Oxfam and Haiti: Next steps for charities

At NCVO, we believe that the world is changed for good by charities. We also recognise that doing good is, on its own, not enough. How we deliver our work is just as important. We are rooted in the values of social justice and as such we are held to the highest levels of scrutiny and accountability. Sometimes, charities need to change. In light of the coverage of Oxfam in recent days, we have begun to reflect on the implications and next steps for charities more generally.

Actions that do not represent the values of Oxfam or charities more broadly

It’s clear from the headlines over the last few days that the people that charities were meant to have helped were let down, badly. As Oxfam’s leaders have themselves said, there are no excuses whatsoever for the crimes that people committed while working under the name of Oxfam. Such actions do not fit with Oxfam’s values, or those of the charities in general.

That is a given. If victims and our beneficiaries are to be at the heart of what we do, the apologies made by Oxfam’s leadership at the GB and international organisations are the starting point of what needs to happen next. It is to what happens next, and the widening implications of this crisis, that I want to explore now.

Getting to the bottom of what has gone wrong

The Times, its sister publication The Sunday Times, and The Observer have uncovered historic cases of abuse in Haiti and Chad, against both beneficiaries and other aid workers. This potentially included sexual abuse of children. More stories are likely to emerge. The media have reported that the incidents were not reported to the authorities in the countries concerned, nor reported in full to government and the Charity Commission. In short, a cover up has been alleged. Oxfam has disputed this. Finally, it is reported that the people involved continued to work elsewhere in the sector, aided by references from friends and colleagues, though not Oxfam.

To reiterate, these are deeply upsetting and concerning allegations. A critical first step is to establish fully and clearly what happened, in a process that involves the Charity Commission as regulator and DfID as one of the major funders of organisations in this field. Until we have that clarity, it will be difficult to learn the right lessons. We’re pleased to see that Bond, the umbrella body for international development, will be coordinating charities and working with the Charity Commission on this. At NCVO, we will offer our full support to this process.

Getting safeguarding right

International development charities take abuse issues very seriously. They are constantly working to root out those who are looking to do wrong under the guise of helping some of the world’s most vulnerable. All the major charities have clear policies and procedures in place and dedicate significant effort to minimising the risk of abuse taking place. Oxfam has already substantially strengthened its safeguarding and whistleblowing following its internal investigation in 2011. Many regard it as a leader in the field of humanitarian aid. And today it has announced a stronger package of measures.

But as all institutions have found – schools, the church, sports clubs and, yes, charities – there is more to do. It may be the case that charities are more likely to be an attractive vehicle for the perpetrators of abuse as other avenues are closed down. It’s also clear that abuse is not limited to international development charities – charities involved in residential care have found that people working for them have abused the very people we are helping.

The Charity Commission recently warned charities that issues around safeguarding are now amongst the most significant risks faced by our sector. This may sound perverse, but Oxfam and other international development charities may well be leading good practice in this area. With the improvements that they are set to make, it is more important than ever that we are transparent about that learning and share it widely. If this is the first point at which your charity is thinking about these issues, NCVO has template policies on whistleblowing and safeguarding available. The Charity Commission also has advice on safeguarding.

We must stick to our guns on transparency

Oxfam has been one of the leaders of the field in terms of transparency and accountability. Again, many would argue that international development organisations have done more to be transparent than many other institutions. This is the right way to operate: we continue to believe that sunlight is the best disinfectant. Oxfam has done the right things on transparency and we should support them on that.

The logical outcome of more transparency is that more stories will emerge of programmes or interventions not working (money wasted…) and of things going wrong. This will inevitably include historic wrongdoings in periods where transparency was less in operation. It’s important that we don’t now row back on transparency. The short-term discomforts transparency brings are surely outweighed by the longer term benefits. And if we are to hold others to account – a critical aspect of our campaigning and voice role – we must operate to the highest standards ourselves. The last few days should not put us off.

Address the concerns of our supporters

These are also difficult, upsetting days for those who support charities as volunteers, donors and campaigners. These events strike at the heart of what it is to be a supporter: they fundamentally challenge a relationship based upon shared ideals and values. Many supporters will today be saying not in my name. Social media is abuzz with calls for Oxfam and other charities to have their government funding ended, and for donors to stop giving.

During the crisis on fundraising, the research we and others undertook contained some uncomfortable truths. Coverage of things going wrong tended to confirm what people already thought rather than alert them to something new. Not only did a majority of the public believe the allegations, their concerns were that charities were not acting upon their concerns.

A basic transcript of this presentation is available on the full Slideshare hosted page

For our supporters, it is critical that we take action. Ensure safeguarding and whistleblowing procedures are the best that they can be. Explain how we work and that we are listening to their concerns. We need to make sure that we frame the conversations in the right way, and use language that people can relate to. We all need to be prepared to answer their questions openly, clearly and to do our best to be human in how we do so.

Charities and the media

The timing of publication – soon after Oxfam’s annual global inequality report, and the Presidents Club – and source of the stories are, in the eyes of some, relevant. It has been argued by a few in our sector that this is an ideological attack on a campaigning charity and on a sector that was hypocritical in its response to the Presidents Club. My twitter feed would confirm that many people do not think any charity should be campaigning for social justice. Others think that we are getting off too lightly.

Is the reporting an ideological attack, even if only in terms of the timing? I very much doubt it. More likely is that this story follows other stories on abuse. It seems to me that hinting that charities are victims within a wider culture war is a distraction that will only serve to undermine the important message: we unreservedly apologise to the victims; we take safeguarding extremely seriously; we tried to deal with the problem and informed stakeholders; we need to get better so as to minimise the chances of it happening again or, even better, eradicate completely the chance of it happening again.

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Karl Wilding Karl Wilding served as NCVO's chief executive from September 2019 to February 2021.

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