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EXCLUSIVE: Whistleblowers detail new Oxfam misconduct allegations in Iraq

‘What happens in Iraq, stays in Iraq.’

A few of several people through the back window of a car that is shattered with a bullet
Iraqis displaced after fighting in 2017. Oxfam whistleblowers say they were bullied and threatened by managers in Iraq from 2015 to 2020, a period that included forces battling militants from the so-called Islamic State group. (Erik De Castro/REUTERS)

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Unaddressed claims of misconduct by Oxfam staff weren’t confined to the Democratic Republic of Congo, five whistleblowers have told The New Humanitarian, revealing that complaints also piled up in Iraq before 12 workers finally filed a joint grievance last year.

The Iraq claims, coming hot on the heels of misconduct allegations in Congo earlier this month, point to persistent and enduring questions around the transparency of Oxfam’s dealings with its staff, the whistleblowers said.

The revelations also raise questions about the extent to which Oxfam made changes after its 2010 sexual exploitation scandal in Haiti: The Charity Commission for England and Wales called for a 100-point action plan a year after the Haiti scandal was uncovered in 2018, noting bullying and a “failure to consistently hold people to account for poor behaviour”. 

“What happens in Iraq, stays in Iraq,” one whistleblower who spoke with The New Humanitarian recalled a senior manager saying on learning that misconduct allegations had been raised. The former Oxfam worker alleged that the aid charity turned a blind eye to the manager’s behaviour for years because the person had been successful at raising donor funds. Two others said they also heard the manager use the same phrase.

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The whistleblowers told The New Humanitarian that individual concerns from workers in Iraq had been raised as far back as 2015, but the organisation made no significant changes, despite the joint grievance – filed by the Unite union to Oxfam in July – as well as warnings from an independent commission in June 2019 that the NGO should investigate serious allegations against senior staff in Iraq.

The joint union grievance included allegations of repeated bullying, verbal abuse, and being threatened with dismissals or bad references against employees if they complained. Workers also allegedly faced dismissals if they raised concerns about their fears of going into the field. 

Iraq declared victory against the so-called Islamic State in December 2017, but violent clashes and occasional airstrikes against militants from the group continued to flare in some parts of the country for months. Widespread protests that began in 2019 also left hundreds dead and tens of thousands injured.

One of the aims of the independent commission, established in the wake of the Haiti scandal, was to review Oxfam’s culture, accountability, and safeguarding practices. In the end, it found that, “Oxfam had prioritised its programme goals over how it realises its core values and the principle of ‘do no harm’ with communities, partners, and staff.”

After fielding complaints from Iraq staff, the chairs of the commission wrote to Oxfam, urging them to investigate serious misconduct claims that were allegedly “severely compromising staff wellbeing and mental health”.

“We believe this is significant enough to share with Oxfam so that steps can be taken to review and take action as required,” the letter said.

One of the former commission chairs, Kathy Sierra, declined to comment on the letter, saying discussions with Oxfam were done on a confidential basis.

Oxfam told The New Humanitarian on Tuesday that the concerns were addressed and investigated, and investigations had concluded. It said it could not divulge confidential details of findings or respond to the specific allegations, citing confidentiality.

“We took the concerns raised by staff and shared by the independent commission extremely seriously,” Oxfam said.  “We investigate all allegations and take action where they are upheld.  Action can range from dismissal to training to address inappropriate behaviour.” 

Oxfam also said that providing support for survivors and witnesses was a priority – whistleblowers, however, said they were repeatedly kept in the dark despite asking questions about the probe, and also given no support, even after articulating that the experiences had left them traumatised.

*Oxfam added that they have had regular meetings with the whistleblowers since the grievance was filed last year – an assertion that the five whistleblowers said was not true.

Witnesses in HR disputes, in and outside the aid sector, are often not updated about investigations – much like the typical experience of victims of sexual exploitation – and findings are rarely disclosed unless staff suspensions or dismissals take place. Oxfam, like some other NGOs, also refuses to release country-by-country data of misconduct allegations, obscuring the extent of the problem. Oxfam says releasing such data could compromise people’s identities.

Speaking out

The Iraq whistleblowers said they decided to break their silence and talk to The New Humanitarian after The Times reported earlier in the month that two senior Oxfam staff in the Kinshasa office had been suspended amid complaints of sexual exploitation, harassment, bullying, and fraud in an independent investigation that began in November.

There were no known allegations of sexual misconduct raised in Iraq, the whistleblowers said.

“Some of the statements made from workers in Iraq sound identical to some of the complaints we had in Congo – particularly the feeling that managers acted with impunity,” said one whistleblower who worked in the Democratic Republic of Congo, but not Iraq. 

Oxfam added that announcing the suspensions in Congo was a break in protocols, but it felt the two managers needed to be removed so that an investigation, which is still ongoing, could be conducted. It was unclear why the situation was different to that of the Iraq investigations. 

Three of the whistleblowers who worked in Iraq claimed that Oxfam’s complaint reporting mechanisms were not secure, explaining that managers had confronted them shortly after filing what they thought would be anonymous complaints. One said senior Oxfam management in the Erbil office also exaggerated the impact of local programmes in reports and refused to change the findings when confronted.

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“People had faith in Oxfam’s mission and its principles, and yet we feel such a sense of betrayal,” said one former Oxfam worker in Iraq, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear that comments could impact their current job. “We expected better from Oxfam. They have tolerated this behaviour, and they aren’t doing anything about it. It can’t keep continuing.”

The latest allegations come after Oxfam was cleared in February to re-apply for UK aid funding in the wake of the Haiti sex scandal – the Charity Commission said it had delivered on most of its recommendations. In 2018, The Times broke a story about Oxfam’s country director and others using sex workers after the 2010 Haiti earthquake. Some of them were reportedly underage.

The Haiti scandal, coming alongside the #MeToo movement, also triggered wider discussions about the persistence of sexual harassment as well as exploitation and abuse in the aid sector as a whole. Oxfam bore the brunt of the negative publicity, but misconduct, bullying, sexual harassment, and toxic workplace culture were reported in many non-profits, from Save the Children to UNICEF. Effectively managing complaints, picking up misconduct in the field, and stopping re-recruitment of offenders, remain among the unfinished work for many boards and oversight bodies. 

Last week, as a result of the Congo revelations, the UK’s Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office said future aid requests for Oxfam were back on hold.

Sex sells

The scandals that have generated the most headlines and prompted staff changes or disciplinary action have involved sexual abuse, sexual exploitation, and sexual harassment – not HR disputes – even though staff have said the organisational culture allowed for sexual exploitation and fraud to go unchecked at several Oxfam offices.

In the Congolese case, 22 current and former Oxfam staff also signed a joint complaint letter in February of this year, saying their concerns had been largely ignored since 2015. Whistleblowers in the Congo complaint told The New Humanitarian that senior managers made the work environment toxic, which had a trickle-down effect on country programmes.

Whistleblowers said it seemed like only scandals involving sex or major fraud prompted staff changes, adding that they felt traumatised by their experiences and frustrated over not knowing what the outcome of the Iraq investigation had been.

“It’s amazing to me that we can fix roads and build hospitals, but Oxfam doesn’t care about its own people,” one of the five whistleblowers who worked in Iraq told The New Humanitarian.

Some said the trauma didn’t end even after they left Oxfam – many were still terrified that senior management in Iraq would give them bad references, making it difficult to find other jobs in the aid sector. One said they received a bad reference after leaving. 

“The organisation promotes speaking up, but having experienced what happens afterward, I wouldn’t wish this on anyone,” one whistleblower told The New Humanitarian. “Speaking to a journalist is also something that I never imagined doing or wanted to do. I feel guilty for speaking out against Oxfam, but yet I can’t stop talking about it.”

The whistleblowers told The New Humanitarian that no staff changes had been made in Iraq, and that Oxfam – citing confidentiality – refused to share findings of the investigation with them. 

“It’s amazing to me that we can fix roads and build hospitals, but Oxfam doesn’t care about its own people,” one of the five whistleblowers who worked in Iraq told The New Humanitarian.

Oxfam offers lifesaving services such as providing water and food in Iraq, as well as working to help displaced families and repairing damaged infrastructures.

Since Iraqi forces re-claimed territory from the so-called Islamic State between 2016-2017, it has grown from 88 to 186 staff – 162 national staff and 24 internationals, Oxfam said.

Locals sidelined

The same whistleblower who worked in Iraq said senior managers repeatedly skirted procedures and tried to discourage people from taking complaints forward.

“He also bragged to me and others about having been investigated and coming out with little consequences,” another said. “There was this feeling of impunity.”

The toxic environment led many national staff to quit, a third former Oxfam staffer said, noting that many expressed fears of going to the field when tensions were flaring: “[The manager] would say, ‘If they can’t handle the job, they can leave.’ As a result, we never had motivated staff. National staff were not prioritised, and many of the community programmes lacked permanence and community ownership.”

Results of some local partnership programmes were also inflated, one former worker said, adding that the numbers were aimed at donors and self-promotion but not grounded in reality. 

Another whistleblower said the work was hard enough, trying to build trust within Iraqi communities and working to help people on the ground, adding: “We didn’t need to be bullied on top of this.”

*This line was added to clarify that Oxfam told The New Humanitarian it had held regular meetings with those making the allegations. The five whistleblowers insisted this was not the case. An updated version was published later on the same day of publication: 15 April, 2021.

Editor’s note: Details of specific allegations and names have been withheld to protect the identity of the whistleblowers who spoke to The New Humanitarian.

Senior Editor Ben Parker and Middle East Editor Annie Slemrod contributed to this report. 

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