Oxfam sexual abuse scandal: Are the aid sector's HR systems failing?

Discussion between a member of the European Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations and an Oxfam employee on the assessment of the needs of the disaster victims from the camp of Pétionville in Haiti. Photo by: Carlos Juan / ECHO

LONDON — In the wake of news that some of the men involved in the Oxfam sexual misconduct scandal went on to find work elsewhere in the aid sector, humanitarian organizations are being forced to examine the human resources and safeguarding practices that allowed alleged perpetrators of sexual exploitation to move from disaster zone to disaster zone, ignored or undetected.

According to The Times newspaper, some of the men named in Oxfam’s 2011 internal report who were either sacked or allowed to resign from their posts were subsequently employed by other charities including Action Against Hunger and Mercy Corps. Both organizations said they had received positive references for the men. It has also been alleged that concerns about one of the men had been raised several times in different postings.

Oxfam staffers and humanitarian human resource consultants told Devex the incidents that took place in Haiti are rare but not isolated, cutting across the humanitarian sector due in large part to systemic weaknesses in human resource and safeguarding protocols.

“Every organization is figuring out how to address this issue, and they have been trying to figure it out for some time,” Megan Nobert, founder of Report the Abuse, told Devex. Ironically, she said, many organizations had been following the example of Oxfam, which had created a safeguarding department, new codes of conduct, and stronger reporting mechanisms as a result of the 2011 case. It has also announced a further package of measures in the last few days.

Penny Mordaunt, the United Kingdom’s aid chief, floated the idea on Monday of a “global register” of aid workers to prevent those who have been involved in misconduct from moving on to other organizations undetected. Charities such as Save the Children, Christian Aid and Islamic Relief have also proposed solutions to make the system more accountable. They point to the need for more communication between headquartered HR teams and field offices; better intrasector recruiting and hiring coordination; and a reassessment of the use of short-term contracts, which can make field staff feel vulnerable in speaking out.

But others point to legal flaws in the proposals, arguing that any “blacklist” that included accused but unconvicted perpetrators would open up organizations to the risk of being sued for defamation. Instead, some are taking a broader approach, calling on donors to increase resources to the dwindling humanitarian purse, to allow organizations to build up HR capacity to conduct more rigorous checks on current and potential employees.

While well-intentioned, the growing decentralization of humanitarian work may create additional obstacles to robust, organization-wide HR and safeguarding capacities, some also suggested.

The risk of speaking up

The first obstacle to reporting abuse, aid workers told Devex, is that staff in country offices may not be trained to spot the signs of sexual misconduct, and may be afraid to speak up about abuse perpetrated by their superiors if they do.

Speaking to Devex on condition of anonymity to preserve professional ties, a former Oxfam staffer in the Middle East region said the widespread use of short-term contracts by many humanitarian organizations — often as brief as three months — allows for flexibility on the ground, but also creates a culture of intimidation that keeps many national staff from reporting “problematic incidents” involving their superiors.

“The kind of contracts that we had at the country level, it was a three-month contract without any insurance of future employment, so then whenever there is a conflict of opinion with your manager, you feel vulnerable,” he told Devex.

“The justification for these short-term contracts is that the situation is fluid, but at the same time we were not protected, so I didn’t feel like I, or anyone else could speak up.”

He said that when he worked for Oxfam in 2014 — after the organization had implemented its new whistleblowing and safeguarding measures following the Haiti investigation — many country offices were enjoying greater autonomy from headquarters in London, as a result of Oxfam’s effort to devolve more authority to its country offices through its “vision for 2020.”

“If things are being reported regularly to HQ and nothing happens, it seems like it’s getting stuck somewhere,” he said. “The global vision for aid now is to decentralize, which in my opinion is a good approach. It’s better for the beneficiary and it saves money, actually. The intention is good, but the implementation was not going well.”

For example, he said that while Oxfam had carefully selected and deployed water and shelter experts to his country office when the program began, it sent no HR or safeguarding professionals.

“When you have HR that’s able to move here and there, that would also improve things, because they might be able to pick up on anything abnormal,” he said. “If you had professional HR people there, even just traveling on and off to those locations, they would be able to pick up on the attitudes of the staff and any abnormal behaviour.”

Oxfam had not responded to requests for comment at the time of publication.

A good reference

However, revelations about the Haiti case suggest that even when misconduct is picked up on and investigated, it may not prevent perpetrators from finding work elsewhere in the sector. It emerged on Monday that one of the men involved in the Haiti case, Roland Van Hauwermeiren, had previously been accused of exploitation in postings in Chad and Liberia — and went on to find work in Bangladesh after leaving Haiti — prompting questions about the rigor of both internal and external humanitarian recruiting practices.

“When you need someone that can get on the ground in 24 hours, there isn’t always going to be the time to vet them to the level we would want to, and that’s going to be a big part of the conversation over the next few months.”

— Megan Nobert, founder of Report the Abuse

“In a sudden onset emergency you need to get massive amounts of people on the ground very quickly,” Nobert told Devex. “When you need someone that can get on the ground in 24 hours, there isn’t always going to be the time to vet them to the level we would want to, and that’s going to be a big part of the conversation over the next few months: How do we change that gap in that problem?”

The current funding squeeze on the humanitarian sector doesn’t spare HR departments, she added. “HR is overwhelmed. There is huge turnover in the humanitarian community because of the nature of where we work,” she said.

She pointed out that since a lot of HR management is done remotely, this makes it even more difficult to vet candidates. There’s “not enough training for HR officers — it tends to be an entry-level job, especially in the lower ranks,” she said. But “needs are still growing, there’s ... more that needs to be done with a smaller amount of money.”

Asked by Devex to share their recruitment and safeguarding procedures, a number of humanitarian organizations, including Islamic Relief, Médecins Sans Frontières, CAFOD, Save the Children, Christian Aid, and others offered a variable snapshot of how candidates are selected. Criminal checks are usually carried out “when applicable,” and often every few years, but typically do not cover international jurisdictions. Organizations also require two or three references of the candidate’s choosing.

Organizations are not legally required to disclose the reasons why a candidate left their previous post, and are unlikely to do so voluntarily out of fear of falling foul of defamation laws, Nobert said.

“Organizations are scared to say somebody has been accused or committed, particularly a misconduct act because for one thing, if it hasn’t been proven to a criminal level, if there hasn’t been a police investigation, there isn’t a full report, if we haven’t proven them guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, it opens up a lot of legal worms,” she said.

On the safeguarding side, a few organizations, including Islamic Relief Worldwide, have followed Oxfam’s lead in designating a “safeguarding contact” in all country offices. Organizations also said they condemn sexual misconduct in their employee codes of conduct.

“We have a dedicated safeguarding contact in each of our 30 field offices with whom concerns can be raised, and a staff code of conduct that makes sexual harassment a matter of gross misconduct,” IRW’s head of governance, Khaleel Desai, told Devex, adding that safeguarding could be approached more comprehensively going forward. “We are reviewing our policies and procedures to identify what we can do to better protect all vulnerable people, whether they are our beneficiaries, staff or those being assisted by other NGOs.”

Several humanitarian aid workers — including one with more than a decade of experience working for the United Nations and INGOs — said the sector’s loose treatment of references needs the most urgent review.

“You can take a past employer off your CV if you want to hide that you were fired, or you can choose anyone from within the organization, or a friend to fake being your previous supervisor, for reference checks,” one aid worker wrote in an email.

Another aid worker deployed in the Middle East and North Africa region, who was allowed to resign after encountering “political differences” with a supervisor, said he found it “surprisingly easy” to conceal his dismissal. Speaking to Devex anonymously, he said he expressed worry to one of his referees that a potential employer might find out about the conflict through his second referee, but was told “not to worry about it” and that the organization he was applying to “doesn’t follow up on references.”

Humanitarian organizations’ poor capacity for following up on references — either due to a lack of resources or the time constraints of deploying staff in an emergency — makes matters worse, Nobert said.

“Most organizations ask for three names, ideally your last few line managers,” she said. “We do it as a box checking exercise, but there are ways to take references beyond a box checking exercise, so for example doing informal references.”

Nobert suggested that, with more time or resources, organizations could make it common practice to call up the previous employer and find someone who was in the same office as their candidate, to discern aspects of their background or personality “that don’t come across in a formal interview or a formal reference.”

Solutions

Another potential solution to the reference issue emerged from Save the Children UK last year, when it suggested using blockchain technology to launch a “humanitarian passport.” The passport would detail the aid worker’s previous background checks and “retain details of all previous conduct,” a Save spokesperson told Devex. The charity is already working with Interpol to “strengthen the criminal records checking system, globally,” she said.

“The passport will represent an unbreakable ‘chain’ of information — for example, criminal records checks, official references from HR departments of other NGOs, certification of relevant training and experience — that individual NGO workers cannot tamper with,” the spokesperson said. “It creates a robust, truthful digital identity for NGO staff that will allow different NGOs to ensure they can rapidly send the right people to emergency responses around the world, and reduce the risk of NGOs rehiring people who might abuse or harm others.”

She added that Save is researching the best options for management of the passport system, adding “it might be a coalition of NGOs, or it might be an external, independent entity.”

While the system could be an important step toward improving coordination between agencies, and could motivate donors to prioritize human resources in their grantmaking, some said the problems of establishing guilt and potentially crossing defamation laws remain.

“The problem with making lists is unless you can say with absolute certainty that an event occurred, you are opening everybody associated with that list up to legal prosecution,” Nobert said.

The anonymous, decade-long aid worker added concerns about “a ‘where there's smoke there's fire’ mentality, where people have been blacklisted from future organizations or roles through no fault of their own … because of false rumours and baseless allegations,” she said.

In those cases, she said she observed “basically an abuse of power of those who instigated the rumours and spread them knowing that there was no evidence,” claiming that the victims’ “violations of privacy and defamation have been quite extreme.”

Save has also proposed the creation of safeguarding response teams which could be deployed to emergency settings quickly, bringing with them the expertise needed to spot the warning signs of sexual exploitation and other forms of abuse.

Better reporting mechanisms

Finally, a current Oxfam employee who asked to remain anonymous, said that one of the surest ways to tackle sexual abuse and exploitation is to put in place robust reporting mechanisms, allowing a safe channel for victims to report.

“In the aid sector, little to no organizations have this mechanism in place. Oxfam, which has recently come under fire in the press for [reports of sexual abuse], actually does have these mechanisms in place. They are some of the most thorough I have seen.”

She explained that the outraged reactions to the number of reported cases of sexual exploitation were understandable but, in part, misguided, since growing numbers of cases reflect better reporting mechanisms. While the crimes committed are heinous, she said, the fact that the reports are beginning to roll in is a “sign that the system is working.”

“Donors, in this case the Department for International Development [which has threatened to cut Oxfam’s funding as a result of the scandal], should not be over-reactive around high incident reporting,” she said. “Reports of ‘zero’ demonstrate an organization with a culture of impunity, of cover ups, and a lack of accountability to the local communities we serve.”

At the time of publication, Oxfam had not responded to requests for comment about the issues raised in this article, but said in a press release Sunday: “We will continue to address the underlying cultural issues that allowed this behaviour to happen. We also want to satisfy ourselves that we do now have a culture of openness and transparency and that we fully learn the lessons of events in 2011 … As a direct result of the stories in The Times, staff members have come forward with concerns about how staff were recruited and vetted in this case. We will examine these in more detail to ensure we further strengthen the improved safeguarding, recruitment, vetting and staff management procedures that were put in place after 2011.”

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About the author

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    Molly Anders

    Molly Anders is a U.K. Correspondent for Devex. Based in London, she reports on development finance trends with a focus on British and European institutions. She is especially interested in evidence-based development and women’s economic empowerment, as well as innovative financing for the protection of migrants and refugees. Molly is a former Fulbright Scholar and studied Arabic in Syria, Jordan, Egypt and Morocco.