Soon after Oxfam had been in the headlines around allegations of misconduct by our staff in the Democratic Republic of Congo, I spoke to a senior politician who lamented that Oxfam had failed; had not learned the lessons of our failings in Haiti.
“Oxfam was so wonderful for decades; why have you let sexual misconduct run rife in recent years?” they asked.
A few days later, the UK Government said it “will not consider any new funding to Oxfam until the issues have been resolved”.
Much of the public discussion assumes that if cases are still occurring then this must be evidence that Oxfam is still not taking action against misconduct.
Yet, the opposite is true.
I remember the then-UK Secretary of State Penny Mordaunt speaking at the Safeguarding Summit in October 2018, shortly before I joined Oxfam. She said: “If we do our jobs right, we won’t hear about fewer cases. We are likely to hear about more, at least in the medium-term.”
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An increase in the number of reported cases, the UK government told lawmakers earlier this month, “is likely to be a positive sign that reporting channels are working and that victims feel able to come forward”.
This is recognition of an uncomfortable reality: No organisation – a church, school, sporting body, or even international institutions – can ever say it is free from the risk of abuse, particularly where there are huge disparities in power. The promise of a job or even a few dollars of assistance can create the opportunity for abuse.
That does not make individual allegations of sexual misconduct, bullying, and other abuses of power any less shocking.
Indeed, they are arguably even more shocking in a sector that sets out to do good and change lives. Recent media reporting on these issues is hugely important in shining a light on the issue. It is hard to think of something more abhorrent to the values that we hold dear.
However, as our regulator, the Charity Commission for England and Wales, has recognised, for international NGOs that operate in some of the most challenging environments on Earth, further safeguarding incidents are likely to arise. The greater the need, the greater the risk of exploitation. Yet it is in these places that our lifesaving work is most needed. Almost 20 million people in the Democratic Republic of Congo rely on aid.
What matters for organisations like ours, the commission says, is that our “culture and processes make (incidents) much less likely to occur, and that if they do, they are identified and rapidly and properly addressed”. It is what happens before and after misconduct occurs that organisations like ours should be judged on, not the fact that misconduct occurs or that we are investigating it.
I am the first to admit that, for too long, Oxfam – and many others in our sector – underestimated what was needed. We viewed abuse as the actions of a few bad apples rather than a risk inherent in our work. We didn’t do enough to encourage people to come forward with concerns.
Having learned our lesson the hard way, we are working tirelessly to put things right.
Progress means supporting survivors, not least in helping them to report allegations safely and confidentially, especially in countries where perpetrators have the right to identify and cross-examine survivors. It means thoroughly investigating complaints, using external expertise where needed. And it means taking appropriate action, finding ways to overcome challenges posed by different legal systems and in places where the rule of law has broken down.
But let me be as clear, as Penny Mordaunt was: Our commitment to rooting out abuse means that at any one time there is likely to be a number of investigations taking place into abuses of power across the almost 90 countries in which Oxfam works.
The investigation we set up last year in the Democratic Republic of Congo – well before the recent media attention – is part of this process.
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As a confederation, we report the total global number of cases and their outcomes every six months. Many of these cases are by their nature concerning and could – of course – generate negative headlines. It is important that donors and policymakers recognise that they are a sign that we are “doing our job right”. All of us have a shared responsibility to minimise the risk of abuse and to tackle it where it occurs. That means working together to expose and tackle abuse and investing in safeguarding.
From April 2018 to September 2020, 88 staff across the Oxfam confederation have been dismissed following sexual abuse and exploitation allegations, and in many more cases, other appropriate action has been taken. In February, the Charity Commission praised the “significant progress” Oxfam has made on safeguarding and culture change.
I would not claim that improvement has been an easy journey or that we have gotten everything right yet. The fact that some staff and former staff remain unhappy with the way some cases have been handled is a clear sign that we have further improvements to make – by moving more quickly so that we don’t add to their anguish, and by keeping them as informed as possible within the legal and HR constraints.
For me, the development sector at its best has been at the vanguard of social change. But if we are to make a real and lasting difference in a world in which poverty and inequality are on the rise – in which injustice and insecurity run rife – then we cannot shy away from turning the spotlight on ourselves.
At Oxfam, we will listen to those who are critical of our performance as well as those who recognise the progress we have made.
We have learned much about how to make our lifesaving work safer in the last few years. But we know that despite significant progress we will always have more to learn and more to do.