Oxfam and Haiti: Next steps for charities (part II)

A week is a long time in charity

It is now a week since The Times first reported on Oxfam’s work in Haiti. Last weekend, we set out our early thoughts on the implications. These still feel very much relevant – and this post is ‘part II’, based upon our interactions with the public, media, regulators and colleagues in the sector, including those at Oxfam. Please also read my first post for practical help and links on safeguarding and whistleblowing.

Safeguarding, safeguarding, safeguarding

Much of the media coverage and public debate is about Oxfam: its leadership and governance, effectiveness and ways of working. I fear that in our rush to defend people and organisations who we know want to (and mostly) do good, we are sometimes lose sight of what is at the core of the story: protecting people in vulnerable situations. Our focus has to be on strengthening safeguarding, both directly in terms of safeguarding procedures and culture, including whistleblowing, and indirectly through strengthening transparency and accountability.

Solutions are possible

It is now emerging that these are issues that have been hiding in plain sight for decades. These are safeguarding issues that have been faced by other institutions in society – the church, schools, the media. The news yesterday was dominated by a similar story, but in the context of football, our national sport. These are safeguarding issues that some (though not all) institutions have successfully taken action on.

It’s important that we are clear that these are solutions. We are facing the risk that a narrative emerges that this is a hopeless situation – that nothing can be done – with a resultant loss of faith in development work that worsens the situation of those that we are trying to help. Save the Children’s Kevin Watkins has started that debate with, amongst other proposals, the suggestion that aid workers should require a global passport. When we are clear what went wrong, and what the right lessons are, we need to debate widely these solutions.

There are safeguarding issues specific to international development charities that need to be addressed. As I said in my last post, at NCVO we feel strongly that domestic charities also need to review and learn from this episode. We are working with the Charity Commission and DCMS to take forward this agenda. We believe one way forward is for a commission on safeguarding. This would be tasked with taking evidence, listening to stakeholders, and publishing lessons to be learnt and recommendations for strengthening safeguarding.

Safeguarding volunteers: getting the balance right

A key safeguarding issue that has emerged is in relation to volunteers, in this case in charity shops. The question from the public is both simple and pointed: is it safe for my son or daughter to volunteer in a charity shop? The answer is yes – assuming the right safeguarding is in place. We’ve worked with the Association of Volunteer Managers and the Charity Retail Association to be clear what this looks like. The risk here is of going too far down a tick-box, DBS check-anything-that-moves approach, which some are already calling for. NCVO’s volunteering lead Shaun Delaney has written on how do we get this right in Dealing with abuse: are criminal records checks the answer?

The politics of aid. And charity.

I argued in my last post that conspiracy theories regarding the timing of the story are a distraction. I remain of that view. Nevertheless, this is now a crisis that some are seeking to exploit to further their views on aid spending, any government funding of charities, and the very concepts of charity and even altruism. Thus it ever was.

There is currently a shoot first, aim later approach amongst some commentators, while politicians across the spectrum are determined to see heads role and blame apportioned. An honourable exception was Penny Mordant, the Secretary of State for International Development, whose statement was tough but measured, an example of how not to rush to judgement. Nevertheless, the resumption of parliament next week, and on Tuesday in particular when select committees question the Charity Commission and leading aid charities, will no doubt see an escalation.

It is worth reminding ourselves, and others, that a majority of the public support aid spending, and donate to charity. Many are regular volunteers for the causes that they believe in. That there is more consensus than division on the role of charity in today’s world. And those messages should come from all political perspectives: both left and right.

The end of charity?

We continue to receive questions from the media about whether donations will fall and whether or not this is an existential crisis not just for Oxfam, or aid charities, but for the voluntary sector as a whole. We think the answer is not.

Evidence from CAF suggests that, over the longer term, crises make little difference to charitable giving. We’ve seen individual organisations recover the trust of the public following a crisis. For others, this has strengthened their resolve to support the causes that they believe in.


This is not to be complacent: past performance is not necessarily a guide to the future. As ever, what matters most is whether or not we address the questions that many are now legitimately asking, whether that is about Oxfam or the sector more broadly.

Many people don’t understand or aren’t comfortable with how charities work

And it’s our fault. What’s also clear from the comments that we are receiving is that we are still failing to communicate to a wide enough section of the public how the modern charity sector works. That is not for want of trying, it’s just that there is more to do. That so many people are surprised to hear that charities receive any funding from government does not help us when we wish to explain that, by and large, that money is spent wisely, reported on extensively and scrutinised severely. If we did that better, rare scandals like Kid’s Company could be reported within the framework of what they are: rare.

Conversely, I think it is equally clear that the public are perfectly capable of understanding the difference between large and small charities. We have very good evidence of this. So it does our sector no good to say that the problems faced by large charities are tarring smaller charities with the same brush. They are not – the public know this. It is also complacent. Safeguarding culture needs to be strengthened in all charities.

Truth and reconciliation

To coin an old phrase, a week in, this crisis feels like the end of the beginning, rather than the beginning of the end, of this episode. The executive director of Oxfam International, Winnie Byanyima, has announced a high-level commission to examine Oxfam’s practices and culture. I would urge you to watch her statement.

Byanyima has described Oxfam’s failure to adequately safeguard those it was working with, and its subsequent failure to adequately deal with and report those failings, as an ‘appalling mark against the high values we set for ourselves’. It is taking substantial action, on safeguarding and even greater transparency. This is also a much-needed process of truth and reconciliation that seeks justice for those abused. Oxfam has got things badly wrong. It is clearly seeking to put them right. We should now all support that.

Like everybody reading this (and Oxfam supporters especially, if I understand correctly), I’m upset and angry about what has happened. I’m also worried. Oxfam is an organisation for good and it is right and proper that it is now scrutinised and held to account for its failings and the way that it dealt with them. If Oxfam did not exist tomorrow, we would need to invent it.


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Karl Wilding Karl Wilding, Director of Public Policy and Volunteering, leads NCVO's volunteering, policy, research and campaigning work in the UK and internationally. With lead responsibility for shaping the external environment for the voluntary sector, he blogs about the big issues facing voluntary organisations.

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