LONDON — Charities change the world for the better. But aiming to make the world a better place is, on its own, not enough. How we deliver our work is just as important. The Oxfam scandal has made clear that the people charities were meant to have helped were let down, badly.
There are no excuses whatsoever for the historic cases of abuse in Haiti and Chad perpetrated by people working under the name of Oxfam and uncovered by the media in the past few days. These people allegedly went to work elsewhere in the sector, aided by references from colleagues. As Oxfam’s leaders have themselves said, their actions do not fit with the organization’s values, or those of charities in general.
That is a given. But in the Oxfam scandal, there is a lesson for all of us. We need to get to the bottom of what has gone wrong and take a critical look at the safeguarding mechanisms that are supposed to prevent this type of abuse.
All major international development charities have clear policies and procedures in place and dedicate significant effort to minimizing the risk of abuse taking place. Oxfam has substantially strengthened its safeguarding and whistleblowing post 2011 and has announced a stronger package of measures.
But as all institutions have found — schools, the church, sports clubs and, yes, charities — there is more to be done. It is more important than ever that we are transparent about the potential blindspots in our safeguarding measures and that we start a global conversation about strengthening them across international development organizations.
These events strike at the heart of what it is to be a supporter and fundamentally challenge a relationship based upon shared values.
The first step is to establish fully and clearly what happened. The U.K.’s Charity Commission and the Department for International Development (DfID), one of the major funders of organizations in this field, have launched this process. Until we have that clarity, it will be difficult to learn the right lessons.
Maintaining transparency and accountability will also be crucial. International development organizations have done more to be transparent than many other institutions, and Oxfam has been one of the leaders in the field. But the logical outcome of more transparency is that more stories will emerge of programs or interventions not working, and of things going wrong. This will inevitably include historic wrongdoings in periods where transparency was less in operation. It’s important that we don’t now row back on transparency.
The short-term discomforts transparency brings are surely outweighed by the longer-term benefits. And if we are to hold others to account — a critical aspect of our role — we must operate to the highest standards ourselves. The last few days should not put us off this mission.
These are upsetting days for those who support charities as volunteers, donors and campaigners. These events strike at the heart of what it is to be a supporter and fundamentally challenge a relationship based upon shared values. Many supporters will today be saying “not in my name.” Detractors are calling for Oxfam and other charities to have their government funding ended, and for donors to stop giving.
It’s critical that we take action, and ensure safeguarding and whistleblowing procedures are the best that they can be. Charities have to explain how we work and show that we are listening to supporters’ concerns. We all need to be prepared to answer their questions openly, clearly and to do our best to be human in how we do so.
Our message must be: We unreservedly apologize to the victims.
Some saw in these reports of abuse within Oxfam an ideological attack on a campaigning charity. But the narrative that charities are victims within a wider culture war is a distraction that will only serve to undermine the important work we do.
Our message must be: We unreservedly apologize to the victims; we take safeguarding extremely seriously; we tried to deal with the problem and informed stakeholders; we need to get better so as to minimize the chances of it happening again or, even better, eradicate completely the chance of it happening again.
Karl Wilding is head of public policy and volunteering at the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, the largest membership body for English charities.
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