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

Beyond Oxfam

It’s now over two weeks since what began as a story about Oxfam first appeared. This has now widened to cover NGOs working in international development and charities more generally. The BBC has a useful timeline. With DfID’s deadline for reporting historic cases of abuse almost upon us, this is clearly a deeper, wider crisis than anyone first thought, and it’s not going away, if this weekend’s papers are any indication. In part I and part II of this series I’ve attempted to capture early learning and implications. This post continues that thread and is ideally read after the first two parts.

Questions are shifting from values to competency

The initial shock felt by the public resulted in many people questioning our values as a sector. It led to accusations that we have failed in our moral leadership. In response, we’ve been clear: these are not people or actions that we recognise. These are abuses of power, but they have not happened in our name, even if they have happened on our watch. And that is not good enough.

At NCVO, we’ve worked closely with journalists throughout this period and it now feels like their questions are shifting. There’s generally an acceptance that we’re not setting out to do bad, though this isn’t universal. The debate is shifting to whether we are competent in how we deliver our charitable purposes. We’ve had tough questions about why did it take a media investigation to uncover inadequate safeguarding procedures and culture. Or why has it taken a crisis for us to ask the question of whether or not we do, and to put new stronger measures in place.

This is now about trust (can we trust you based on shared values?) and confidence (do you operate efficiently and professionally?). Charities need a clear explanation of what policies and procedures they have in place to minimise situations where people are vulnerable. Charities also need clear explanations of what actions they have taken when needed to in the past. It is good to see that even the smallest are taking action.

Accountability and transparency: It’s a yes or no thing

Where our values do continue to be questioned is in relation to accountability and transparency. We have been asked the same question many times: have charities sought to brush under the carpet bad news in order to protect their reputation, even if done for the right reasons (a concern for beneficiaries over the long term)? We have to be clear in what we say and do: this is about protecting those in vulnerable situations. Not about protecting charities’ brands. To quote Carnegie – and the name of an excellent site on transparency and philanthropy – we all need glass pockets.

What also seems clear from the questions that we are receiving is that transparency is now deemed a central way to be accountable, and that a little bit of transparency might be worse than none. The discussion urgently needs to shift from the ‘should we, shouldn’t we’ debates we were having five years ago (yes, five) to conversations about what and how. Transparency per se is not a trap. A little transparency may be. And the focus has to widen from transparency just about how we spend our money – the IATI standard means that aid charities are about as transparent about money as it gets. Would it have helped in the current crisis? Maybe not. But don’t let that be used as an argument against better transparency, whatever that looks like.

We have to answer the media’s questions

This excellent article details what typically happens inside a charity when a media crisis strikes. In many ways it’s required reading. I was reminded of it again yesterday because in what should have been a story about the effective action a charity took in a safeguarding case, the interview instead focused on the charity’s refusal to make a spokesperson available over the weekend. I realise it’s media 101, but issuing a statement and not answering the phone is a ‘little bit of transparency’ tactic that doesn’t work. A similar tactic, by the way, is what one journalist said to me was the ‘drip, drip dripping’ of information. It’s really difficult, but full disclosure is required if we are to obey Alastair Campbell’s golden rule of how to survive a crisis.

A short-term crisis with long-term implications

For international aid charities, this is now an existential moment. 22 charities have come out and apologised – and that’s good, though based on some questions we at NCVO have received, there is now an emerging cynicism about just how much apologising there is.

More questions are now being asked about the development model – from the political right on how the private sector does a better job at poverty alleviation, and how charity perpetuates poverty; and from the political left on how aid is a hangover of seemingly long gone colonial attitudes and times. For others, it’s more fundamental: a basic lack of legal accountability. Although these issues seem new to the public (and as such are newsworthy), debates about the role and future of aid charities and development have been going on in our sector for years. Whether we held those debates sufficiently in the public domain may be worth reflecting on.

Either way, it feels inevitable that this is going to result in broader and deeper change than strengthening safeguarding, though many will argue such change has been underway for a number of years. This feels like a short-term crisis with long-term implications – in other words, it will result in substantial change.

To end on a positive note, I think that this crisis might result in a number of positive things, not least of which is a conversation with the public about some of the paradoxes that bedevil charities: expectations that we are professional and businesslike, but dismay when we do not fit a stereotype of amateurs and volunteers; expectations that we strengthen how we are run, but an obsession with low overheads; and a desire to solve global, seemingly insoluble problems (cancer; climate change), but dislike of the scale and complexity required to do so. None of these paradoxes are defences for what has happened. And I have already written that charities are changing. That they will continue to do so is clearer by the day.



Thanks to Jane Ide and Aidan Warner for spotting a couple of the links in this article. There are a good few more issues that have come up that need debate, not least of which is the role of regulation (see this and this in particular). I’ll come back to these later.

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

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