By now, you are likely well aware of the shocking scandal currently unraveling Oxfam.

Oxfam is, among many other things, accused of being more protective of its own reputation that it was of the vulnerable people under its care.

Once the allegations were uncovered, the organization was worried about what the scandal would do to its funding and tried to sweep the mess under the rug. In 2011, it told the Charity Commission that an internal investigation into the Haiti allegations revealed nothing objectionable. There was no mention of sexual misconduct or of abuse of beneficiaries. As usual, the attempt at a cover-up only made matters worse when the truth was publicly revealed several years later.

Right now, Oxfam is hemorrhaging funds as outraged donors — including its largest, the UK government — close their wallets.

Crisis By Decentralization?

Observers have pointed out that Oxfam decentralized management system may have contributed to the scandal. The NGO’s in-country directors had become too powerful in their own right in the absence of supervision. They had acted like potentates in meeting with presidents and prime ministers. Because of the lack of accountability, it was inevitable that such power corrupted.

In a statement released 11 February, Oxfam chair Caroline Thompson said that while the charity has already made “big improvements” since the 2011 Haiti incidents were brought to their notice, Oxfam will implement even more reforms to prevent similar incidents in the future.

Governance Changes

These reforms include a more stringent selection and training process for Oxfam staff, a renewed emphasis on “safeguarding” (a British term for the protection of people’s health and human rights), and better monitoring of the actions and decisions of senior leaders. Oxfam has also made the process easier for whistleblowers as it established an external helpline system.

The charity organization also said that an independent consultant is currently conducting an audit of the NGO’s culture and how such a culture allowed abuses at Haiti. Thompson, who joined Oxfam in 2017, vowed to foster “a culture of openness and transparency” in Oxfam.

A full list of governance changes, from an Oxfam release:

The initial package of measures announced today to further improve safeguarding within Oxfam include:

  • Strengthening the vetting and recruitment of staff, including making safeguarding a mandatory part of the interview process for senior leadership positions.
  • Widening the current review of our practice to ensure we revisit improvements already made and learn additional lessons from Haiti 2011, with a particular focus on challenging circumstances and fast-onset emergencies.
  • An overhaul of staff induction to ensure staff learn more about our values and code of conduct and mandatory safeguarding training within the first few weeks of employment.
  • Use the forthcoming recommendations from the ongoing review of practice to strengthen management oversight to ensure compliance with our policies and learn from our mistakes.
  • Establishment of a new, independent, external whistleblowing helpline as part of an effort to encourage more staff to come forward early with any concerns they may have.
  • Work with the rest of our sector in an attempt to overcome the legal difficulties which have so far prevented us from sharing intelligence among NGOs and other organisations about people who have been found guilty of sexual misconduct.
  • Recommit to report to the appropriate authorities in full, any issues that arise that could affect the safety of those we work for or the confidence of the public.

What Oxfam Must Do Next

Reputation consultant Paul Blanchard writes:

The principles of crisis communication remain the same: be open, be honest, hold someone to account, admit responsibility and, if necessary, dismiss those that have tarnished the company’s reputation. It isn’t only the reputations of the senior individuals at Oxfam that are at stake. It’s Oxfam itself. If Oxfam cannot uphold its reputation, learn its lessons, make amends, and reassure the public in the right way, there will be a ripple effect that harms all those that Oxfam helps on a daily basis.

Nick Colwill of the nonprofit blog Third Sector believes that Oxfam and other NGOs must “actively demonstrate and relentlessly communicate that what they do leads to positive results, that they operate by the highest standards, and to explain that their operations are cost-effective and how, in stark terms, their work provides the biggest bang for the public buck.”

More from Colwill:

Widening internal reviews, new whistleblowing hotlines and better staff inductions all have their role to play in preventing further such incidents. But they won’t tackle the perception problem or repair the reputational damage. The sector needs to urgently convince the public of the seriousness with which it is taking this issue, and to get out ahead of it. Reacting to news reports to explain that there are only a small number of these incidents, or that information was communicated at the time, will not be sufficient to demonstrate that the sector understands the importance of this issue.

Only concerted, sector-wide action – whether a new sector-wide enquiry with a clear commitment to a new code of conduct, or a pan-sector initiative to enact far-reaching reform in how international aid charities address any allegations of misconduct against their staff – can begin to demonstrate that first, this issue has been taken seriously and this isn’t viewed simply as something that happens in such challenging environments; and second, that the international development sector continues to deliver vital support and services and fully deserves the ongoing support of donor populations.