Experiences, Learning

Last Day

On my last day at work, I was handed a box. It was understood that by five fifteen the contents of my cluttered desk would be in it and my ten months working for Oxfam International would have come to an end.

I started with the paper tray which since the first day had slowly piled up giving visual evidence of the poor organisation the placement was supposed to cure. The stack was helpful, therefore, in giving a chronological journey through my time at Oxfam and an opportunity to reflect.

I found CONCORD Europe’s paper on policy coherence for development from my first week underneath posters I had designed for the European Development Days, where I saw celebrities from the development world debate the post-2015 agenda. I came across my press pass from the EU-Africa summit and mountains of media reactions, erratically scribbled on by my boss. It was only ten months, but everything seemed so long ago.

I remember in September I had been anxious. Unpaid internships, I had often been told, could range from the tortuous expectations of coffee runs and anti-social hours to the twiddling of thumbs waiting for the boss to pass down even the smallest menial task. I had been misguided.

At the age of twenty-two and new to the office environment, it would’ve been unreasonable for me to expect a large amount of trust from day one. It is because of this that, at times, I did feel underused. As my placement went on, however, it emerged that rather than being unappreciated, I was simply being lazy.

At the half-way point in February, I was effectively told that; if you can’t do the menial very well, you probably won’t be asked to do the more creative jobs. First lesson learned.

Around that point, my work load started changing. No long was I solely scribbling synonyms for press reactions or watching over the office’s social media. I was given more freedom on more traditional media work, penning a number of opinion pieces and blogposts. Policy advisors started asking for help with research on issues including tax justice and climate change. Work started to feel diverse and I actually started, well, learning something.

And the back drop to this was the ever-changing Brussels life. The bureaucracy which often bores the British started making sense and actually become quite exciting. Brussels, which presents itself as a mundane, very European political centre, started to seem like the centre of the world: Obama visited, as did the heads of state of almost every African nation. The world’s second largest elections were announced there and European diplomacy seemed to be based around its institutions. The work I was doing was directly entwined with this.

The pile of reports and papers was eventually placed in the box, which in turn is now stored, out of sight in my attic. Although hidden, they represent the most notable change that has occurred since September: knowledge. Corny, yes, but true.

I do not believe that Media & Communications is the best fit for me, but I believe work in development or the European Union (or both) is. Internships offer that opportunity.

The development world is intriguing, particularly large non-governmental organisations such as Oxfam. At times you may find yourself confused with internal politics; even I – the young, inexperienced intern – felt disenchanted with some of the issues they followed. But I have been lucky to work with passionate professionals who were always willing to debate my concerns. And now, I return to university to finish my degree with the a heightened feeling of good karma and a brain filled with opinions on Europe’s role in the developing world.

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Experiences

Working In Aid Without Volunteering

Written by Chloe Safier. Chloe currently works as the Regional Gender Lead for Oxfam in Southern Africa. Opinions here are her own and do not reflect that of Oxfam or her other affiliations. Chloe can be found on twitter @chloelenas

Jennifer Ambrose points out on her post, “Volunteering: The Paradox at the Beginning of an Aid Career” that many of those who work in development aid or humanitarian fields start their careers by offering their free labor in the form of volunteering in a foreign country. Ambrose points out the swath of problematic issues with this well trod path, not the least of which is that it puts (often young) people with little experience into rural contexts that require highly specialized expertise for any kind of real contribution to occur.

It also creates opportunities for those who can afford to work without compensation – most often those come into the situation with some money or cushion – and leaves those who can’t afford to work for free at a big disadvantage.

As someone who specializes in gender, I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out the gender inequality elements of the paradox Ambrose describes; namely, that the majority of the unpaid work force is women. In the case of the US, the Bureau of Labor Statistics found that “women continued to volunteer at a higher rate than did men across all age groups, educational levels, and other major demographic characteristics” in 2013. A 2009 study by InternBridge found that as many as 77% of unpaid college internships are held by women.

But I’m a firm believer that there are alternative ways to break into the international development field besides volunteerism and unpaid internships, and finding these alternate routes may help ameliorate some of the problems inherent with the volunteer/intern model (though it doesn’t, of course, address the bigger power and gender inequalities that lead to those problems).

One colleague of mine began his aid career working on the factory floor of car company. Another started as a corporate lawyer, another was a journalist, and another was a policy analyst for a US congressman.

My first job out of college was a (paid) position working for a faith-based non-profit in Boston, which included a mix of community organizing, event planning, and volunteer coordination. The job served me well, partly because it taught me some of the basics of being a working professional: project management, being accountable to a team, working with diverse groups of people, and how to craft an agenda for a meeting that actually results in a decision, to name a few.

But what’s been most useful in applying and interviewing for positions in international development has been the ability to tell my story as a coherent narrative (which, funny enough, is a skill I picked up in community organizer training). I’ve found that being able to fluidly link my work with Boston community groups to my work in the development sector by explaining the natural progression of my interests has made me (I hope) a more compelling candidate.

In interviews, I tell the story of how my two years of experience working for a community based group in the US gave me a set of experiences which propelled my interest in a graduate degree that focused on gender, law and human rights; this then led me to a job focused on gender justice and women’s rights in international development, and so on.

I have been an unpaid intern and it was mostly a good experience, but in retrospect, I’m not sure if it was necessary – had I been hired for a paid job in a different field, and continued my due diligence of networking and continuing to develop my skill base and technical expertise, I think I could have translated those acquired skills to the work I’m doing now.

In a recent job interview, I pointed to my first job in Boston to demonstrate how I’d been able to work in diverse communities, participate in community mobilization, and develop new leaders. I had tangible professional skills, and a story arc for what brought me from point A to point B, from domestic work to international work (even if, at the time, the plan wasn’t exactly mapped out as such).

I can’t speak for all the hiring managers in the international development sector, but in my case, I was offered the job.

My colleague who worked as a policy analyst before starting an international career is also able to demonstrate how that experience allows him to make a unique contribution to the international development sector; as someone who understands the ins and outs of US politics, he’s been able to position himself as someone who can translate on-the-ground experience in Ethiopia (where he currently works) to high level policy forums. The former journalist was able to translate writing and reporting skills to provide sharp and effective communications (and a strong network of reporters) for an NGO.

I’d argue, and I’m sure many of my colleagues would agree, that variety in our past work experience, and in our cultural backgrounds and identities, adds richness to the work environment and depth to the work itself.

If the only route to working in international development is by studying international development and getting entrenched in conventional aid industry thinking, we’re not going to bring new ideas or innovations into the field.

Which is to say: there are a lot of ways to get to where you want to be. International experience is critical, absolutely. But we, as a sector, can’t expect that the only way to get international experience is to have one type of experience, international or otherwise. And those seeking to work in the sector must develop all types of skills that can contribute to this work, so that people with real skills can make real contributions in a way that is not extractive or problematic in the way that Ambrose describes. One entry point would be to develop skills that are difficult to obtain in contexts where international aid works – technology, agriculture, engineering, monitoring & evaluation – to name a few.

Of course, in the current economy, getting hired for any kind of job- volunteer or paid- is a challenge. But it would be a lost opportunity to the development field and those who benefit from aid work to suggest that only those who have chosen to volunteer away from their home country or work for free are the only ones who have something to contribute to the collective goal of making the world a more just place to live.

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Experiences

Getting Lost At The EU-Africa Summit

It is easy to forget that Brussels is the second most powerful city in the world. The smell of frites fill the air, policemen stroll down the streets puffing on cigarettes and tourists huddle around a statue of a tiny, peeing boy. It is an unkempt, slightly disorganised town, not quite the capital city home to the European Union, NATO and, of course, the Belgian government. Then Obama arrived, closely followed by Chinese Premier Xi Jingpao. A week later around sixty Heads of State from both Europe and Africa follow suit.

Within a matter of days, Brussels exploded into a flurry of policemen and barricades. No longer could you park, unticketed, five meters from the Commission building. Snipers lined the buildings outside of the Council and helicopters patrolled the skies day and night.

It was for the Fourth EU-Africa Summit that I had managed to slip out of Oxfam for a couple of days under the guise of a journalist working for the Europhilic online paper CaféBabel to cover this event. My first summit as an amateur journalist would be one which would bring together a bizarre mix democrats, kings, polygamists and bureaucrats in the name of “People, Prosperity and Peace”. This was an opportunity for the populists to say something outlandish, for the political nobodies to huddle with the elites and, at the end, extol a new era as “a partnership of equals”.

History has entwined the two continents, but despite Europe being by far the largest donor of foreign aid, the Summit arrived at a time of tension. Migration and failed trade talks represent two of the key disputes, as well as the older issue of human rights emerging with new crackdowns on LGBT communities. The EU refused to invite a representative from neither Western Sahara nor Omar al-Bashir of Sudan, contributing to Robert Mugabe’s boycotting of the event.

In the jungle of photographers at the VIP entrance, the president of Niger briefly stopped for the camera’s to say “Europe doesn’t care about Africa”.

Expecting further anti-colonial sentiments and heated table-thumping I  headed for the press zone where hundreds of journalists from the global media frantically typed on their computers and consumed copious amounts of coffee. I felt entirely lost, out of my depth. It quickly became apparent to me that, unless you are from high-brow media, you were doomed to watch from the sidelines. Despite frantic requests for interviews with anyone from the King of Swaziland to the President of Latvia, CaféBabel held no swing with their press officers.

My image of stumbling across a story quickly disappeared; this was a job for the BBC or AFP, not a blog with a readership entirely disinterested by African development. Instead, I saw this as an opportunity to learn a little bit more about a continent I know little more about than a few well-constructed Oxfam sound bites.

With this is mind, I wondered across a press briefing from Madagascar. Now this is a country I know nothing about. As I waited for the conference to start, I looked up a few things. Madagascar: unstable political structure, President who resembles Kim Jong-Un, national language French. The last point was disconcerting for me, but I stayed put. In came the President to a room of around seven journalists, surrounded by a few officers, and delivered his speech in a language I could not speak. He looked happy, so I smiled at him, but the other journalists – primarily from African press – were frowning, scribbling frantically on their pads. It later transpired that he was desperately trying to convince us that “rule of law” was being restored in his country.

Outside of the sporadic press conferences, the leaders spent most of their time huddled round conference tables reading statements on issues as broad as trade deals to gay rights, climate change to migration. Naturally my press credentials didn’t allow me access to this room, so like most of the journalists we sat in the press briefing room watching it on a big screen (without translation and streamed online). I think in my mind I imagined walking shoulder-to-shoulder with the leaders, watching their discussions live; not on a TV next to a passed-out cameraman.

Disheartened, I went to a jargon-filled briefing on Europe’s imminent intervention in the Central African Republic; interesting, but uninspiring. I had no story, just a few quotes already broadcast and published online. With little to write about, I headed for the exit. But chance was on my side again as I stumbled in on another press conference; this time with Hollande and Merkel. It was genuinely exciting and the atmosphere was buzzing. It might be true that, for a first time journalist, a summit might not give much room for original thought, but as the two prominent heads of states entered the room, I realised that it didn’t matter. I was sitting in a room with some of media’s biggest European correspondents, watching the President of France and the Chancellor of Merkel deliver their vision on Africa’s future; it might not excite everyone, but it fascinated me.

 

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Experiences

Down & Out In Brussels

Last week I found myself making a rather difficult decision: do I buy a pack of cigarettes or do I instead invest it on a new scarf. It really was a ‘one or the other’ situation. My debit card had run dry and I had, for around twenty-four hours, just €7 to my name. I rationalised the situation in my head. Brussels is cold, and I scarf would alleviate that. But so do cigarettes, plus they give me the nicotine my body needs. It was a no-brainer.

Needless to say, my life in Brussels is far from glamorous. After work I return to a crowded house with a maggot-infested kitchen and tepid heating. I have moved from Sainsbury’s to Lidl and meticulously count pennies to pay for laundry. Much like university, everything is an investment, but without the student deals and ability to head home when you need a decent meal.

But Brussels is, for obvious reasons, an interns city, something which makes the feeling of relative poverty somewhat more bearable. You might not be able to afford that new pair of shoes you wanted, but there will always be someone else with even less than you.

You very quickly learn that ‘intern’ is a little more than just title, but an entire umbrella term which covers everything from the Twitter-savvy communications intern working at an NGO to the assistant of an MEP or Permanent Representative.

My house bears evidence of this. The dilapidated town house manages to squeeze in thirteen people. In the mix I find myself living with James, my British compatriot who works at Concord, an umbrella organisation of NGOs with whom my office works closely with, and Ana, a Portuguese girl whose agricultural lobbying group actively endorses biofuels, the product Oxfam spends a large amount of time campaigning against.

Naturally, the diversity of nationalities (my house alone has eight different ones) and range of jobs creates a very active intern culture which culminates every Thursday night for happy hour by the European Parliament.

Naturally, the event is a key opportunity for ‘networking’, one of the Brussels Bubble’s favourite words.

Upon first glance you can make key assertions as to what business people intern for. Suits with ties is emblematic of the private sector intern (almost always paid at least 800 euros a month), whilst slightly worse-fitting suits might represent the Brussels institutions. Then there are the NGO, think-tanks and small business interns, a significant minority within the city, wearing their shirts and jeans.

Rumours about the levels of debauchery these gatherings of interns can reach are far and wide, but I am yet to see it myself. Another intern in my office tells me the stories, but notes that – given the ambitious, dog-eat-dog world of interns – those who work in NGOs rarely find conversation with the expert networkers. “We stick to our own kind”, he said.

And so, come Thursday night, I find myself again with only loose change as I attempt to buy my half-priced beer. I watch as the private-sector lobbyists pull fifty-euro notes out of their wallets, laughing with glee as they had out another business card. As you sip your beer, you might even frown a little and wonder why, as a development intern working for an NGO which makes a considerable impact on the world, you feel like the bottom of the heap.

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Commentary, Experiences, Learning

Advocacy, The EU & NGOs

The Brussels we are often presented with is a rather depressing image; a dystopian bureaucracy riddled with over-paid civil servants and wasteful spending. It is a Daily Mail-esqe atrocity within the miserable “non-country” of Belgium. Just the other day, the far-right French politician Marianne LePen predicted that, like its Eastern counterpart, the EU would unravel very quickly akin to the Soviet Union’s collapse twenty years ago.

One of my jobs in the EU-lobby office of Oxfam only strengthens this impending sense of failure. As I browse the inbox of the office’s ‘general’ account, I am constantly reminded of the great evil we are committing by working with “the €U”. Anonymous emails flood in complaining that “they are appalled their money is supporting Brussels fat-cats” and that they don’t want to “support those rotten institutions”; that they are “misled” as to where the money is going.

In August I co-wrote a blogpost highlighting a very similar idea about the salaries of charity bosses. I said that the 21st Century NGO is far different from how the public perceives it and that it would be more helpful to look at charities such as Oxfam and ActionAid as ‘non-for-profit businesses’. Like any business, you have to work with governments to get the policies which will most suit your goals and ambitions.

For anyone who is concerned with real development, the European Union epitomizes what a regional organisation can achieve. The EU-28 is, by far, the largest donor of international aid, a leader in climate change action and a peace broker in war-torn areas such as the OPT and Somalia. If you take away the public face of in-fighting and often confusing decision-making processes, you find a Europe Union which is increasingly happy with this ‘soft power’ touch.

As a media and communications intern with little knowledge of the EU before joining a month ago, my education has been swift and eye opening. The on-going biofuels battle bears witness to this. The EU has the incredible power to limit how much of the environmentally damaging, land-rights violating fuel comes into the market. If biofuels are diverting so much food from the poorest in the world, it is the NGO’s responsibility to work hard to ensure that policy-makers place the lowest possible cap on them, ergo putting a halt to entirely preventable poverty.

To claim that NGO’s are misleading the public is misguided and to make the accusation that they are propping up the EU is ignorant at best.

Policy causes poverty, but if done well it can also alleviate it.

NGOs budgets are limited and by circumventing the causes of poverty, they are able to save both money – and lives – now and in the future. If NGOs didn’t have a presence in such an important arena, as well as others including Geneva, New York and Washington D.C, we would, in fact, be letting down those we endeavour to empower.

As an intern, you are able to experience the invisible face of development. NGOs work hard to highlight the work they do on the ground as well as the campaigns they support. In Brussels, you will see very little of that; we do not directly hold demonstrations neither do we send activists to the developing world. Rather we strive to give the EU the ‘positive’ face that is often ignored by the European press.

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Experiences

Press-ure Release

Within minutes of finding my new desk, my inbox is flooded with emails. ‘Here’s your password’, ‘Induction meeting with Angela’, ‘Biofuel protest Wednesday’ etc. I smile; my main worry was having nothing to do and it certainly looks like they’ve thought of some things to keep me busy for my first couple of days at least.

Biofuel Protest

Then I frown. Biofuel protest? I click on it and read that Oxfam – the organisation who has led the charge for climate change refugees – is against biofuels.

Maybe it’s the name or perhaps the media coverage these ‘sustainable’ miracle-crops received when they were first seen to be the answer for tackling car emissions, but I had always assumed (and please excuse my ignorance any climate change veterans out there) that they are a Good Thing. A quick read of the Oxfam report The Hunger Grains quickly corrects my misdemeanour. Not only do can ‘first-generation’ biofuels be accused of distracting a vital source of food from the world’s hungriest and causing human rights violations via ‘land-grabs’, but they are also actually bad for the planet. My education couldn’t be more perfectly timed: September 11th would mark an important vote in the European Parliament and the target of months of lobbying from Oxfam.

It is a little intimidating, of course, coming into an office with its war-face on. I have no experience – and clearly little knowledge – of this kind of environment. After a hour-long induction with the Media and Communications Officer, I’m excited but I feel that I won’t be too much of a help in a vote which, seemingly, is all to play for.

My first week and a half (the run up to the vote) is admittedly, a tad boring. My responsibilities are limited and everything is gently scrutinised by my boss. I am put in charge of media monitoring, highlighting important coverage of both sides campaigning. I tweet several times a day, carefully watching which #hashtags are trending. Hardly exhilarating work, I admit.

I am one of the lucky development interns though. Everyone seems to suggest that the first few weeks are tough, especially for a newbie whose only education of the subject comes are the few odd essays on ‘structural adjustment’ and Amartya Sen who finds themselves in some faraway corner of the developing world. I, however, am in Brussels, living with a handful of close friends in a country remarkably similar to my own (bar the on-going Flemish/French turf-war). Try the chips and mussels, they’re pretty good.

The day before the vote, however, my boss asks me to put together the press releases for the vote. Four different reactions for the four different scenarios the office’s ‘biofuel expert’ envisages. Having been a bit mopey for the past week about ‘not enough responsibility’, it all becomes very daunting. I research previous examples, penning several different options for each situation just in case she doesn’t like my favourite. Eventually I email them to her and, after a light bit of editing, she forwards them on to the head of Oxfam EU who, in effect, the quotes will be referenced to.

We don’t win the vote, but we don’t lose it either. Proposals don’t simply get accepted or rejected, but rather the ‘bill’ is scrutinised to the point of every amendment decided in committee. Biofuels are capped at 6% and ILUC will be acknowledged from 2020.

The next day I am doing my usual ‘media monitoring’, searching for articles which affect the myriad of issues Oxfam covers. And there it is, near the bottom of a Guardian article.

My very first press release credited to a man far more respectable than a lowly intern.

My boss says “you must be very proud”. I try to brush it off, but I am a bit. “Well,” she says, “Oxfam is releasing the austerity report tomorrow, and we expect a lot more press coverage than we got for biofuels”. She sends me a wad of papers to proof read with the instructions to make any changes I see fit. I make a number of changes, all are accepted. The report makes it into newspapers all over the world from the Telegraph to the front-page of Cuba’s La Granma and I like to think I had a part, albeit absolutely tiny, part in that.

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Fresh look, Platform

Two interns discuss charity pay

Pay reflects professionalism

by Ben Butcher

The recent ‘pay scandal; has been easy to sell. The Daily Mail gleefully bleated of the ‘hideous hypocrisy of the charity fat cats’, cynically claiming that ‘they bombard us with plaintive pleas for donations’ whilst their executives enjoy second-homes and glamorous holidays. The recession might not have dampened the British charitable donations, but stories of charity executives acting like bankers might.

Oxfam is far more than a charity. It is an international organisation which employs 5,000 staff, runs 700 stores and organises projects from “emergency responses” to “long-term development”. The old-fashioned expectations surrounding ‘what a charity does’ trivialises Oxfam’s work. In fact, it may well be more fitting to call it a non-for-profit business.

Charities must be held accountable, particularly when they are held together by well-intentioned donations and, in some cases, tax-payers money. Their salaries should be watched and, where appropriate, criticised if too high or not proportional with performance.

It is, however, absurd to suggest charitable organisations pay their staff six-figure salaries because they have been able to get away with it. They do it because that is what they’re worth. In fact, it could be argued, it is far less than they’re worth. Oxfam claims that a similar job outside of the charity sector would be paid £75,000 more.

Of course, for those of us at the bottom of the heap, the pay package of charity bosses may seem a slap in the face. With a salary of €150 a month, I am relying on grants and the charitable donations of my own parents to live and work for Oxfam in Brussels for ten months. I am incredibly excited, but is it justified that I will have to live with the constant fear of an empty bank account when my bosses are earning up to four times the average national income?

The truth is, it probably isn’t, but the internships, however, will still be filled. They may not be as competitive as the internships for HSBC or Deloitte or even private development organisations, but they will still be fought for by youngsters looking for a way into the aid industry. It may be unfair, but it is a reality of the job market. If you head into an underfunded industry with no experience you may well have to work for free and take what you deserve from that sacrifice: the possibility of a paid job and invaluable work experience.

Oxfam is happy to release a run-down of its spending: for every £1 spent, 84p goes directly to action projects and 9p to running costs. For the results they produce, this is an “absolute bargain”. I believe however that preparation for this backlash would have been pointless. No matter what they say, the word ‘charity’ will be associated with absolute altruism rather than the business style organisations they have become.

Pay needs to be re-assessed, bottom up

by Libby Wright

When I think of the charity sector, the first word that comes to my mind is altruism. It is an industry driven by an unselfish concern for others, not by the pursuit of remuneration. It may have come as a surprise therefore when the Telegraph amongst others released the salaries of many of the country’s top charity CEOs, bringing to light a reality which, for those outside the charity sector, has quashed this illusion that has been around for decades.

The claim ‘it’s-what-they’re-worth’ argument fundamentally fail to exonerate a philanthropic sector which prides itself on efficient and equitable distribution of resources. This is predominantly due to two reasons: it has damaged the sector’s accountability and it demonstrates a disproportionate treatment of staff within the charity sector.

In recent years, the UK’s biggest charities are and have become increasingly reliant on statutory funding (last year, Oxfam received £160 from the government compared to £130m from fundraising). As ever, we must be cautious of jumping on the right-wing opportunist band-wagon, but it certainly seems that such excessive spending on executive income is inappropriate at a time of wide-spread decline in donations and during a period of public disenchantment with foreign-aid contributions.

With such a large contribution to the charities’ revenues, whether directly or indirectly through public funding, taxpayers are entitled to know where there money is being spent. Unlike government, QUANGOS and private companies, charities receive far less scrutiny and allow less access on operational costs. I do agree that charities are not here to seek financial gains and to manipulate donors, however there is a need for greater transparency within the sector. How is it, for example, that Justin Forsyth of Save the Children has earned 22% rise in salary, despite a 3% decline in revenue?

Secondly, and from a far more personal perspective, the salaries of charity bosses comes as a blow to many of the lowly, entry-level employees of the sector. Having worked last summer with Build Africa, it is becomes blatantly clear how important, and often challenging, this ‘scut work’ is.

Whilst I was particularly lucky to have the resources to support myself, it is difficult to imagine someone from a polar opposite background being able to survive in the world of unpaid internships without making huge sacrifices. It is little surprise that earlier this year the charity sector was accused of being “too white, too male [and] too middle-class”. Surely if it wants to create a level of competition – and therefore applicant quality – for jobs akin to Deloitte or HSBC internships, they would find the funds for supporting at least basic living expenses for prospective interns?

These disproportionate salaries, therefore, can undermine, or in some cases take advantage, of a young, enthusiastic intern culture which is poorly-paid and over-worked. Hardly seems ‘fair’ and ‘efficient’, does it? This ‘scandal’, if it has earned that title, will do much to distract people’s attention from the real issues, but perhaps it will allow some time for self-reflection on the contrasting ways charities treat the top and the bottom.

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