21 February 2018

Oxfam must put its beneficiaries before its reputation


Yesterday Oxfam was hauled to the court of parliament to face the International Development committee. The court of public opinion has already passed sentence, with thousands of cancelled subscriptions to this beleaguered charity.

The familiar but necessary rituals of abasement and shame were deployed. I have no doubt that both Oxfam GB’s Director Mark Goldring and the Head of Oxfam’s global operation Winnie Byanyima were absolutely sincere in their remorse for spectacularly failing to deal with sexual exploitation by their employees in Haiti first reported to management in 2011. The extent of this failure only came to light in a Times investigation earlier this month. Mr Goldring has spent much of the time since the story broke with his foot in his mouth but it was clear yesterday that the penny had finally dropped and he was truly sorry. In the third sector sincerity is important, but it often sits behind getting the job done, particularly when it is a job linked to the metrics and rewards of government funding grants. That’s not to say you can’t both feel the pain and be effective, but it’s clear from the mounting evidence across the sector that good deeds may be sheltering very bad people.

Ms Byanyima said in her evidence that Oxfam would create stronger structures and processes to “police” abuse by rogue staff but that shared “values” were the key weapon in the armoury against a recurrence. We’d all like to think so. We’d all like to think that charities only attract the best of us who will work long hours for low wages in sometimes arduous conditions in the interests of helping those less fortunate. And every year hundreds of thousands of people from the United Kingdom do just that at home and around the world, animated only by a humanity that is admirable and humbling. They must feel so let down.

But there are also other people hiding in the shadows, who ape those values but also see a unique opportunity provided by the cover of international aid to vulnerable people in the world’s ungoverned spaces, to pursue darker objectives. This isn’t news.

In 1999 the Guardian newspaper reported on the rising phenomenon of paedophiles targeting aid agencies and charities working in developing countries after British and Canadian workers were sacked from Switzerland’s largest Children’s charity, Terre des Hommes Lausanne, for “improper sexual relationships”. Ray Wyre, a psychologist working with paedophiles at the time commented: “As we get better and better at control and databases, the offender goes for the weakest link which is the voluntary sector and charities, especially abroad. You have people going from charity to charity. It gives them access to children who are much more vulnerable. In these countries you could buy a child for a packet of crisps.”

It isn’t yet clear whether the scandal engulfing Oxfam in Haiti also includes the sexual abuse of children, although they admit in a report: “it cannot be ruled out.” What is now accepted is that the sector generally has attracted, employed and failed to control or properly discipline a significant number of predatory abusers who have used their power for sexual gratification.

Values, codes of conduct and other platitudes on paper won’t have much impact on this minority of deviant predators. Often these people are highly manipulative and may present as effective managers and practitioners. Often crusading organisations are the least able to see or cope with this infiltration, with too few people equipped to look for the signs and, let’s be frank, too few senior managers wanting to see them.

The investigation report commissioned by Oxfam, which has been partially released and the organisation’s subsequent actions supports this view.

It states that the “loss prevention team” was deployed from the UK to investigate allegations of misconduct against the country director Roland van Hauwermeiren. Was this a task force of accountants or people with investigatory experience relevant to all of the claims? These were primarily sexual exploitation claims, apparently so serious that they merited this special intervention. What was the composition and experience of the team? Did they have terms of reference? None of this is clear.

Apparently the loss preventers were incognito for the first four days in-country, gathering evidence and intelligence. This is baffling. The primary allegations clearly had enough substance and weight to lead to the main perpetrator’s later removal. By that logic he ought to have been immediately suspended and interviewed, potentially after having been removed from the country.

To be fair to Oxfam’s senior management, they have admitted that the deal stitched up with Mr van Hauwermeiren in order for him to co-operate with his investigation was, with hindsight, er, a bit grubby. It’s clear from the report that his “dignified exit” from the organisation with one month’s notice was much preferable to a public sacking which would reflect badly on the charity’s reputation. The moral blindness on this issue is shocking but not entirely surprising in a charity where crusading and corporatism has obviously distracted the top brass from the front line.

There were further intrigues during the investigation process including the leaking of part of that report to a third party which resulted in the intimidation of witnesses who were physically threatened. Not the best way to inspire confidence in victims.

The press release published after the investigation was complete is further evidence of an organisation which put its reputation before safeguarding its beneficiaries. It completely omitted all of the sexual exploitation findings. Oxfam went on to employ one of the people it dismissed a mere two months later in response to another disaster. You couldn’t make this up.

The confluence of sexual exploitation and violence ought to have sounded alarm bells at the highest levels within Oxfam. It’s clear now that either it didn’t or the people at the top weren’t listening. The board of trustees responsible for governing Oxfam contains the third sector’s aristocracy. It is replete with experts and advocates in governance, empowerment, international development and strategy. Surely back in 2011 these giants of social justice ought to have started asking very difficult questions about how the front end of their global business was behaving? Surely some of them were sceptical about the Haiti investigation’s “lessons learned action plan” which is heavy on “embedding values” and “renewed focus” but very light on tangible moves to detect and deter the other likely predators in its midst? Wouldn’t reasonably diligent people on the board be alert to the fact that deploying western staff with power and money into disaster zones containing people with neither would create risks for exploitation? The audit geeks amongst us would give gold to see their risk registers.

Again, Oxfam’s hapless board won’t be alone. Sleeping non-executive directors in both the public and private sectors holding cosy sinecures for very little scrutiny in return have presided over similar scandals and will do so again. If that feels a little brutal to you imagine the feelings of women forced into prostitution to survive in disaster-hit countries, preyed on by senior employees of an organisation there to rescue them. With a mission statement “to help more poor and marginalised women claim their rights”. Welcome to Oxfam.

So what can be done to combat predatory employees and supine managerial responses? The good news is that the welter of negative publicity across the sector shows no sign of abating. Dark deeds are being dragged into the light and as a result, the safe spaces for abusers are drying up. The genie of exploitation by aid workers can’t be put back in the bottle. The delivery of international aid to disaster zones creates unique circumstances for the exploitation of power over vulnerable people in marginal circumstances. It follows that all NGOs involved in this work and certainly those funded by DfID ought to have world-class structures in place to mitigate against it. Strong values are important, but properly vetted and supervised staff backed when necessary by competent independent investigators, a straightforward disciplinary code, a culture of no impunity and assertive response will better shape behaviour.

All international NGOs ought to be considering an external independent audit of their safeguarding strategies to give them confidence they are properly sighted on the risks posed and the mitigations in place. At the top table, one suitably trained and qualified trustee ought to be given oversight of all investigations into exploitative behaviour. On the front line, all beneficiaries of UK aid must be empowered to understand that support to them and their families is never contingent on sexual favours and given simple, safe ways to report abuse.

And finally, we can all play a crucial role. International NGOs rely on our donations and grant aid from our Government’s tax revenues. We have skin in the game and we have the collective power to insist on better corporate behaviour and better regulation. In charity, we all rise by lifting others.

Ian Acheson is a former Charity CEO and member of ACEVO, the sector's association for Chief Executives.