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Destroying Oxfam is not in public interest

Destroying Oxfam is not in public interest

🕔15.Feb 2018

My twitter profile identifies me, inter alia, as a disheartened centrist and internationalist. It was meant as a post-Brexit thing, a statement of personal political homelessness in the era of Jacob Rees Mogg and Jeremy Corbyn. I should probably now add disheartened former Oxfam aid worker to the listwrites Toby Porter.

I worked for Oxfam between 1995 and 2002, always in humanitarian programmes. I had the privilege of working for a fantastic charity in life-saving operations, a true global leader, in places such as South Sudan, Colombia, Rwanda and Kosovo.

I also found it a privilege to be able to tell family and friends, and the wider public through my media work, that their money had indeed gone to exactly the sort of thing they had been asked to and chosen to fund.

Shocking for all of us, the Oxfam scandal has for me been agonising to watch unfold.

I have been asked to share a few reflections. Not easy with such a fast-moving story, so I will try to make these as top-line as possible, not least because many of Oxfam’s leadership team are long-standing colleagues and friends.

Firstly, the actual allegations. They are disgraceful, and the humanitarian sector was and should not be immune from the same exposure and accountability for abuse seen elsewhere.

Regrettably, there has always been a small percentage of national and international aid workers who use and abuse commercial sex workers. An even smaller percentage again sexually harass colleagues and/or beneficiaries.

But the global humanitarian sector is huge, employing many hundreds of thousands of people. So this tiny percentage aggregates out into quite large numbers. A former Save the Children colleague of mine tweeted the other day:

organisations can & should do better but don’t let anyone tell you this is easily fixed. Zero tolerance is achievable, zero incidence is not.

He is right, and it would take you about ten minutes on Google to realise that stories of sexual exploitation by aid workers and UN peacekeepers have indeed been commonplace, and been both acknowledged and reported by agencies themselves, for years and years.

For those inside the sector, where Oxfam stumbled is not that a tiny number of their global workforce engaged in this abusive and depraved behaviour, it is that they failed to show zero tolerance.

More than enough was known about some of the staff in question from previous Oxfam programmes to have prevented them being allowed anywhere near Haiti , or any other programme, in the first place.

But, the threat to the whole sector is that the past week shows our public is nowhere near ready to accept that this goes on anywhere let alone everywhere, however small the percentage. For them, the issue is clearly a visceral, instinctive and normative one.

It goes understandably to the heart of their moral impulse for giving, for having donated their money to a charity in the first place. The idea that even a small number of staff from an organisation into which they invested not just their money, but their hope, their empathy, their compassion for strangers afflicted by catastrophe might be doing this is just beyond the pale.

So this is a huge challenge for all humanitarian agencies in the future: after this show of public outrage, and the future scrutiny that will rightly come with it, how can charities both maintain the support of their public and meet the expectations of transparently reporting every future incidence?

As for Oxfam, I am worried not just for their current brand and funding vulnerabilities, though these are significant. Beyond the crisis management over the next few weeks, there is potentially a challenge to their whole impact model.

Oxfam increasingly has two real areas of expertise – their life-saving humanitarian operations, and their campaigning work on poverty, inequality, injustice and women’s rights. Wherever their post-crisis income settles, you can see tremendous credibility challenges ahead with their pursuit of each work stream.

With their humanitarian work, what will this scandal offer in political capital or leverage to Governments or rebel forces that might not want Oxfam there because they don’t actually want innocent lives of some of their populations to be saved, or atrocities witnessed?

With their advocacy and campaigning, what will this scandal offer to the many voices in the UK and internationally who think that charities like Oxfam should not campaign on any issue, let alone on the failures of capitalism and the human impact of austerity?

There are many influential figures in politics and the media who have for some time been trying to shoe-horn UK and global civil society into subservient and silent service delivery entities, and now scent blood.

In the UK, this crisis is unfolding under a Government that has already given charities the “gagging clause”, told us as a sector to “stick to our knitting”, and ended several hundred million pounds worth of structured annual funding support to the UK’s world-leading international civil society sector.

It has placed overtly flawed individual politicians openly antagonistic to charities like Rob Wilson and Priti Patel into key Government roles. It has nominated into the Charity Commission individuals who share not just the political views but the political loyalties of the ruling Conservative party.

As we speak, Priti Patel is brazenly using Oxfam’s trouble as the footstool on which to leverage her own political rehabilitation, berating in the harshest possible terms Oxfam’s leadership for their lack of transparency, barely three months after losing her cabinet position for not being transparent with her Prime Minister.

What are the implications for charities in Birmingham and the West Midlands region? Oxfam has always been a super-brand in UK charity. Will their problems lead to an overall decline in confidence in all charities, or a shift in hope towards more local vehicles of the generosity and compassion that is synonymous with communities the length and breadth of this country?

Two pieces of advice for all local charities here in our region. First, whatever your mission, you can never invest too much in your safeguarding policies and procedures, and particularly in ensuring (and auditing) that they are lived up to in practice, and properly resourced.

Local charities enjoy the trust and goodwill of local communities in abundance, and deservedly so. But we all now have proof, if any were needed, that the trust which can take decades to build up can be lost in the space of a few days.

Second, every charity Board of Trustees and leadership teams should have crisis communication procedures in place, and be testing and updating them regularly. If you don’t have expertise or resources to do this in-house, make sure you have the contact details of a professional outfit that could help.

I am proud to have worked for Oxfam. The Haiti story is in the public interest, destroying Oxfam most certainly is not. I am personally appalled but still drawn to join the barricades.

Toby Porter is Chief Executive of Acorns Children’s Hospice. Prior to joining Acorns in 2016, he had a 25 year career with humanitarian agencies, including long stints with Oxfam and Save the Children. He writes here in a personal capacity. He tweets @tobyhporter

This blog post has been slightly modified since first publication. 

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