Oxfam’s Response To Allegations Could Help Restore Faith In Humanitarian Aid

A recent report, published by the Charity Commission on 11th June, details the failings of Oxfam in disclosing allegations of child abuse in Haiti and repeated cases of discrimination across the charity. An internal investigation was carried out by Oxfam in 2011 but was deemed insufficient by the Charity Commission in 2018, because Oxfam had failed to publish a final investigative report to the commission and made improper use of evidence. Rebecca Ratcliffe, writing in the Guardian, states the “report surveyed 7000 pieces of evidence” that were connected to an internal cover-up by Oxfam. The allegations involved inappropriate sexual behaviour, bullying, harassment and the intimidation of local workers by Oxfam staff, and there were claims that staff paid for prostitutes, that could have been underage, during the relief effort for the 2010 earthquake in Haiti. When these allegations surfaced last year there were multiple sackings and resignations, most notably, Oxfam’s chief executive Mark Goldring, who resigned at the beginning of this year. In addition to this, the charity lost a substantial amount of UK aid. Consequently, Oxfam’s name has been tarnished both domestically and internationally with the rest of the charity sector feeling the aftereffects.

In response, the government, charities and the public have called for greater accountability and transparency from the charity sector. This is reflected in the main objective of the commission’s report; establish the failures of Oxfam’s safeguarding measures whilst demanding immediate improvement. Helen Stephenson, chief executive of the Charity Commission, gave her response to the inquiry’s findings – “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.” Although this year-long inquiry focuses on Oxfam it is not restricted to the scandal in Haiti, it addresses other allegations of gross misconduct by Oxfam and other international development charities. Michael Edwards, in openDemocracy, says that there were allegations of sexual abuse and exploitation in “South Sudan, Chad, and in some of its [Oxfam’s] shops in the UK.”

Oxfam’s Response

Some steps have been taken to reduce exploitation and inequality within Oxfam’s humanitarian responses. Oxfam has tripled its investment in safeguarding measures and hired their first-ever director of safeguarding to protect those who are connected to the charity. Winnie Byanyima, executive director of Oxfam, writes in the World Economic Forum that the charity has laid out a 10-point plan to reform their approach to relief efforts. This is a positive step in increasing accountability for any further misconduct, but Dhananjayan Sriskandarajah, the new chief executive of Oxfam, acknowledges it is only the beginning and more “radical change” must be implemented. She goes on to state that it is about power, and in order to redistribute power equally in a humanitarian crisis, transforming how charities work internally and on-the-ground is just as important as providing physical aid.

The Pitfalls of Humanitarianism

To some, the inquiry paints a bleak picture for the future of international development. According to Edwards, many media outlets are calling charities corrupt and incompetent, and others report that the UK taxpayer should not fund Oxfam’s aid. However, others, such as Deborah Doane in the Guardian (June 14th), are more optimistic. She argues that this scandal is a chance to “reinvent the whole international NGO system and the public’s relationship with it,” but this transformation would come at a cost for those who are on the “providing” side of development. The predominantly ‘western’ countries that fund development and aid need to better understand how their actions can often facilitate poverty, rather than alleviate it. Doane argues that consumptive behaviour and an expectation of “value for money” increases inequality between the ‘west’ and ‘non-western’ countries, the latter experiencing cheap labour, poor working conditions and increased exploitation of resources which are all motivated by the “needs” of the ‘west’.

No policy or humanitarian approach to a crisis is created in a vacuum; therefore, governments and the people of ‘western’ society need to acknowledge the historical and political impact they have had in the countries they provide aid to. In short, Doane argues we need to understand how “aid can be exploitative and power driven.” The colonial relationship between the global north and south is still alive and well today, and it is this relationship that still determines contemporary humanitarian assistance. As evidenced by repeated shortcomings, aid needs to more of a bottom-up process than a top-down one.

Despite the altruistic intentions of aid work, current humanitarian methods can pose problems in three ways. For the locals or communities that they intend to help, humanitarian staff often epitomise an authoritative figure rather than an “advocate or ally,” becoming a bitter reminder of previous colonial exploitation. Therefore, staff can be met with suspicion or outright violence. This has been seen most readily with the response to the Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), where there have been “130 attacks on health facilities since January.” These facilities are often staffed by NGO staff and the attacks have been blamed on a failure to gain trust within communities. In the case of the DRC, and more generally, there needs to be a greater understanding of cultural contexts and how misunderstandings are almost inevitable. However, it is how you respond to disagreement that dictates success. Advocating for honest communication between both parties rather than defensive policies means both parties can voice their concerns without the threat of retaliation.

Secondly, staff regularly embody this dominant role which can act to undermine the validity of local knowledge and local participation in relief efforts; often leading to exploitative relationships that are mediated by money, power and access to resources. The abusive actions of certain Oxfam staff members in Haiti is emblematic of how power can corrupt the most well-intentioned individuals and institutions. A larger critique of ‘western’ humanitarianisms methods, that is already gaining traction due to the commissions report, is needed. Greater collaboration with local NGOs or communities can only help to foster solidarity and increase the effectiveness of relief efforts.

Lastly, a neoliberal ideology, one that is based on market ideals and “calculative rationality,” does not fit neatly into a charity model. Yes, a charity needs money to run but it should be wary of seeking outright profit. It should be an institution that aims to serve the needs of the many, not the few. The anthropologist Tania Li (2011), in her ethnographic work around the impacts of a World Bank funded development programme in Indonesia, argues that international development projects reinforce inequality by “rendering society technical.” The native population are simply a receiver of aid and, thus, a problem that can be solved through technical, bureaucratic means. If NGOs and international organisations believe suffering can be solved through ideas of progress and economic prosperity, the human is already removed from the equation. For the Indonesian community that the World Bank worked with, a neoliberalism approach to humanitarianism was unavoidable due to a top-down process of development and investment. By viewing poverty in this community as a technical problem, that can be solved through adequate and demarcated investment, the World Bank does little to address the complex socio-political structures that reinforce poverty for the individuals and families in the community. Therefore, to have a better chance at reducing inequality, dignity needs to be at the forefront of a charity’s mission. If organisations do not grant the same compassion and rights that the ‘West’ grants for itself, then how are they meant to help those who are suffering? As Doane rightly says, we need “to walk beside those we’re helping, those with whom we’re working, not in front of them.”

Acknowledgement

It is important to note the impressive work most humanitarian actors have done to alleviate the suffering of others. In addition, David Mosse (2011), in the edited volume Adventures in Aidland: The Anthropology of Professionals in International Development, acknowledges that development professionals are not wholly ignorant of the impracticality of many development models, especially when applied on-the-ground. Many have a repeat experience of well-intentioned ideas proving to be inadequate when they have not considered local customs, local perceptions of aid workers, and embedded inequalities and colonial histories. Nonetheless, change is still needed but, thankfully, many have already paved a path toward it.

Conclusion

Sriskandarajah states that no organisation can promise to eliminate abuse, rather, Oxfam will do everything to “minimise risk and tackle it whenever it occurs.” The UK public and the international community have every right to be sceptical of Oxfam and international development charities, if anything, scepticism is a positive force because if charities are to win back favour, they must become accountable for their actions. The accusations in this most recent report have been wholeheartedly accepted by Oxfam, who do not shy away from apologising for the deplorable actions of a select few and recognising that change is long overdue. However, much more work needs to be done if Oxfam is to convince the public, and those they help, that they are up to the task.

Jonathan Boyd

Related

The Organization for World Peace