Opinion: Learning from our mistakes to build back better

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Recent reporting of sexual misconduct by former Oxfam Great Britain staff in Haiti in 2011 has led Oxfam to take a hard look at our past. President Moïse of Haiti recently referenced these reports as one in a series of cases highlighting the power imbalance between aid groups and the Haitian people. From my first-hand experience in Haiti, I wholeheartedly agree.

After the Haiti incident in 2011, Oxfam GB fired four staff for sexual misconduct and three additional staff resigned, including the Country Director who took full responsibility for events under his management. A new Safeguarding Team and a confidential “whistleblowing” line were created as part of a package of measures to ensure that we do all we can to prevent sexual abuse and misconduct and improve how we handle allegations when they happen.  

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But, we made mistakes. At a minimum, we should have demonstrated greater transparency by being clear in our public statements at the time about the nature of allegations of sexual misconduct. And we should have had better procedures in place to minimize the risk that those who were fired would take new positions in other organizations.

We have undermined the trust of our supporters and those we serve. We cannot undo that. What we can do is learn from it and make this a turning point for our organization and our sector.

As a global confederation of 20 affiliates, including Oxfam GB and Oxfam America, Oxfam employs 10,000 people around the world. We will not tolerate any misuse of power by any staff and we will take swift and transparent action against any abuse.

We recently announced a wide-reaching new plan to change our culture, strengthen our policies, and hold ourselves accountable. This includes an Independent Commission on Sexual Misconduct, Accountability and Culture Change that will look into all aspects of Oxfam’s policies and practices relating to the safeguarding of staff, volunteers, and beneficiaries. Under the leadership of Zainab Bangura, a former under-secretary-general of the United Nations, and Katherine Sierra, a former vice-president of the World Bank, this group of experts from around the world will present a public report with recommendations on what more Oxfam and the wider aid sector can do to create a culture of zero tolerance for any kind of sexual harassment, abuse or exploitation.

We are also doubling the staff dedicated to preventing abuse and sexual misconduct and tripling their resources, and we have created a list of Oxfam staff who are officially authorized to provide references, designed to end the use of forged or dishonest references. And we stand committed to work with others in the sector to stop offenders moving from one organization to another.

Oxfam has apologized to the Haitian government and people for the actions of our former staff, and stand ready to begin the road of re-establishing trust and partnership. For 40 years, Oxfam has worked alongside farmers, teachers, and community-based disaster response committees in Haiti. Despite the horror we feel at what our former staff members have done, we are determined to remain strong and uphold the values that have long made Oxfam a force for good in Haiti and the world.

And to echo President Moïse’s concern, Oxfam has long recognized the challenges developing countries face when massive amounts of aid enter their countries. These challenges include a complex web of thousands of different types of foreign development actors, implementing hundreds of thousands of projects.

It’s precisely because of these complexities that for the last decade, Oxfam has doubled down on our efforts to increase aid effectiveness and work alongside local organizations, government officials, and like-minded peers to change how aid works to strengthen governments as the key manager of a country’s development.

The most effective aid is driven by needs and priorities of local communities, alleviates poverty in the long run, and doesn’t endanger those receiving assistance, those delivering it, or the environment. When aid is invested in citizens, they can root out corruption and demand accountability for aid dollars. And when aid is invested in those with the least power in communities, often women and girls, it has the power to support transformative change.

As humanitarians, we champion the principle of “build back better” to ensure that structures damaged in rapid onset emergencies are rebuilt to a standard that will better hold in storms that come a year or a decade down the road.

In Haiti and in the more than 90 countries we work in around the world, we “build back better” by partnering with local groups to achieve the best result. We recognize that locally informed and driven solutions to poverty are the best solutions — the most sustainable and the most appropriate — because they come from the people who can keep the initiatives going after Oxfam and its funding goes away.

In 2011, our measures to prevent sexual abuse and exploitation were lacking. We’ve learned from those mistakes and are building structures that will improve our culture, prevent abuse, and protect the more than 19 million people we help each year.

The world has made incredible progress in the fight to end poverty in the last quarter century and Oxfam has contributed to that journey. The number of people living in extreme poverty has been reduced by more than half during that time. And while it’s important to shed light on wrongdoing by staff from Oxfam or any other organization and to ensure we take steps to prevent wrongdoing in the future, the challenge of poverty and injustice remains and the work of the international humanitarian community must continue.

About the author

  • Abby maxman oxfam america highres tb  9385 lqjy37d

    Abby Maxman

    Abby Maxman joined Oxfam America as its president in 2017. She brings over 25 years of experience in international humanitarian relief and development to her new post. Prior to joining Oxfam, she served as deputy secretary general of CARE International in Geneva providing leadership of the Secretariat and across the CARE confederation.