Putting things right: the road to exposing and tackling abuse

People would be forgiven for thinking that if cases of misconduct are still occurring, Oxfam must not be taking action against abusers.

Yet, the opposite is true.

“If we do our jobs right, we won’t hear about fewer cases. We are likely to hear about more, at least in the medium-term.” Ex-Secretary of State, Penny Mourdant, said in 2018, shortly before I joined Oxfam.

An uncomfortable reality

An increase in the number of reported cases, “is likely to be a positive sign that reporting channels are working and that victims feel able to come forward,” the UK government told lawmakers earlier this month.

This is recognition of an uncomfortable reality: no organisation – a church, school, sporting body, or even an international institution – can ever say it is free from the risk of abuse, particularly where there are huge power imbalances.

The promise of a job or even a few dollars of assistance can create the opportunity for abuse.

That does not make individual allegations of sexual misconduct, bullying, and other abuses of power any less shocking.

Indeed, they are arguably even more shocking in a sector that sets out to do good and change lives. Recent media reporting on these issues is hugely important in shining a light on the issue. It’s hard to think of something more abhorrent to the values we hold dear.

The risk of exploitation

However, as our regulator, the Charity Commission for England and Wales, has recognised, for International Non-Governmental Organisations (INGOs) that operate in some of the most challenging environments on Earth, further safeguarding incidents are likely to arise. The greater the need, the greater the risk of exploitation. Yet it is in these places that our lifesaving work is most needed. Almost 20 million people in the Democratic Republic of Congo rely on aid.

A risk inherent in our work

The Charity Commission says “culture and processes [must] make [incidents] much less likely to occur, and that if they do, they [must be] identified and rapidly and properly addressed”. It is what happens before and after misconduct occurs that organisations like ours should be judged on, not the fact that misconduct occurs or that we are investigating it.

I am the first to admit that, for too long, Oxfam – and many others in our sector – underestimated what was needed. We viewed abuse as the actions of a few bad apples rather than a risk inherent in our work. We didn’t do enough to encourage people to come forward with concerns.

Putting things right

Having learned our lesson the hard way, we are working tirelessly to put things right.

Progress means supporting survivors. It means helping them to report allegations safely and confidentially, especially in countries where perpetrators have the right to identify and cross-examine survivors.

It means thoroughly investigating complaints, using external expertise where needed. And it means taking appropriate action, finding ways to overcome challenges posed by different legal systems and in places where the rule of law has broken down.

But let me be as clear, as Penny Mordaunt was: Our commitment to rooting out abuse means that at any one time there are likely to be a number of investigations taking place into abuses of power across the almost 90 countries in which Oxfam works.

Working together to expose and tackle abuse

From April 2018 to September 2020, 88 staff across the Oxfam confederation have been dismissed following sexual abuse and exploitation allegations, and in many more cases, other appropriate action has been taken.

In February, the Charity Commission praised the “significant progress” Oxfam has made on safeguarding and culture change.

I would not claim that improvement has been an easy journey or that we have gotten everything right yet.

The fact some staff and former staff remain unhappy with the way some cases have been handled is a clear sign we have further improvements to make. We must move more quickly so we don’t add to their anguish. And keep them as informed as possible as far as possible within legal and HR constraints.

If charities like Oxfam are to make a real and lasting difference in a world in which poverty and inequality are on the rise – in which injustice and insecurity run rife – then we cannot shy away from turning the spotlight on ourselves.

We will listen to those who are critical of our performance as well as those who recognise the progress we have made.

We have learned much about how to make our lifesaving work safer in the last few years. But we know that despite significant progress we will always have more to learn and more to do.