EU greenlights Oxfam but poised to suspend others over safeguarding concerns

An Oxfam shop in London, United Kingdom, February 11. Photo by: REUTERS / Peter Nicholls

BRUSSELS — The European Union has decided to resume awarding grants to Oxfam following its sexual misconduct scandal but could soon suspend funding to other aid groups who have failed to show how they prevent, detect, and investigate unethical behavior by staff.

The European Commission wrote to some 200 organizations that receive funding from its aid department in February, following revelations of sexual misconduct at Oxfam and other aid agencies. The letter asked the groups to reconfirm that they have a strong code of conduct and to outline their safeguarding mechanisms.

Sweden is the first donor to resume Oxfam funding

The Swedish development agency has announced its decision to go ahead with a new three-year humanitarian partnership with Oxfam, saying the charity has shown it now has “strong rules and routines” in place to prevent abuse.

Four months later, the “vast majority” have given satisfactory responses, Monique Pariat, the head of the commission’s humanitarian arm, ECHO, told Devex on Tuesday. However, she said some either did not respond, or provided insufficient answers. The EC recently wrote to those in the latter group for a second time, and Pariat said it is ready to suspend funding if there is no improvement.

Of those that replied, Pariat told a panel at the European Development Days conference in Brussels, Belgium, that about two-thirds have solid systems in place. Some successfully answered requests for more information, but with “others, we still have serious issues and if they don’t fix them then we will also suspend the partnership agreement.”

In Oxfam’s case, the EU put the signing of new grant agreements with the charity on hold as it investigated the issue, but a Commission spokesperson told Devex that on June 4, the decision was lifted after checks of the charity’s safeguarding procedures, and visits to its offices in the U.K., Netherlands, Lebanon, and Uganda.

“This resumption [of new agreements] will be done on a case-by-case basis, contract-by-contract, with strict monitoring. Meanwhile, we will continue to closely monitor Oxfam's compliance with our strict standards,” the spokesperson said. “Oxfam has also acknowledged that it is aware of its obligation to inform the European Commission of any [sexual misconduct] issues as soon as it becomes aware of them.”

An Oxfam spokesperson told Devex: "We have taken one step on a much longer road toward rebuilding trust with all of our donors, including the European Commission. Our work fighting to eradicate poverty and making sure that people in crisis receive the support they need will now be able to proceed with the help of the European Commission. At the same time, we continue to further strengthen our safeguarding policies, ensuring that we abide by the highest ethical and professional standards."

All the groups cleared to continue receiving funding have a satisfactory system “at least on paper,” Pariat said, adding that safeguarding measures will now form part of the Commission’s audit of its relationship with partners, in addition to financial checks.

She said that ECHO has discussed with EU member states and the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs how to better coordinate among themselves, in order to prevent wrongdoers moving between aid organizations, as occurred in the case of several men involved in the Oxfam scandal earlier this year. Questions have been raised about how this could be done without breaching defamation or data protection laws.

Winnie Byanyima, executive director of Oxfam International, told the panel that she supported the idea of a “humanitarian passport” that employees would carry to certify they can work with vulnerable people. Work on this is underway, Byanyima said. “It’s been slow but it’s now picking up. I’m hoping we can get somewhere, we can give someone a document that says ‘we trust you.’”

In the case of the 2011 scandal in Haiti, details of which emerged earlier this year, Byanyima recalled: “We found six people guilty in Haiti for breach of our code of conduct for paying for sex from women in the communities they were serving in, and we fired them. One of them was able to get a reference from another one, who had left, but who could write a reference and say ‘well, when he worked for me he was good.’”

Oxfam has since changed its referencing procedure, Byanyima said, with only certain people able to write them.

The Oxfam scandal in February was “a big blow, it was humbling, it was painful,” Byanyima said. But she added it was also “empowering, if I can say so, because in a way I feel like there is wind in my sails. That the things that I wanted to do in this organization [where] I met some resistance — ‘there’s no money, we can’t do this, we must do this…’ — are now possible. The organization, everybody, has woken up to our weaknesses: That women in our own organization, women who come to us, were suffering because of us. So, that has given me actually more power and more possibility to drive the change I would have wanted long ago.”

Byanyima and Pariat said a possible register of aid workers — mooted by the U.K.’s international development secretary, Penny Mordaunt — must be balanced with the presumption of innocence and data protection laws. Firing someone for breaching the organization’s ethical standards in its code of conduct is not enough to label them a wrongdoer on a public register, Byanyima said. “If you have not broken a law, your privacy is protected.”

Pariat said agencies need to find a way to tell each other about aid workers who have been the subject of serious misconduct allegations, without breaching individuals’ rights. “We are looking into that and this is something the International Committee of the Red Cross is particularly active on,” Pariat said. “We are collectively reflecting on how we can address that.”

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    Vince Chadwick

    Vince Chadwick is the Brussels Correspondent for Devex. He covers the EU institutions, member states, and European civil society. A law graduate from Melbourne, Australia, he was social affairs reporter for The Age newspaper, before moving to Europe in 2013. He covered breaking news, the arts and public policy across the continent, including as a reporter and editor at POLITICO Europe.