Day after day of media and political focus on Oxfam, extending to other humanitarian organisations and even to DFID and the Charity Commission, has upset me, not only because of the historic misdeeds of a few Oxfam staff, but because of the many falsehoods, simplifications, ignorance and hypocrisy that has characterised some of the coverage. I am, and remain, proud to have played my own small part in Oxfam’s history and I am frustrated that few have felt able to come to its aid in these dark times.
Oxfam has for 75 years been a bold, thoughtful and influential defender of the rights of the poorest in our global society and that work is needed now as much as ever and must not be compromised, but strengthened, as a result of the current controversy.
Let me say at the start that I am disgusted by the behaviour of some staff in Chad and Haiti, and by any criminal or ethical misdeeds by those who are tasked with the help and protection of vulnerable individuals and communities. I do not in any way seek to defend their behaviour. There are no excuses. It is not right to say that these things may be expected when people are working in challenging circumstances and under a great deal of stress. For people in positions of responsibility, those very circumstances emphasise further their duty to behave to the highest ethical standards. If they fall short they deserve to be disciplined by their employers and, where the behaviour is criminal and there is a functional system of justice, they deserve to be subjected to proper investigation, fair trial and due punishment.
But the recent opprobrium has not just been heaped on those individuals but on Oxfam itself, and in some cases on the entire international development and humanitarian sector and the wider charity world. How far is that criticism of Oxfam as an institution deserved?
Oxfam and its senior staff now find themselves in a no-win scenario where every heartfelt apology is taken as further proof of their culpability and every explanation condemned as an excuse. They can’t win, partly because I fear this debate has now become a focus for entrenched political positions on international aid.
It is now becoming clearer exactly where Oxfam could have performed better. What has not featured in the media coverage is the extent to which Oxfam has done the right things and I want to highlight that so that we can see any shortcomings in perspective. Clearly action now needs to be taken to ensure that such bad behaviour is not repeated. At the same time, Oxfam’s leadership role in transparency and accountability remains important and needs to be strengthened further.
In deciding the way forward, the objective must be to maximise the progress of the world in tackling poverty and injustice, including sexual abuse and exploitation. That is the outcome I would like to think everyone wants. Of one thing I am certain – that goal will not be advanced by withdrawing support from Oxfam or from other aid and development charities, or by backing away from the UK’s exemplary commitment to aid spending.
So, what has Oxfam (as distinct from the individual staff members) done wrong? As far as I can see, the organisation could have done better in four main areas: firstly, its HR systems should have prevented the re-employment in Haiti in 2011 of individuals who had left or been dismissed from Chad in 2006 following sexual misconduct accusations. Secondly, its reports of the Haiti investigation to the media, regulators and Government could have been more specific about the sexual element of the gross misconduct that had been uncovered. Subsequently, while they have steadily improved their safeguarding policies and procedures, they have accepted that it would have been wise to have scaled up the resourcing of that function more quickly in response to the recommendations of the responsible team. Finally they could have expanded their application of criminal record checks in the trading arm more quickly.
The first of these errors has led to the resignation of Penny Lawrence, who was in charge of international programmes at the time. I’m sorry about this as I believe Penny is a dedicated and effective leader and campaigner who should now be part of putting things right. The remaining areas are addressed by the new procedures and investments which Oxfam has already made and has further announced in the wake of the media revelations.
What has not been so evident in most of the coverage is to highlight what Oxfam has done right and well. The organisation is and has been a leader in safeguarding and standard setting in the sector. When the Haiti accusations arose in 2011, Oxfam initiated a thorough investigation, acted strongly on its conclusions, reported the matter to the charity commission and even issued a press release. They then embarked on a long-term strengthening of their codes of behaviour and their relevant policies and procedures. I believe few organisations, in any sector, would be able to say with confidence that they would have done so much in such circumstances.
It is worthwhile looking briefly at some of the relevant sector initiatives in which Oxfam has played a leading part. For example, Oxfam has been one of the key players in developing and adopting the Core Humanitarian Standards (https://corehumanitarianstandard.org/files/files/Core%20Humanitarian%20Standard%20-%20English.pdf). These require, among many other things, that “a code of conduct is in place that establishes, at a minimum, the obligation of staff not to exploit, abuse or otherwise discriminate against people” in the humanitarian context (https://corehumanitarianstandard.org/files/files/CHS-Guidance-Notes-and-Indicators.pdf). Oxfam’s leadership in this initiative is described in this article from 2015: https://policy-practice.oxfam.org.uk/blog/2015/01/core-humanitarian-standard.
In terms of transparency, Oxfam has been a leading participant in the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI)( https://www.aidtransparency.net/), submitting more data to the IATI registry than almost any other NGO (https://www.iatiregistry.org/publisher/oxfamgb). Oxfam’s commitment to accountability is demonstrated by its membership of Accountable Now through which it is committed to the Global Standard for CSO Accountability (https://accountablenow.org/accountability-in-practice/our-accountability-commitments/).
These and other initiatives underscore the extensive efforts undertaken by the aid and humanitarian community to ensure the highest possible standards of behaviour, performance, governance, transparency and accountability. Oxfam has been and continues to be a leader in these initiatives. Of course, good policies and high commitments can’t absolutely guarantee that infringements will never happen and they can always be strengthened further. I’m confident that all those involved will be reviewing the relevant standards in the light of the recent revelations and seeking to improve wherever possible. Oxfam’s own Action Plan has already been published (https://www.oxfam.org.uk/february-2018-immediate-response-actions-sexual-misconduct).
This Action Plan includes the establishment of an Independent High-Level Commission on Sexual Misconduct, Accountability and Culture Change. It also includes a commitment to working with others across the humanitarian and development sector to prevent this from happening again, including efforts to reform recruitment and vetting processes to prevent offenders from moving between organisations.
The latter is a practical, legal and ethical minefield. The idea that has been mooted of a global register of humanitarian workers is certainly one that should be further explored, but raises many difficult questions: what level of qualifications and experience will be required for entry to the register; how will new entrants to the field be able to gain the experience necessary for registration; what level of evidence will be required for someone to be removed from the register; will there be an appeal process and how will it operate; what information will participating organisations be required to share; what rules of confidentiality will apply; which disciplines and organisations will be covered; how will the system be paid for; how will the system be compatible with data protection rules, and how and under what circumstances, if at all, can people change their ways and be given a second chance? This is not going to happen overnight. Meanwhile, there is a danger that organisations may become highly risk averse about giving references, which could make the situation worse rather than better.
But what is most important in all this is Oxfam’s work for the poor. That work is longstanding and exemplary and must not be compromised. Oxfam’s dedicated staff risk their lives on a daily basis to help people affected by poverty, war and disaster in places where most commentators would fear to tread. They are helping today people fleeing conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo, people suffering from the devastating war in Yemen and the Rohingya victims of persecution seeking refuge in Bangladesh. Oxfam’s expertise, courage and commitment in such dire circumstances is widely recognised and valued by all those who operate in the humanitarian sphere. The thousands of amazing Oxfam staff and volunteers who carry out this vital work are as disgusted as everyone else by the appalling behaviour of a few individuals 7 or 8 years ago in Haiti. Nevertheless I’m sure they have not paused for a moment in their efforts for those they seek to help. Their work includes a strong focus on tackling discrimination, violence and abuse against women, programmes benefitting more than a million women across the globe (https://www.oxfam.org.uk/inside-oxfam/women-end-discrimination-end-poverty). It would be a tragedy if the unacceptable behaviour of a few led to any diminution of this effort.
There has been much talk about the importance of “moral leadership” and I agree that this is the right focus. Doing the right thing is never just about having the best policies and procedures in place (though they must be). It is critically about the culture of the organisation. It is a shame that many institutions only seem to pay close attention to culture when a crisis hits them, be it the Catholic Church, Parliament, the BBC, the film industry or the media. Culture depends on leadership, as does safeguarding. If the leaders of an organisation are able to embody the culture to which they aspire, people will be more likely to come forward with criticism and complaints that help lessons to be learned and ensure that breaches of the organisation’s standards cannot remain hidden.
Ethics are a key aspect of leadership in all sectors, not least in organisations which depend on public appreciation of their values. Moral leadership must be centred on a relentless focus on the beneficiaries and purpose of the organisation and on protecting and serving those who are most vulnerable. An ethical, open and empowering culture which is deeply embedded at all levels of an organisation offers the best protection against the emergence of bad behaviour, which will then always be quickly and confidently challenged and reported.
There is always more to be done but I believe the current leaders of Oxfam are able, willing and determined to ensure that their culture is fit for purpose and to provide the ‘moral leadership’ that has been called for. If I had been asked before this media furore to name my top five moral leaders from any sector, Oxfam GB’s CEO Mark Goldring would have been on my list. He is still on my list.
I believe that now is a time when Oxfam and its thousands of good, courageous, dedicated, committed, hardworking and expert people around the world, and the millions they help, need our support more than ever, both because of the challenges faced by Oxfam’s beneficiaries, and its unique capacity to respond effectively to those challenges, and because of the effort it will now have to undertake to rebuild public trust and confidence.
We can all play our part in ensuring that Oxfam’s work for the poorest in our world can continue and strengthen within a culture that maintains and enhances its leadership position in humanitarian response, in transparency and accountability, and in action and advocacy for the rights of women.
Threats of withdrawal of financial support will not help to strengthen Oxfam’s already deep commitment to the wellbeing and protection of the poor and vulnerable. What will help most is the opposite – a surge of support and solidarity based on belief in Oxfam’s values, intent and purpose and in the strength of its programmes. Everyone who wishes to see the elimination of poverty and injustice needs now to stand up for Oxfam and its work.
I am today making a personal donation to Oxfam of £100 and urge everyone else to give what they can afford along with a message of support and encouragement.