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Q&A | Reparations and rehabilitation – how Oxfam can build back better

‘It's not done until it really reaches the furthest outpost of the organisation.’

Zacarias Chemane/Community Engagement Working Group Mozambique/CDAC

Oxfam should pay reparations to people harmed by its staff, organise whistleblower systems to report abuse, and hire a chief ethics officer: those are just some of the recommendations from an independent panel looking into the NGO’s handling of sexual abuse and exploitation.

In an interview shortly after the panel reported last Wednesday, Katherine Sierra, one of the panel’s two co-chairs, told The New Humanitarian that even now, years after the Haiti scandal lifted the lid on wrongdoing, Oxfam’s safeguarding setup is not effective.

Q&A with Oxfam panel co-chair: key takeaways

  • ‘Pervasive bullying’ culture at Oxfam
  • Panel found sector-wide problems
  • Strong recommendation for reparations fund
  • Predators come in all ‘shapes and sizes’
  • Public reporting needed on case handling
  • Changes must be implemented ‘with teeth’

“What we have in the report is a set of pretty important changes that we think need to happen,” said Sierra. “This is not an add-on to their business. It's fundamentally part of the work that they do to protect people.”

Sierra, a senior fellow at The Brookings Institution and a former vice-president of the World Bank, said the panel had found “pervasive bullying” in the organisation. Staff, she said, complained of poor management in general and attitudes that needed to change.

The “Independent Commission” conducted interviews and surveys, consulted with survivors of abuse, and reviewed the organisation’s setup over a year. In its final report, launched alongside last week’s statutory enquiry in the UK, it said Oxfam’s broader culture needed major changes – problems weren’t limited to complaints related to sexual abuse, exploitation, or harassment.

Laying out how Oxfam should unify safeguarding across a confederation of affiliated national organisations, the commission urged the organisation to reform and aim to be an example to others. It also argued for more transparency on how cases are handled, saying more detail could be released to the public without harming survivors further.

In her 40-minute telephone interview with TNH, Sierra acknowledged that more policies and procedures would do little unless they are accompanied by “aggressive” implementation – “with teeth”. Details of a fund for victims and of how Oxfam should vet its partners and enforce changes are all still open for debate, she noted.

Here are excerpts of the interview, edited for length and clarity.

TNH: If this were a restaurant, you wouldn't have a hundred pages of consideration about its culture and its future prospects. You’d just shut it down, wouldn’t you?

Katherine Sierra: We did not conclude we should shut it down. Actually, we thought this is an organisation that works in a very, very complex environment where – both in the [Global] North and the [Global] South – sexual misconduct and abuse is unfortunately endemic. And the choice is, do you work in those situations and basically put in place all the safeguards to protect people, or do you withdraw? And I think the choice is that you work in those situations, and you put in place all the safeguards and you do them to the highest standard.

TNH: How much of your report is new stuff? And how much is a reiteration of what others have already said is necessary?

Sierra: Oxfam is a confederation, with many affiliates with different protocols, ways of doing work, cultures, which has been transforming for many years. We found that that transformation needs to go another step, to truly become an organisation that is very focused on the ‘do no harm’ principle. What we have in the report is a set of pretty important changes that we think need to happen to make that ‘one Oxfam’ a reality.

TNH: When will we see anybody actually go to prison or pay a fine?

Sierra: The survivors basically were very clear that they wanted justice, and one of the parts of justice is pushing people that have been transgressors or alleged transgressors into the judicial process.

That is something that we think needs to happen aggressively, but always with a survivor lens: some survivors will just not want that to happen, because it might put them at risk.

TNH: What surprised you the most?

Sierra: In Oxfam, internally, what surprised us the most was that most of the people wanted to talk about non-sexual misconduct issues. We note in our report that many offices are unhappy, they have managers that are not doing a good job, and that there is pervasive bullying.

That’s not universal. There's many offices where people seem to have a very positive work environment, but we were surprised at the level of complaints that appear to be substantiated about bullying and just poor management.

[Also] that the systems that have been put in place were not really working effectively – that the energy to make sure that these were working effectively hadn't been put in place, and that is not just an Oxfam criticism. It was of the sector writ large.

TNH: The report recounted examples of sexual exploitation and abuse, including withholding humanitarian assistance, termination of employment, and withholding payment for work. What would you say to those people affected?

Sierra: The voices we heard were heartbreaking, they were appalling. So, without varnish, we put them into our report. What we need to do, and what Oxfam needs to do, is to basically really internalise those voices and be aggressive and, with very strong implementation, put in place the systems that are going to be needed so that those people can have justice.

We've included a recommendation for reparations for the survivors and that is something new in the system.

TNH: How would reparations work?

Sierra: We have not done a roadmap for how reparations would work. We just didn't have the resources to do a full design, but we have a strong recommendation for a reparations fund.

Unlike other funds, which are kind of community-based – working on girls’ education or job creation or the like – we would like to see this fund actually being focused on the individual survivors and helping them repair their lives. We know that when people are abused, their lives can be permanently damaged psychologically, physically.

TNH: The report suggests that the majority of offenders are people of the same nationality as the victim. What is the real picture, balancing out the local and international threats?

Sierra: I think predators come in all stripes and sizes and nationalities. So we are not concluding that it is only local people that are abusing; in those settings where we did the [research] work, that what was found.

And it wasn't surprising because most of the workers in those settings are [local] nationals.

It means you have to look more carefully at who you're hiring, whether it is the international staff or the local staff or people that are in the communities as volunteers.

So there, we know that predators, people in power, find soft spots. They are looking for places to abuse. It means you have to look more carefully at who you're hiring, whether it is the international staff or the local staff or people that are in the communities as volunteers.

TNH: Does this kind of work attract predators?

Sierra: I think any type of work – whether it's in a school, whether it is in a religious organisation, whether in an aid setting – where you have power imbalances, you will find there's opportunities for people to abuse.

TNH: Your report seems to come from a generally positive point of view. Is it all a bit too cozy?

Sierra: No, I would not say it's too cozy. We tried to be a positive influence on Oxfam. We felt it was appropriate to both channel the very difficult messages that we heard from community members and staff, but also to acknowledge where Oxfam was going in the right direction.

TNH: What carrots and sticks are there for Oxfam to follow up on your recommendations?

Sierra: Being transparent is going to be the most important part. We have recommended that they maintain some type of external body that should be working with Oxfam over the next couple of years to hold their feet to the fire. We also believe that much stronger external reporting on cases needs to be put in place.

Current practice and emerging practice in many organisations is to be much more explicit about the number of cases, the type of cases, and what has actually happened to transgressors, while reserving privacy rights for survivors.

TNH: You say Oxfam could be a leader in this area of safeguarding. How could that happen for an organisation that's been caught with such levels of misconduct?

Sierra: To be clear, they have not set themselves forward as a leader. The commission has basically said: ‘if you do these things, and do them well, we want you to have the aspiration of leadership.’

We think that's the level of energy and commitment that is going to be required, to get through and to be effective.

TNH: Some other agencies have probably had worse abuses and have received less public vitriol and scrutiny. How does it appear to the commission?

Sierra: It did not come into our discussions. Our focus was on Oxfam. We do in the recommendations say ‘let's be clear, this is not unique’… the entire sector needs to step up.

This is going to take everyone to start getting much more serious about how they operate in the safeguarding area. We're not giving others a pass, but we're not naming others either.

TNH: How did you find morale among Oxfam staff?

Sierra: Well, of course, when you do this sort of work, people that are unhappy because of their work conditions, or because of what they've seen, are those that come forward. And what we found for them was a deep sense of sadness, sometimes anger, but what we also found was, you know, a kind of a love for the organisation as well.

They wanted Oxfam to be the place that they had joined because they believed in its mission and its values. So, a complicated story.

TNH: How does Oxfam now enforce its standards on those that it sub-grants to?

Sierra: We recognise that partners are going to be in a very important part of the strategy. If partners… need help on the safeguarding piece, than they need to be given the training, the resources and the like. We understand that Oxfam has now put in place a fund that will help get partners up to speed.

But let's be clear, there is a tension between working through partners where you do have higher risk, but there's the right thing to do. It's really part of the development process. So we have to understand that there's a calculated risk, but, if there's a transgression, to basically stop working with that partner.

TNH: If Oxfam can be reformed and rehabilitated, then wouldn’t it be hypocritical for it to throw an agency under the bus for a violation?

Sierra: No, we're not talking about a single violation. It's about whether or not this organisation can build the capacity to deliver the code of conduct.

I'm not able to judge that: it would depend on what the capacity of this organisation is, what [is] the transgression. I don't believe that our commission is looking at a punitive action towards partners. And, in fact, we believe that partners are going to be [a] very important part of the development process.

We recognise this is a new challenge. Resources have to be put into place there and support has to be given.

TNH: Anything else?

Sierra: Policies and procedures and capabilities are all fine – those are needed, that sort of “table stakes” – but two areas that we are going to be watching and people should be watching very closely:

One is implementation. It is easier to get agreement over a new policy in a new procedure and to put that in place and to say it's done. It's not done until it really reaches the furthest outpost of the organisation. And so testing for that, and putting the money behind it, making sure it actually gets to people that have to implement these new policies and procedures – with teeth – is going to be very important.

The second piece is the culture change, which we haven't talked too much about and that's hard to measure. It's really about changing the hearts and minds of individuals so that they see this is their business. This is not an add-on to their business. It's fundamentally part of the work that they do to protect people.

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