Geoff Tennant - Promoting access to mathematics for all
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25/2/18: let's support OXFAM - and other news stories

Over the last week or so I've been grappling with three news stories and trying to work out what I make of them.  These are the sex scandal surrounding OXFAM and other aid agencies, the school shooting in Florida, and the UK University lecturers' strike over pension arrangements.  If I may I'll take these in turn, as always, very interested to know what you think.

The idea that aid workers working on the field should be paying locals for sex, or making aid conditional upon sexual favours, is, of course, abhorrent, and cuts against all principles of development, empowerment, independence, and so on.  And that this has been allowed to continue quietly for some years, with alleged perpetrators allowed to transfer to similar jobs with other organisations is also highly problematic.

But surprising?  No, I really don't think it is, and I've found some of the press coverage of this story a little naive to be honest.  That a very small number of people in a large, long established organisation should behave inappropriately in places where mechanisms for law and order which we take for granted in the West are largely non-existent seems to me to be entirely within the realm of credibility.  As to the management weaknesses, I would appeal to Jesus' "cast the first stone" test (see John 8:1-11).  How many managers, I wonder, faced with a problematic employee, have gritted their teeth and written glowing references to facilitate that employee getting a job somewhere else?  Given the choice between sorting out a problem quietly and in the full blaze of publicity, is there not a strong temptation to choose the former?  And the more we go down the "This is unacceptable, not to be tolerated, must be treated with the utmost seriousness line" the stronger, I suggest, that temptation becomes.

Some of the news coverage away from the headlines raised other questions about the nature of development to which I have given a fair bit of thought over the last few years.  Putting it bluntly, it's very easy to go to developing countries and do things which bring about immediate benefits, much more difficult to embed these benefits into a sustainable long term future bringing the empowerment and independence which gets talked about a great deal with in reality is very elusive.  In a paper which a former colleague at the Aga Khan University and I wrote which is currently under consideration for publication in a journal, we call, among other things, for more joined up thinking involving multiple stakeholders in an attempt to break this cycle.  But this is long term thinking which is best engaged with away from the current crisis.

It is understandable that many supporters, financially and in other ways, of OXFAM have been withdrawing their support over the last couple of weeks.  But I would question this course of action for a number of reasons.  Is it not vulnerable people in war torn and poverty stricken areas who are most likely to suffer if OXFAM does not have the money to fulfill its current commitments?  And also, surely now is the least likely time for employees to be engaged in untoward practices when the spotlight is on - in much the same way that the safest time to fly is immediately after a terrorist attack.

So, with the month coming to the end and a pay check due, let me put my colours firmly to the mast and say that I will be making a small one-off donation to OXFAM and would be delighted if you felt able to do the same.  Not being perfect myself, I don't expect others, both individuals and organisations, to be so - and there is, I think, considerable evidence of an awful lot of learning going on over the last few weeks.


Our thoughts and prayers go to the survivors and bereaved families following the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida about 10 days ago.  I cannot begin to imagine the horror of being there at the time nor the heart ache involved in the aftermath.

One point particularly caught my attention, the proposal in response to the attack that teachers should carry guns.  Now, I'm aware that I'm coming from a UK context in which gun ownership and usage is much lower than in the USA, particularly only highly trained police officers in specific situations would carry weapons, and security guards never.  So my immediate horror at the suggestion needs to be put aside in thinking about this.

But there are so many reasons not to go down this route I barely know where to begin.  It was noticeable, when the issue arose in school last week, that pupils regarded the idea with the same horror as I did - what would happen, they asked, if teachers carrying guns became angry?  A jolly good question, I would suggest, in need of an answer.  The whole relationship in school, and the learning and teaching process, is diametrically opposed to the kind of violence that guns stand for.  Whilst it sort of makes sense that if one person has a gun then other people do also to be able to protect themselves, where does this all end?  I would say that, when I've been in places where security guards carry guns, it has occurred to me to worry about the training that they had.  Is there not the danger of misinterpreting a backfiring car?

And there is a related issue here.  It has become apparent that there was, in fact, an armed security officer on duty at the time of the attack, who has come under considerable criticism for not doing anything.  Is that criticism justified?  I'm really not happy that it is. I cannot see that he was able to assess the situation accurately, eg. to establish that there was only one perpetrator involved.  For him to go in with a gun could easily have made things worse.  And if it is true that he was guilty of cowardice - and I'm not at all happy that this is necessarily the case - can we reasonably expect teachers, in effect acting as part time armed security guards, to do what a full time professional failed to do?

This American problem needs an American solution.  It is easy to see how wide spread gun carrying fits with the history of the country, and old attitudes die hard.  But to respond to violence with the threat of more violence hardly seems the way forward.  May our Almighty God give His much needed help as interested parties try to make sense of all of this.


So, just one final thing this week.  UK University lecturers are currently involved in strike action over changes to the pension scheme rules which could cost members an estimated £10 000 per year.  Having spent 12 years working in this sector, would I be on strike if still there?  No, I don't think I would.  I can clearly see that there is a legitimate grievance amongst members who have contributed to the scheme with the promise of a level of payout which is not, in fact, going to happen.  The problem here is that more and more people are living longer into retirement, so the calculations on which the payments both ways were made are now out of date.  I really can't see that strike action is the way forward here.  There are problems to be solved which require negotiation and compromise both ways.  An adversarial approach is really not going to work, I don't think.


I think I'll finish here for today after one concluding point.  Whilst these are three very different current stories, in each case we need, I think, to get behind the headlines, our immediate response and call for action, and try to disentangle the issues slowly and carefully.  As always, will be interested to know what you think about any of the particular stories I've looked at and the general issues involved.  Thank for reading, my very best wishes for a peaceful and purposeful week ahead.

2 Comments to 25/2/18: let's support OXFAM - and other news stories:

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David m on 25 February 2018 17:26
Hi Geoff, good points well made. Regarding charities it may be tempting to see them as corrupt since that gives us an excuse not to give. It surprises me that any defined benefit pension schemes still exist since private companies were closing them 10 years ago. Hope all is well and that the second half of term goes smoothly. Best wishes, David.
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Geoff on 26 February 2018 12:22
Thank you, David, re: the pension point, I think the understanding used to be that working in the public sector may not pay as much for equivalent work as the private sector, but there was greater job security and better pension terms. Whether that's still true now I'm not sure. Note that they've gone in the private sector, really can't see that they're sustainable anywhere now. Don't get old, that's my advice! Trust you're well, Geoff

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