Oxfam internal inquiry finds 'pervasive' culture of bullying

An Oxfam bookshop. Photo by: Hazel Nicholson / CC BY

LONDON — An independent inquiry into Oxfam International’s work on safeguarding — sparked by allegations of breaches by senior staff in Haiti in 2011 — has described a “pervasive” culture of bullying, as well as staff reports of elitism, racism, sexism, “colonial behavior,” and “patriarchy.”

The findings are detailed in an interim report published Wednesday by the nine-strong Independent Commission on Sexual Misconduct, Accountability and Culture Change at Oxfam. Selected and appointed by Oxfam International, the commission describes itself as an “independent group of international experts from business, government and civil society.” Oxfam is also being investigated by the U.K.’s charity regulator, which is due to publish its report later this month.

“At the heart of this issue is how power is managed and trust is earned and kept.”

— Independent Commission on Sexual Misconduct, Accountability and Culture Change interim report

The commission was set up in response to a string of stories revealing that senior Oxfam staff, including its then Haiti country director, had been investigated by the NGO for alleged sexual exploitation and bullying offenses, including paying young Haitian women for sex during the humanitarian response to the 2010 earthquake. Four men were fired and three were “allowed to resign” as a result of the investigation. Some went on to work at other development charities.

The commission’s interim report found that while Oxfam has taken positive steps to improve its safeguarding practices over the past year, much more still needs to be done. It concludes that concerns around safeguarding point to broader issues.

“Ultimately, the commission’s work so far has revealed that sexual misconduct is only one of the concerns floated by staff, and is seemingly symptomatic of larger systemic problems that must be addressed,” the report stated, adding that “deep transformation around trust (between staff and with processes) and power (the space and ability to hold people to account) within Oxfam is required” to enact real change.

It also warns that the NGO’s ongoing reforms have not always been participatory, and that some have been imposed on communities, warning that “the voice and input of Oxfam’s staff, partners, and the communities it serves are at risk of going unheard as improved safeguarding policies and procedures are developed.”

“The organization has prioritized what it aims to achieve over how it is done, at some cost to its staff and the communities they serve. At the heart of this issue is how power is managed and trust is earned and kept,” the report stated.

Investigators put forward four recommendations, including that Oxfam’s senior management empower staff, communities, and partners to act when they see sexual misconduct through stronger systems; and invest in “personal and team reflections” about how to improve Oxfam’s culture. They also call for the creation of a “single, unified, confederation-wide, and streamlined safeguarding system” to be adopted.

However, some observers said the report did not go far enough in ensuring accountability and support for victims.

The charity, which has begun a significant program of reforms since the scandal broke, welcomed the report. While it “makes for challenging reading for everyone within the Oxfam Confederation,” it said in a press release, “this level of detailed scrutiny is exactly what is required at a crucial moment in our history.” In a statement, Oxfam International Executive Director Winnie Byanyima promised to “use [the commission’s] emerging recommendations to bolster our ongoing improvements.”

The allegations against Oxfam came amid a slew of revelations about safeguarding problems across the sector, including at Save the Children, which is also the subject of a Charity Commission inquiry; Médecins Sans Frontières; UNAIDS; and most recently the International Planned Parenthood Federation.

“I haven’t seen any report on safeguarding talking about addressing colonial attitudes or dismantling the patriarchy.”

— Megan Nobert, facilitator of the survivor reference convened for the report

The commission began work looking into Oxfam’s culture, accountability and safeguarding policies, procedures, and implementation in May 2018 and is due to publish its final report in May this year. The findings are drawn from interviews with Oxfam staff across its international secretariat as well as employees from its 19 affiliated organizations working across 90 countries.

Commissioners also met with communities during country visits and have commissioned “in-depth community safeguarding research” in three countries. They also convened a 10-person “survivor reference group,” made up of people who have survived sexual abuse but not necessarily at the hands of an Oxfam staff member.

Megan Nobert, who facilitated the reference group and has long campaigned for safeguarding reforms after she was raped while working for an NGO in South Sudan, described the report as “one of the deepest pieces of analysis” on an organization since the safeguarding crisis erupted last year. She praised commissioners for “getting at the organizational culture and not just violations of safeguarding,” and including words such as “colonial” and “patriarchy.”

“I haven’t seen any report on safeguarding talking about addressing colonial attitudes or dismantling the patriarchy … There are some really bold and strong things in this report,” Nobert said. She emphasized the point that Oxfam must keep consulting with “those directly affected by safeguarding violations” and ensure they are “integrated into reforms going forward.”

Others raised concerns about some aspects of the report. One safeguarding expert, who did not wish to be named because of professional sensitivities, said there was not enough emphasis on accountability and understanding the cause of the culture the report describes. The expert also worried that the broad focus on “bullying” risked diverting attention from the key issue of sexual violence.

Former aid worker Meg Davis, who is a member of the survivor reference group and runs courses on addressing sexual violence for humanitarian program managers, praised Oxfam for undergoing such a thorough and public investigation and urged other aid groups to do the same. But she added it was worrying to see no mention of the multiple needs that survivors of sexual abuse and exploitation have, including health care, psychosocial support, and help to access justice.

And Gabrielle Landry Chappuis, a safeguarding consultant based in Geneva, said the recommendations to create a single safeguarding system and explore the feasibility of an “internal ombuds program” for reporting alleged abuse could prove problematic. The recommendations are a response to what the report describes as an "extraordinarily complicated" global governance structure at Oxfam, which it said can undermine efforts to improve accountability. But Landry Chappuis argued that such a move could dissuade people from coming forward if safeguarding was all handled internally.

“Oxfam needs to be sure to have multiple formal and informal, internal and independent externalized entry points for staff and for beneficiaries everywhere,” she said.

In a press release, Oxfam said it has introduced a range of safeguarding reforms over the past year, including hiring more safeguarding experts across its confederation; rolling out stronger policies and practices around “safer recruitment”; and introducing a central referencing system “so that all staff references will refer to findings of gross misconduct, including sexual abuse, where it is lawful to do so.” It apologized to those affected by the behavior described in the report, and pledged to follow up on any case of abuse or exploitation passed to it by the commission.

“I thank our staff and partners for the significant improvements they are helping to drive in our policies and culture. I and Oxfam’s other senior leaders are acutely aware of our responsibilities,” Byanyima said.

About the author

  • 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.