Fresh start for Oxfam as new CEO announced

Dhananjayan Sriskandarajah will be the new chief executive of Oxfam GB. Photo by: Monika Flueckiger / World Economic Forum / CC BY-NC-SA

LONDON — Aid insiders said it was the start of a fresh chapter for Oxfam GB as it announced its new chief executive on Tuesday, following a tumultuous six months.

The embattled charity named Dhananjayan Sriskandarajah, currently chief executive officer of CIVICUS, a Johannesburg-based global alliance of civil society organizations, as its new head. Described by insiders as a strong advocate of the “global south” and a progressive thinker on development, he is due to take up the role at the end of the year.

Sriskandarajah takes over from Mark Goldring, who has overseen the charity’s response to a sexual misconduct scandal that began earlier this year. That has included a package of reforms, the resignation of its deputy chief executive, and an independent review of its culture and safeguarding practices.

Oxfam is still subject to a Charity Commission inquiry however, and is not currently bidding on United Kingdom government contracts, at the request of the Department for International Development. It also needs to make £16 million in cuts ($20.85 million) after losing private donors and institutional funding in the wake of the scandal. Goldring announced he would step down in May, saying the charity needed to “be led by someone bringing fresh vision and energy and making a long-term commitment to see it through.”

In a statement, Sriskandarajah — who joined CIVICUS in 2013, and was previously director general of the Royal Commonwealth Society — did not explicitly mention the scandal, but said: “At a time when hunger is once again on the increase, almost 70 million people have been forced to flee their homes by conflict and persecution, and many countries are increasingly looking inwards, the U.K. and the world need a strong Oxfam more than ever." He added that he was “excited by the opportunity of leading Oxfam at this crucial point in its history.”

Aid insiders were quick to welcome Sriskandarajah to the role, with many describing it as an exciting appointment.

“This is a great appointment. Sriskandarajah gets the need for INGOs to evolve for a very new context. He has an ability to build trust with the diverse parts of the international development ecosystem. He will need to be bold — change needs to be driven through the sector, while maintaining the best traditions of British charity,” said aid author and researcher Jonathan Glennie, former director of policy research at Save the Children UK.

Owen Barder, vice president and senior fellow at the Center for Global Development said in an email to Devex: “This is a huge coup for Oxfam GB. Danny Sriskandarajah is rightly known as an authentic leader with strategic, ethical vision.”

Talking about the Haiti safeguarding scandal, Barder added: “Oxfam is part of the solution, not part of the problem, and Danny is the perfect person to establish that. I’m sorry to see Mark Goldring go: None of this happened on his watch, and he too has been an outstanding servant of the global community who has an enormous amount still to give.”

One former Oxfam staffer, who asked to remain anonymous to protect professional ties, said it marked a new direction for the charity, explaining that Goldring “represented the old school and that way is over.” They described Sriskandarajah — who was born in Sri Lanka, raised in Australia, lives in South Africa, and is a U.K. citizen — as “truly international,” with a fresh perspective on aid, including the relationship between “global north” and south. The charity has already moved its international secretariat from the U.K. to Kenya in an effort to strengthen its “legitimacy” and “relevance” in the south, although the recent scandal sparked a fresh discussion around power dynamics in aid.

Another said the appointment was “a step in the right direction,” describing Sriskandarajah as someone who “promotes the agenda of the ‘global south’ much more effectively and credibly” than many other aid leaders, and at least publicly has seemed to support those from the sector coming forward with safeguarding concerns. At the same time, they cautioned that Sriskandarajah had been selected by “deeply problematic senior staff” who had been involved in an inadequate historical response to safeguarding, so the true impact of the appointment would have to wait to be seen.

Caroline Thomson, Oxfam chair of trustees, said in a statement that Sriskandarajah “was clearly the right person to lead Oxfam on the path of change and renewal. He has a deep understanding of the challenges facing the sector as a whole, including on gender justice ... Above all, we felt he would ask the difficult questions and work well with colleagues across the Oxfam confederation to come up with the answers.”

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  • Jessica abrahams

    Jessica Abrahams

    Jessica Abrahams is Devex's Associate Editor for Europe. Based in London, she was previously an editor at Prospect magazine and has written for publications including the Guardian, the Telegraph, Bloomberg News, and Germany's taz.die tageszeitung with a focus on global women's rights and social affairs. She holds graduate degrees in journalism from City University London and in international relations from Institut Barcelona d'Estudis Internacionals.
  • Edwards sopie

    Sophie Edwards

    Sophie Edwards is a reporter for Devex based in London covering global development news including global education, water and sanitation, innovative financing, the environment along with other topics. She has previously worked for NGOs, the World Bank and spent a number of years as a journalist for a regional newspaper in the U.K. She has an MA from the Institute of Development Studies and a BA from Cambridge University.