What does the Charity Commission's 'official warning' mean for Oxfam?

A man walks past an Oxfam sign in Corail, a camp for people displaced by the 2010 earthquake, on the outskirts of Port-au-Prince, Haiti. Photo by: REUTERS / Andres Martinez Casares

LONDON — Oxfam has gotten off lightly after receiving an “official warning” from the United Kingdom’s charity regulator over its handling of the Haiti scandal, experts and campaigners have said.

Oxfam: Safeguarding failings laid bare

Two long-anticipated reports on the Oxfam Haiti scandal have delivered their verdicts.

On Tuesday, the Charity Commission released the long-awaited findings of its 18-month statutory inquiry, launched in response to allegations of sexual exploitation and bullying by senior Oxfam GB staff working in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake.

The damning report accused Oxfam’s then bosses of “mismanagement” of the situation and said the NGO downplayed the severity of the incident when reporting it to donors and the regulator itself. The commission also found broader safeguarding failings, including that the charity had not dedicated enough resources, systems, or processes to ensure communities and staff were kept safe.

As a result of the inquiry, the regulator issued Oxfam GB with an “official warning” under section 75A of the Charities Act 2011. Official warnings are a relatively new power for the Charity Commission, introduced in 2016 to fill a gap in the regulator’s powers, which previously limited it to either taking severe action or offering guidance, experts said.

Warnings are issued when the regulator believes there has been misconduct or mismanagement in a charity, and where “the harm, or risk of harm ... is sufficient to require the commission to take action,” but where more severe action would not be proportionate, according to a government factsheet. It says the purpose is to ensure the organization or individuals concerned know a breach has taken place and that it needs to be rectified.

Some 20 official warnings, and notices of official warnings, were issued between 2017-2019, according to a government report. Prior to Oxfam, the most high-profile organization to receive a warning, was the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, which was sanctioned over a settlement paid out to the acting chief executive. 

In a statement, the U.K. government — which has positioned itself at the forefront of the response to the ensuing safeguarding scandal in the aid sector — described the warning given to Oxfam as a “significant regulatory action.” A spokesperson for the Charity Commission told Devex it was a “sanction for the serious failings identified, by our inquiry, at the charity over a period of years. It will sit on the charity’s record and the public register, for a period of 12 months.”

But experts who spoke to Devex said that the warning represented a relatively low-level use of the commission’s powers. It can also remove or suspend trustees and senior executives, even if they have already moved on, and put in place an interim manager.

Alison Talbot, partner and head of national charities at Winckworth Sherwood — who is representing a group of former Oxfam trustees and executives — said the warning is neither a direction nor an order, but “provides a means by which the Charity Commission can draw attention to concerns about a charity’s actions without apportioning blame on any particular person or group of individuals.”

The commission also gave Oxfam GB a regulatory direction to submit an action plan for the commission’s approval by June 30. This is a common course of action for the commission, Talbot said, adding that the three-week timeline is feasible since Oxfam is already complying with many of the report’s recommendations.

But some campaigners said they were disappointed the commission did not take stronger action, or hold individuals accountable.

"Like so many recent inquiries into sexual abuse at major NGOs and U.N. agencies, this report will comfort both the perpetrators and the decision-makers ... because their anonymity is ... secure.”

— Paula Donovan, co-director, AIDS-Free World

They also questioned the regulator’s own conduct. It had investigated Oxfam GB over safeguarding allegations just a few months before the Haiti story hit the headlines but closed the case without moving it to a full inquiry, saying the charity had “strong” safeguarding practices, though it did tell it to undertake an action plan. 

The allegations had concerned “recent and non-recent safeguarding incidents involving senior programme staff, including allegations of sexual harassment of other staff," according to the case report. The Charity Commission did not provide further details about the case when asked by Devex.

Oxfam GB’s former CEO and deputy CEO, Mark Goldring and Penny Lawrence, both resigned following the Haiti scandal, although Goldring did not work for charity at the time of the incident. New CEO Dhananjayan Sriskandarajah has since taken over.

“There has been a serious failure of governance at Oxfam and the accountability should and must fall on the shoulders of the trustees and previous CEOs,” said activist Alexia Pepper de Caires, who co-founded NGO Safe Space after reporting sexual misconduct while working for Save the Children UK

“The wider sector’s lack of will or ability to get their house in order reflects badly on the Charity Commission, too,” de Caires said.

Other campaigners agreed. "Like so many recent inquiries into sexual abuse at major NGOs and U.N. agencies, this report will comfort both the perpetrators and the decision-makers ... because their anonymity is ... secure,” said Paula Donovan, co-director at AIDS-Free World, which runs a campaign to end impunity for sexual abuse committed by United Nations personnel.

‘Going to town’

At 143 pages, the Charity Commission report is much longer than most of its inquiry reports, and unusually includes a foreword from chair Baroness Stowell.

“What's clear is the commission has really gone to town on its inquiry report,” charity law expert Chris Willis Pickup, who is a partner at law firm Taylor Vinters and used to work for the Charity Commission, told Devex.

Willis Pickup agreed that the commission “could have taken much more severe action,” including disqualifying or suspending trustees and senior managers. Indeed, on Thursday, the commission announced it had disqualified a trustee from the Rigpa Fellowship, a London-based charity, for eight years over safeguarding failings.

For Willis Pickup, the fact that the commission did not single out individuals for regulatory action could be a sign it has faith in Oxfam’s current leadership to deliver change, and because it wanted to send a message about Oxfam’s culture across the board and not just in relation to Haiti.

“The report identified a cultural issue across the organization, and singling out individuals might deflect attention from the broader change needed,” he said.

Instead, the commission likely used the inquiry and warning as a way of “drawing a line under the episode publicly, using enhanced transparency to start to rebuild public trust,” he suggested. The report also sets out the Charity Commission’s “new expectations for the sector as a whole,” the lawyer said.

Oxfam GB said it is cooperating with the commission.

"Oxfam is committed to learning from the mistakes of the past. We accept the Charity Commission report’s findings and we will implement its recommendations,” a spokesperson said in an email to Devex.

Winnie Byanyima, Oxfam International’s executive director, also issued a statement this week laying out their plans.

“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.

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.