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Toxic reputation sticks to Oxfam

13 June 2019

Charity Commissioners examine behaviour of Oxfam staff in Haiti


The chair of trustees for Oxfam, Caroline Thomson (right), who is still in post, arrives at Portcullis House, London, in February of last year with the then chief executive, Mark Goldring, and executive director of Oxfam International, Winnie Byanyima. They appeared before the Commons Development Committee to give evidence on the aid worker sex scandal

The chair of trustees for Oxfam, Caroline Thomson (right), who is still in post, arrives at Portcullis House, London, in February of last year with th...

OXFAM has been strongly criticised in two reports published this week which investigate its internal and global working-practices.

On Tuesday, the Charity Commissioners accused it of shameful behaviour in failing to investigate properly reports that staff on relief missions after the 2010 earthquake in Haiti used prostitutes, and sexually abused disaster victims, including children.

Only 24 hours later, the charity’s own Independent Commission on Sexual Misconduct, Accountability and Culture found that it was blighted by “systemic failures” and “toxic working environments”, in which safeguarding was compromised and bullies acted with virtual impunity.

The Charity Commissioners’ report found that some of Oxfam’s failings and shortcomings amounted to mismanagement, prompting the regulator to issue the charity with an official warning which will remain active for the next year. It said that Oxfam failed to investigate adequately allegations that a senior official sexually abused children as young as 12 or 13; that it did not report allegations of child abuse by staff in Haiti; and that senior staff implicated in sexual-misconduct claims were dealt with more leniently than junior figures.

Even its internal inquiry into claims from a whistleblower — which resulted in four dismissals and three resignations — was more focused on protecting the charity’s image with donors than the risk to, and impact on, the victims. The scandal prompted more than 7000 people to cancel their donations to the charity, forcing it to cut £16-million worth of aid projects around the world.

The chief executive of the Charity Commission, Helen Stephenson, said: “What went wrong in Haiti did not happen in isolation. Our inquiry demonstrates that, over a period of years, Oxfam’s internal culture tolerated poor behaviour, and, at times, lost sight of the values it stands for.”

Caroline Thomson, who chairs Oxfam GB’s trustees, said: “What happened in Haiti was shameful and we are deeply sorry. It was a terrible abuse of power, and an affront to the values that Oxfam holds dear. The Commission’s findings are very uncomfortable for Oxfam GB, but we accept them.”

Oxfam’s separate inquiry into its internal working-practices globally said that it had failed to honour its commitment to gender equality. Sexual exploitation and abuse were “symptoms of several power abuses, manifested in varying degrees as elitism, racism, colonial behaviour, sexism, and patriarchy, all of which have given rise to cases of toxic work environments in which safeguarding is compromised, policies and procedures cannot be implemented robustly, and accountability thus falters”.

It said, however, that the power imbalances and abuses were not unique to Oxfam. The charity has more than 10,000 staff and 40,000 volunteers worldwide, and operates in 90 countries.

Since the Haiti allegations emerged last year, Oxfam has made several important changes to policies and procedures which would help it “undertake the critical task of culture change”.

The executive director of Oxfam International, Winnie Byanyima, said: “I want to humbly apologise 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 the recommendations of the commission.

“The [independent] commission says that Oxfam has taken an important step in being publicly committed to change and be transparent in its work. I’m heartened that it says we have the potential to become a voice of leadership in wider sector reform. But it has given a strong warning that we should not underestimate the task ahead of us — and I can assure everyone, we absolutely do not.”

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