It turns out, sexual misconduct really is everywhere. According to recent claims. staffers for U.K. NGO Oxfam supposedly paid vulnerable people for sex while delivering humanitarian aid to Haiti in 2011.
Setting aside the actual and disgraceful sexual misconduct – which appears to be as common in charities and NGOs as in other industries – the ‘Oxfam lesson’ reinforces the prime governance maxim. Like the three rules of real estate – location, location, location – the three rules of governance that cover every transaction are: disclosure, disclosure, disclosure.
In the same way as the stock price of Wynn Resorts has been battered since allegations of sexual abuse against CEO and founder Stephen Wynn – allegations which the board of directors must have known about but which it kept secret – Oxfam is in danger of losing U.K. government and EU funding for its programs over its lack of disclosure surrounding the sex scandals involving its workers in Haiti and, now it appears, the same group of workers earlier in Chad.
Here are three reactions to the lack of disclosure:
Michelle Russell, director of investigations at the U.K. Charity Commission told the BBC that its officials had been assured that Oxfam had investigated the incidents fully, but it transpired that the commission was not told the full story. “Had the details of what has come out been told to us,” she said “we would have dealt with this very differently." The commission said: “We have written to the charity as a matter of urgency to request further information regarding the events in Haiti in 2011. This information will be considered as part of an ongoing case regarding the charity’s approach to safeguarding.”
The U.K. government’s International Development Secretary Penny Mordaunt said on BBC’s Andrew Marr Show that the Department for International Development was told even less than the Charity Commission about the events at the time. “They [Oxfam] initially said that they were investigating misconduct,” she said, “and when they concluded that report they did not tell us the nature of these events.” She added that Oxfam also reassured the department that no harm was done and there was no involvement of any beneficiaries, a statement she categorised as a lie. She added: “If they do not hand over all the information that they have from their investigation, and subsequently to the relevant authorities including the Charity Commission and prosecuting authorities, then I cannot work with them any more as an aid delivery partner.”
In particular we assured her of our commitment to full accountability and transparency in all our operations and said that a special Trustee group, chaired by me, would monitor implementation.
Caroline Thomson, Oxfam Chair of Trustees to Secretary of State for International Development
Finally, Oxfam chief executive Mark Goldring told the BBC that describing exact details of the behavior at the time could have drawn “extreme attention” to it, which he said would have been in no one’s best interest. A statement which would suggest that Oxfam’s senior management has not learned its lesson and that its Deputy Chief Executive Penny Lawrence should not be the only top official to resign.
When I emailed the charity’s press office for explanation of one item in the package of measures announced by it to improve transparency, I received out-of-office messages from seven of its media relations team, which hardly bodes well for disclosure in the future either.
Despite the changes it introduced subsequent to the scandal in 2011, there is no mention of transparency in the charity’s constitution; though the board does take responsibility for accountability in its policy statement: “The Board is responsible for all Oxfam International’s activities including its Accountability policies. It holds the Oxfam International Executive Director accountable for compliance with these.” And for disclosure: “The Board has a policy of disclosing information which it believes is in the interests of accountability to stakeholders, beneficiaries, partners, allies, donors, supporters, institutions, media and the general public, that is, anyone materially affected by an Oxfam International or affiliate decision or action.” This should include information about the misconduct of its employees, but does not appear to have done so.
Oxfam's package of measures to improve safeguarding
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 organizations 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.
Source: Press release
And despite running its own campaigns calling for transparency that target tax regulations, food giants and extractive industries in just the past few months, the charity’s Code of Conduct mentions transparency only once, in relation to brand risk: “Management of the Oxfam brand-risk is complex in that it applies to the highest standards of accountability, integrity, transparency and accountability to which all Affiliates and the Foundation are committed, in their advocacy, campaigning, development and humanitarian response programing, fundraising and communications operations.”
Reacting to events, Oxfam’s chair of trustees in the U.K., Caroline Thomson, said: "We also want to satisfy ourselves that we do now have a culture of openness and transparency and that we fully learn the lessons of events in 2011. Not only will we always be true to those we serve and those who support us, we will also be seen to be so.”
The introduction of “Safeguarding” at the charity, and transparency surrounding it, is noted in its annual report: “We remain committed to transparency on allegations of sexual exploitation and abuse perpetrated by Oxfam staff and partners.” The risk section outlines an increase in the number of reported incidents from 76 to 87. And the charity believes that this growth in reporting comes from the existence of its Safeguarding team and its Protection from Sexual Exploitation and Abuse policy “giving victims more confidence to report incidents.”
The annual report goes into further detail, noting that 34 allegations were investigated internally and 75 percent of these resulted in disciplinary action, while the remaining 53 incidents were referred to external agencies such as the Police, Social Services and the Disclosure and Barring Service. This is the level of disclosure that prevents scandals such as the ones surrounding former employees in Haiti and Chad. A level of disclosure that might have prevented the culprits from getting other jobs with NGOs following those scandals, as they are understood to have done.
Regarding this last, I finally got a response from a very busy press office about the sixth of the seven measures announced following the latest revelations – working with other NGOs to overcome the legal difficulties that prevent the disclosure of an employee’s sexual misconduct. This disclosure – or lack thereof – is riven with privacy laws, data protection, employment laws and other regulations. While this is true, if the charity had properly disclosed what had happened in both Chad and Haiti, no employer would have offered any of these employees a job and no privacy laws would have been transgressed.