Since allegations emerged of aid workers participating in sex parties in disaster-stricken Haiti, Oxfam has been fighting a rear-guard action. It’s looked like an organization that was wrong-footed from the outset, never regained the initiative and is struggling to use its undoubtedly noble values as a defence for the defenceless.
This is doubly ironic, as many who know the sector say Oxfam’s HR and investigation processes are ‘stringent’ and better than many smaller, less well-resourced charities. A systemic issue that ranges across the sector as a whole looks more of a possibility.
Oxfam won’t win this one, but it must prevent the next one.
Aside from Oxfam’s unenviable current position, other notable elements of this crisis include the role of the International Development Department of the UK government and the Charity Commission. It could be the international development aid sector’s version of the #MeToo movement, with complainants or whistle-blowers feeling empowered by seeing stories of Oxfam.
The charity no doubt has systems and processes in place to collect, triage, verify, report and remedy allegations of all types of problem from bribery and corruption through to assault and mobbing. There was a whistle-blower, there were internal reports and there are safeguards over employment processes. So either the information didn’t reach the highest level or if it did, someone either didn’t appreciate its seriousness, or they decided to sit on some or all of it. Its report of ‘misconduct’ to the Charity Commission, apparently, did’t contain specific allegations of abuse of beneficiaries, according to a statement from the Commission.
Why not? And if not, does the Charity Commission have to take some heat because it didn’t dig sufficiently deeply into the allegations? And how much did the International Development Department know and how diligently did it seek to discover more?
- Bosses of any organisation must set a tone from the top that expresses a ‘zero tolerance’ for misconduct. AND they must have the strength of character to also welcome reports of misconduct and ensure they are properly investigated and action taken.
- The organisation must review its compliance processes, including whistle-blowing policies, hotlines and protection to ensure they’re fit for purpose
- The processes and systems for ensuring good oversight of human resources management and safeguarding of employees and other stakeholders must be robust and must be tested
- The Charity Commission has launched a statuary review and this must include a review its own processes if it finds that this incident has raised concerns that its oversight was weak or incomplete
- The government is channeling public aid money through charities and has a duty to ensure it is satisfied with how the money is spent and that the organisations it contracts are the subject of rigorous due diligence from a financial, ethical, social and governance perspective. The process may now have to be more intrusive than prior to the Oxfam/Haiti revelations
- Any charity sitting on similar allegations should be seriously considering going public on anything they know – and soon…because the allegations will find their way into the public domain, sooner or later and it’s better to be proactive on this
Penny Mordaunt, for the International Development Department, announced a new unit, which clearly implies there are perceived weaknesses in the oversight processes. She said: “This unit will be wide-ranging and comprehensive in its remit, looking at safeguarding across UK and international charities, suppliers, and the UN and multilateral organisations so that together we can make progress.
‘This will look at how to guard against criminal and predatory individuals being re-employed by charities and abusing again, including the option of establishing a global register of development workers.”
And finally – all parties need to do the acid test: imagine there is a repeat of this scandal and review whether their improvements to policies, training, oversight and whistle-blowing would stand scrutiny in the court of public opinion. Imagine they’re picked over in The Times and see how complete and robust they seem to be then.
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Photo cropped from original of Haiti by @verdyverna. Many thanks for posting royalty-free.