The idea is that at least some of them and their followers will read your post and you’ll pick up some as your own readers.
  • Include reviews of books you’ve liked. Again, I’ve done this sporadically on my blog, but most of my book reviews go on Goodreads, where I don’t have much of a profile.

The basic driver behind all these ideas is good old-fashioned vanity. Everyone likes to see themselves in print. We read our reviews and what others are saying about us. (You obviously have to let the people know you’ve done it, so they’ll go and look and tell their friends about it). And, of course, if you choose people with thousands of followers, you’re more likely to pick up new readers. The challenge, though, is to convert them into regular readers, which goes back to having good content. It should go without saying, but I’ll say it anyway: ruthless self-promotion will only end up looking like what it is; you have to engage with what people want, not with what they can do for you. In other words, be genuine and interested in them and, if you can’t, don’t do it all.

 

4. The techie stuff – don’t worry about keywords

It used to be the case that spending a lot of time massaging the tags and keywords on your site could make a huge difference to your ranking on search engines. There still are ways in which you can manipulate this, but it’s much less important than it used to be. Google no longer uses keywords to rank its output.

To prove this, I checked out the page rank score for my blog on the Moz site and compared it with two other writers’ sites (which I won’t name). My site has one keyword (my name) and a page rank of 40. The page rank indicates how prominent the page is likely to be on search engines, out of a possible 100. The two writers I compared myself with (both with significant followings) have 80 and 19 keywords respectively and both have page ranks of 41. J.K. Rowling, by comparison, has a page rank of 77.

So, if like me you’re bored with fiddling under the hood of your site, you can pretty much ignore this. The only thing you need to know is that you’ll rank higher if you include useful links in your posts, and particularly if others link to you.

 

5. More techie stuff – best time and day to publish

Another set of data you might or might not want to ignore is that on the best time and day to publish. There’s a useful summary of several studies by Garret Moon. These suggest that the best day for page views may be Monday morning between 9:00 and 12:00 Eastern Standard Time.

time to post

Two of the studies indicate that the best time for comments and shares is at the weekend. This would make sense, since there’s less competition from other posts then, and people have more free time. However, another study indicates that the best time for shares is Thursday at 10:00 a.m. EST.

The reality is probably that you should be guided by your own experience. A lot will depend on who your audience is and where they’re located. Your blog provider will probably give you some analytics and installing Google Analytics will give you more. In my case, around 35% of my readership is from the US, around 27% from the UK, and 17% from India. My highest page views come on Wednesday between 8:00 and 10:00 EST. That is for the simple reason that Friday Fictioneers publishes on a Wednesday.

I’ll let you know which of these strategies I experiment with, and with what results.

What strategies have you tried to increase traffic to your site? How did they work out? I’d love to hear your experience.

Friday Fictioneers – Blizzard

j-hardy-boxing-gym
Photo Prompt © J Hardy Carroll

It took the rescuers a month to dig their way to the mountain cabins through snowdrifts a metre high. Dagmar’s was the last they reached.

“Don’t reckon it’ll be pretty,” Sergeant Rasmussen warned the volunteers. That morning they’d found Sven and Inga’s frozen bodies wrapped together in a final embrace, each of the children neat and cold in their beds. All the children bar two. The dog had eaten them.

They forced their way into Dagmar’s house, crunching over the litter of small bones. The cleaver caught Rasmussen in the neck.

“Food,” the old lady croaked in relief.

 

 

Friday fictioneers is a weekly challenge set by Rochelle Wisoff Fields to write a 100-word story in response to a photo prompt. You can find other stories here

Friday Fictioneers – Butterflies

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Photo Prompt © Marie Gail Stratford

Albert liked collecting. As a child it was stamps, as a young man, girlfriends. Nowadays, slackened by sin and faltering vitality, he became a lepidopterist.  Five hundred glass cases, each packed with exotic chevrons of inert delight.

These delicate angels, dancing on the skewer of a pin, weren’t arranged as you might expect – blues in one case, swallowtails in another, metalmarks, and so on.  Instead, Albert displayed them by markings, arranged side by side so the patterns spelled out words.

“The way we categorise things,” he said, “confronts us with our assumptions. To me, nature is a book.”

 

 

Friday fictioneers is a weekly challenge set by Rochelle Wisoff Fields to write a 100-word story in response to a photo prompt. You can find other stories here

99. Blaming the innocent – a narrative critique of the Oxfam scandal

“Oxfam Sex Scandal”, “Government Crackdown”, celebrities resigning their positions as Oxfam Ambassadors. The facts are getting lost in the hysterical headlines. The Oxfam-gate story about sexual exploitation by aid workers has all the hallmarks of a witch-hunt.

Oxfam is a much-loved household name, one of the largest and most effective and professional international aid agencies in the world. Now it has joined Harvey Weinstein in the sin bin.

The wags say there are six phases to an aid project.

Six Phases of an Aid Project

In the space of a week in mid-February, public perception of Oxfam has moved from phase one to phase four. The British government is rapidly moving towards phase five. The story is powerful and gripping. But it’s fundamentally wicked.

 

Is sexual assault in the aid sector news?

No. It has been widely covered in the media since at least 2015, particularly in The Guardian newspaper. The Humanitarian Women’s Network in 2016 surveyed 1,005 women aid workers in 70 organisations. They reported that 24% of the women had suffered sexual assault at the hands of male colleagues. A rolling survey by Report the Abuse of over 1,000 aid workers found in 2017 that 72% were victims/ survivors of sexual assault.  Only around a third to a half reported the assaults. Only 17% of those who did report were satisfied with the outcome.[1]  So this isn’t news. The witch-hunt is.

Times headline Oxfam story

Is Oxfam particularly guilty?

On the contrary, Oxfam is an example of good practice. The organisation was singled out for praise in an academic study of the problem by Dyan Mazurana and Phoebe Donnelly.  Oxfam established confidential whistle-blowing procedures and a high-level Safeguarding Unit in 2012, working alongside the internal audit and fraud and corruption teams.

Ex-head of the Unit, Helen Evans, has told Channel 4 News that her team was under-resourced and that Oxfam’s Leadership Team did not take her findings seriously enough. Oxfam head, Mark Goldring has acknowledged that they did not act soon enough to scale up the team.

However, it is undeniable that Oxfam is rare in taking the problem seriously and trying to respond to it. The number of cases dealt with by the organisation’s Safeguarding Unit has more than tripled from 26 in 2014, to 87 in 2016-17. These numbers are still probably just the tip of an iceberg, but the increase is a measure of the success of and trust in Oxfam’s procedures. There is neither logic nor justice to placing an organisation which is trying to respond to the problem is in the eye of this storm.

Is the aid sector particularly bad?

It’s hard to know because there is so little reliable data. On the face of it, it seems unlikely. Sexual assault is about power and thrives in “boys clubs”.  It would be surprising it were not more common in male-dominated sectors like business, the military, academia, the arts, and, of course, government.

Presidents Club
The Presidents Club “event”

What are the facts of the scandal?

We still don’t know.  The media story is that Oxfam’s Haiti country director, Roland van Hauwermeiren, held sex parties with prostitutes in the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake, and was allowed to resign rather than being fired. Other workers are alleged to have had sex with children. Van Hauwermeiren denies sex with prostitutes, but admits he had a sexual relationship with a Haitian woman whose family was being helped by Oxfam.

Oxfam reported the case to the Charity Commission at the time. The Commission claim they were not made aware of the precise details, and only opened a statutory investigation when the story broke in February 2018. It might be said this was a tad incurious of them, given that Helen Evans had complained to the Commission in 2015 about women being coerced into sex in exchange for aid.

Oxfam
Photo © AFP

It might also be argued that the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID), which provides £32 million of public money to Oxfam, was similarly incurious.

Who carries the can?

Everyone on the periphery of the media feeding frenzy is rushing to distance themselves from any blame.  The Charity Commission and Penny Mordaunt, DFID Secretary of State have been swift to condemn Oxfam.  But there’s plenty of blame to go around. The Charity Commission, suffering cuts like all other public services since 2010, has been under pressure to investigate rogue Muslim charities. Arguably, it didn’t have the resources to also tackle sexual abuse.

The truth is probably that those in authority weren’t that bothered until it became a moral panic.

Why is there a witch-hunt?

All societies are gripped from time to time by moral panics. Remember the satanic video scare and how it played out in the media coverage of the murder of Jamie Bulger? During a moral panic, there must be a simple narrative in which we are under threat by an evil doer. In that sense, the Oxfam story is like a moral panic.

In another sense, something else is at work. The story is very convenient for those who want to see an end to the British international aid budget. There can be little doubt that the scandal will have a negative impact on donations to aid charities and may well embolden the aid deniers. The sound of axes being sharpened echoes down Whitehall and Fleet Street.

Penny Mordaunt

Penny Mordaunt, International Development Secretary has only been in post since her predecessor Priti Patel was sacked in November 2017 for breaching the Ministerial code, so she has no record to judge. Unlike Patel, there’s no sign that Mordaunt is anti-development, and indeed can claim some experience of working for charities. But, noting that the public has “nagging but legitimate doubts about aid”, she has threatened to cut aid to countries that do not invest in their own people. This may be bad news for the poorest countries. Her voting record in the House of Commons as logged by the They Work for You website, shows opposition to laws promoting equality and human rights, though she has supported equal gay rights.

“Charity begins at home” is the oft-repeated mantra of those who want to slash aid. In a time of austerity, it’s not hard to see the appeal of the slogan. But those in power know well that aid is not just a moral imperative but supports national self-interest. When the world is richer, there are opportunities for British trade. Conversely, when the world is poorer, failed states proliferate, and war is a great deal more expensive than aid.

What should we conclude?

Did Oxfam fail? Yes, of course, and it may even turn out to be true that it tried to cover-up the scandal. Is there further to go? Yes, much further. In a world where men exercise power over women, and rich people exercise power over poor people, this will continue to happen. All we can do is strengthen recruitment, training, safeguarding and whistle-blowing procedures. The aid sector needs to get better at sharing information about perpetrators so they can’t just move to jobs in other agencies.

But Oxfam has at least tried to put effective procedures in place, unlike many other agencies.  Of course there are bad people who work for aid agencies. There are bad people in government too, and there are bad doctors in the National Health Service. We don’t contemplate shutting down government or the NHS as a result. We expose and punish those who abuse our trust. The vast majority of Oxfam’s thousands of workers around the world are dedicated, conscientious and even, yes, heroic. Millions of poor people around the world will be in a much worse situation if Oxfam’s budget drops. Let’s not buy into stories that invite us to punish the innocent.

[1] Endnote on data: It’s important to say that these were not random samples, but reports by workers who decided to participate in the surveys. So no conclusions can be drawn about how widespread such assaults are. It’s also important to say that the surveys were of “international” staff, expatriates deployed to developing countries. The situation of “national” staff from these countries is largely un-researched. Finally, it’s worth noting that victims/ survivors are not necessarily female and perpetrators are not exclusively male: 89% of survivors were female and 92% of perpetrators were male in the Report the Abuse survey.