Caroline Thomson: "We will learn from these appalling events and we will change"
Mark Goldring and I have signed a joint letter to Oxfam friends and supporters apologising for the events in Haiti in 2011 and in Chad in 2008, and for the mistakes Oxfam has made. We say sorry to our staff - thousands of whom are waking up today committed to bettering the lives of people across the world - and sorry to our supporters, volunteers and donors. Above all else we apologise to the people of Haiti and Chad, who had a right to expect the very best of us.
As a charity our 5000 employees are fighting tirelessly to improve conditions for some of the poorest and most vulnerable people on earth. That work continues every moment of every day. We will learn from these appalling events and we will change. It's vital however that the last few weeks do not define the work of the last 76 years. We must and we will continue to deliver Oxfam GB's 150 aid programmes in 45 countries across the globe. We owe that to the 11.6 million people we provided life-saving and life-changing support to last year, and the many millions of families we
have helped since our foundation in Oxford in the 1940s.
As an organisation we've always put women and children at the heart of everything we do. Last Autumn one of my first acts as Chair was to visit a Pakistani village which Oxfam had brought back to life by building a dam to prevent land salination. It was a village at the end of the line - two hours from the nearest road. Our help did make a huge difference, but even with that aid, people were still engaged in a constant struggle. And yet I will never forget the conversation with the village mid wife, a woman who held my hands, looked me in the eye and told me with great pride that
she had delivered 250 children safely before she gently berated me for only having one. What struck me then was not what different lives we led but how much we had in common.
Central to Oxfam's vision is that sense of a common humanity, with common rights and shared dignity. That's why I'm devastated by the disgraceful behaviours of a minority particularly when exploiting women. I believe that the best way to eradicate it is always to expose it to the light of day. Secrecy is anathema to trust. Oxfam on my watch will operate with transparency, and will always be accountable for its actions.
I recognise that these events have raised serious concerns over trust in Oxfam and in the sector more widely. It is hard to underestimate the damage it has done. We must grip the issues raised, learn lessons and put in place measures to minimise the possibility of this ever recurring. We need to ensure that if anyone ever again poses a threat to those we protect and help, that that person or persons is identified immediately and dealt with properly.
That is why this weekend, working closely with our executive director Winnie Byanyima we launched a ten point plan with our colleagues in other Oxfams around the world. We are immediately tripling our spending on safeguarding and strengthening our existing whistle blowing line, making it entirely independent of the organisation to give confidence to those who want to report abuse. In the case of Haiti we have already informed the authorities in the jurisdiction where the perpetrators came from of the names of those individuals, and the possible crime they may have committed. We will
commit to always doing this in future where to do so doesn't endanger the victims.
Longer term we need to do nothing less than build a new culture. A new commission chaired by an outsider will act as a central information and resource point, gathering evidence of abuse wherever it happens, and developing the culture change necessary for long lasting improvement. We will tighten our vetting and referencing procedures and work with other charities to establish a passporting register so that perpetrators can be exposed. We must cut off their ability to move unchecked from one job to another. To make sure all this is delivered I am immediately setting up and chairing a
small panel of Oxfam trustees solely responsible for overseeing this work.
As a 10 year old I used to go carol singing with an Oxfam collection box. When I was approached about becoming chair I didn't hesitate. I believe at its best Oxfam represents the core of British values - philanthropy, generosity, openness to the world and above all a vision of the dignity of human beings, whatever their circumstances and wherever they live. This case struck a blow at the heart of that vision and I won't rest until I have righted the wrongs and earned back the support and trust of the British people. The people we help and protect deserve nothing less.
Caroline Thomson is Oxfam's Chair of Trustees
This is a longer version of an article published in The Times on 17 February 2018