Oxfam: Safeguarding failings laid bare

An Oxfam sign on a wall in Corail, a camp for those displaced by the 2010 earthquake, on the outskirts of Port-au-Prince, Haiti. Photo by: REUTERS / Andres Martinez

LONDON — Oxfam has been hit with an official warning from the United Kingdom charity regulator as two long-anticipated reports accuse it of putting communities at risk of exploitation and abuse in order to protect its programs and funding.

On Tuesday, the Charity Commission published the findings of its 18-month investigation into the NGO’s handling of allegations of sexual exploitation and bullying by senior Oxfam GB staff working in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake. Oxfam conducted an internal inquiry in 2011, which led to four staff being fired and three resigning.

“The impression the Inquiry has is that Oxfam GB’s handling of these matters was influenced by a desire to protect Oxfam GB’s reputation, and to protect donor and stakeholder relationships.”

— Charity Commission’s “Inquiry Report: Summary Findings and Conclusions, Oxfam”

When the scandal hit the headlines last February, the Charity Commission said it was concerned that Oxfam had not fully disclosed the incidents. 

Now, its report accuses Oxfam’s then bosses of “mismanagement” in relation to Haiti. But Helen Stephenson, chief executive at the Charity Commission, said Oxfam’s leadership failings went beyond that incident.

“Over a period of years, Oxfam’s internal culture tolerated poor behaviour and at times lost sight of the values it stands for,” she said in a statement. “The charity’s leadership may have been well-intentioned. But our report demonstrates that good intentions have limited value when they are not matched with resources, robust systems, and processes that are implemented on the ground.”

A second report published Wednesday also points to safeguarding failings across Oxfam’s global network of 19 affiliates. The report comes from the Independent Commission on Sexual Misconduct, Accountability and Culture Change at Oxfam, a group of nine commissioners appointed by Oxfam International in the wake of the Haiti scandal.

The commission’s brief was to look at the culture and safeguarding practices across the Oxfam confederation. It found that “Oxfam has prioritized its program goals over how it realizes its core values and the principle of ‘do no harm’ with communities, partners, and staff.” It also points to “ineffective reporting mechanisms, safeguarding process failures, and accountability gaps.”

Soon after the scandal broke, Oxfam GB withdrew from bidding on U.K. government contracts, which accounted for about 8% of its income in 2016. Last June, Oxfam said it had also lost 1 in 10 of its regular, individual donors as a result of the scandal and had introduced a £16 million ($21.2 million at the time) cost-cutting plan to cope with the shortfall.

A spokesperson for the Department for International Development said it will review both reports and make a decision about whether to resume funding for Oxfam “in due course.” The new international development secretary Rory Stewart, who took over last month, is expected to meet Oxfam’s chair of trustees to discuss the findings.

“Oxfam is an important British institution that saves lives in some of the world’s toughest places. This is a long-term process, in which there are no easy answers or room for complacency. We will be working closely with both Oxfam and the Charity Commission in the coming weeks,” Stewart said in a statement.

Haiti failings

The Charity Commission’s report draws on more than 7,000 pieces of evidence. It looked at the charity’s handling of events in Haiti, as well as its more recent safeguarding record.

While the report stops short of accusing the NGO of trying to cover up the misconduct in Haiti, it found that Oxfam GB was “not as full and frank about the nature and seriousness of the incidents and problems in Haiti as they should have been” in its reports to donors and the regulator itself.

“The impression the Inquiry has is that Oxfam GB’s handling of these matters was influenced by a desire to protect Oxfam GB’s reputation, and to protect donor and stakeholder relationships,” the report states.

It criticizes Oxfam for failing to act earlier, saying that senior leadership knew about “underlying behavioural issues” among some Oxfam staff as early as June 2010 and that they failed to report to police emails sent in 2011 claiming that two children had been abused by an unnamed charity “boss.”

“The commission’s findings are very uncomfortable for Oxfam GB but we accept them.”

— Caroline Thomson, chair of trustees, Oxfam GB

It also suggests that senior staff implicated in the scandal were shown more leniency than junior staff. Country director Roland van Hauwermeiren was allowed to make a “phased and dignified exit,” instead of facing formal disciplinary procedures, in order to avoid disrupting the program and damaging Oxfam’s reputation, the report says. More junior staff accused of similar misconduct had their contracts terminated.

Oxfam has accepted the commission’s findings and vowed to do better.

“The commission’s findings are very uncomfortable for Oxfam GB but we accept them,” Caroline Thomson, chair of trustees, said in a statement. “I am confident that Oxfam GB is changing, and that the steps we are taking are putting Oxfam on the right path for the future,” she added.

The NGO said it has tripled its investment in safeguarding and taken steps to improve governance and oversight since the scandal broke.

A group of former Oxfam GB trustees and senior executives –– including former Deputy Chief Executive Penny Lawrence and CEO Mark Goldring, who both resigned following the Haiti revelations –– also admitted they did not do enough.

“We recognize today that our efforts in 2011 and subsequently were insufficient, especially in the light of all of the information available to the Charity Commission in the course of this statutory inquiry,” Alison Talbot, partner and head of national charities at the law firm Winckworth Sherwood, said in a statement on their behalf.

A toxic work environment

The Oxfam-appointed independent commission was equally severe in its critique of Oxfam, but looked at the confederation and not just Oxfam GB. It commended the NGO for showing “tremendous will, energy, and commitment to reform,” and said that sexual misconduct and abuse are part of a much bigger problem across the aid sector.

But it also states that the problems at Oxfam extend beyond sexual misconduct and that many staff operate in “toxic or unsupportive environments” and that “the well-being of staff requires immediate attention.”

The commissioners said Oxfam’s “highly complex confederation” structure, which includes 19 affiliates with “different organization cultures,” was part of the problem and said the NGO needed to develop a single Oxfam-wide safeguarding network.

Shannon Mouillesseaux, one of the independent commissioners, told Devex that Oxfam must now ensure its reforms are “survivor-centered” and should appoint a “lead survivor expert” and a “chief ethics officer” to oversee the implementation of that system.

The report also calls for Oxfam to support survivors including through access to services and justice and “reparations to help survivors rebuild their lives on their own terms.”

In a statement, Winnie Byanyima, Oxfam International’s executive director, said she welcomed the commission’s findings and said they planned to hire a chief ethics officer and culture lead. They are also setting up a €550,000 ($662,572) Global Integrity Fund to help strengthen the safeguarding work of local civil society organizations.

“I want to humbly apologize to all of the staff and community members who have been harmed by Oxfam, its people, its leaders, its culture. We are moving quickly in changing our workplace culture and will continue to implement all of the recommendations of the Commission,”  Byanyima said.

Frances Longley, head of Amref Health Africa and co-chair of the safeguarding working group at Bond, the U.K. network of development NGOs, told Devex that the Oxfam investigations have prompted Bond’s members to “look very closely at what is going on in our own organizations and really commit to doing better.” Improvements and commitments have been made — including the establishment of an Inter-Agency Misconduct Disclosure Scheme — but more needs to be done, she added.

“It has shone a really bright light onto an area where no-one should be complacent,” she said.

About the author

  • 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.