Whistleblowing – An Oxfam Safeguarding Example

In July 2011 a whistleblower sent written allegations to Oxfam’s GB leadership. Following the earthquake in Haiti, the charity was significantly engaged in humanitarian emergency relief work, with some 550 staff in the country. The allegations were principally that Oxfam staff had been having sex with prostitutes, some of whom may have been minors, including on Oxfam’s premises.

Oxfam responded by initiating an internal investigation. This extended to interviews in Haiti with 40 witnesses and a focus on 10 staff members. It led to various individual disciplinary hearings and the departure of 9 employees. The investigation identified that 4 staff members were implicated in the use of prostitutes, including the Country Director, who was permitted to resign.

The Charity Commission subsequently initiated a statutory inquiry in February 2018 into both Oxfam’s handling of events in Haiti and also the charity’s wider record on safeguarding.

7 days which rocked Oxfam

We created a timeline visualisation of the 7 days which rocked Oxfam when this inquiry was announced. The report of the inquiry was delivered in July 2019.

The Commission expressed various concerns about the conduct of the internal investigation. It found that the investigators lacked experience in handling safeguarding allegations. Their conduct when interviewing witnesses was “worrying”. There were lapses in standards, such as poor record-keeping and report writing practices. Sensitive information was leaked which compromised the safety of a witness and led to intimidation of witnesses. Not all lines of enquiry about the use of prostitutes including minors were fully pursued. The Commission concluded that whether any of the prostitutes were under age “cannot be ruled out”.

Although Oxfam had a code of conduct in place at that time, the inquiry found that the charity:

  • Had not followed up the allegation whether victims of sexual misconduct were minors
  • Did not report these allegations of child abuse and failed to take the risks to alleged victims sufficiently seriously
  • Dealt with staff implicated in sexual misconduct inconsistently, showing favour to senior staff
  • Missed opportunities to respond to early warnings before these events

Oxfam GB subsequently accepted that its investigation of the allegations was inadequate. Nor had it reported the allegations to the appropriate law enforcement agencies or to the Commission, its regulator.

The chief executive of the Charity Commission pointed out that what went wrong in Haiti did not happen in isolation. Oxfam had failed to heed warnings, including from its own staff, that its culture and responses around safeguarding were inadequate. It had deployed insufficient resources to keep people safe from harm, bearing in mind the risks associated with the charity’s global reach and the nature of its work. Historical weaknesses in HR practice and problems around vetting, referencing and management oversight had resulted in a “culture of tolerance of poor behaviour”.

The inquiry was “extremely critical” of Oxfam’s safeguarding case work. Its approach was unstructured. Management was unable to identify the serious failures in case handling, including poor record keeping, due to the lack of adequate assurance and oversight mechanisms.

Oxfam safeguarding failures

The Commission concluded that Oxfam’s limited actions taken to address the safeguarding issues raised were insufficient. “Significant further cultural and systemic change” was required to address fully the failings and weaknesses identified.

Safeguarding policies and procedures provide a framework to understand potential risks and how they can be prevented. They are aimed at protecting vulnerable members of society from harm and are everyone’s responsibility.

Whatever Oxfam may now achieve in safeguarding, it is difficult to discern whether its historical actions in safeguarding were adequate in any material respect. It appears that the events which occurred in Haiti were an “accident waiting to happen”. Issues had arisen previously in the context of the charity’s presence in Chad. Concerns were subsequently raised about the conduct of Oxfam staff in the Philippines. This pattern indicates both significant underlying problems and lost opportunities for improvement.

The scandal dominated headlines around the world and with every new revelation of failures in safeguarding policies and procedures, or allegation of further abuses, the impact on one of the world’s most revered charities grew, as the timeline above shows. These blows included resignations, intensely political and regulatory scrutiny, and high profile ambassadors and corporate partners terminating or reviewing their relationships.

Most importantly, reported falls in donations from public pockets and threats to millions of pounds of funding from the government, EU and large organisations will severely damage Oxfam’s prime mission – helping vulnerable people and communities. Oxfam’s very public fall from grace is also implicating other charities who operate abroad, with the whole sector being asked to prove they are trustworthy and transparent.

The importance of whistleblowing

There is a lesson here, and one that is not unique to Oxfam or the charity sector.

At some point, a decision is made to take action against an individual or individuals, and a further decision that this should be done quickly and quietly to avoid damaging the reputation of the organisation. This is what Oxfam did in 2011 and many other organisations have done too.

The result? In the drive for a swift resolution, agreed policies and governance are swerved. Complaints are not investigated properly and whistleblowers ignored. Boards are not fully consulted or given the opportunity to discuss options. The full facts are not shared with regulators and partners. Perversely, this approach also allows the perpetrator to maintain some control and power, by perhaps negotiating a ‘clean’ reference in exchange for going quietly…

Imagine instead if Oxfam had taken short-term pain for long-term gain. What if they had commissioned an independent investigation of the allegations. What if all due process had been followed, the individual dismissed, and all the facts and findings placed in the public domain. Yes, there may have been an initial burst of interest, but ultimately the organisation, the cause of overseas aid and the people they are there to support, would have benefitted.

Perhaps the most important learning from this saga is in relation to the role of the Oxfam whistleblower. Where an organisation like Oxfam operates with a global footprint, often in remote locations, management oversight can often be limited and/or delayed. In such a context, whistleblowing will be vitally important. The ability to escalate concerns to head office if necessary, is critical to avoid whistleblowing investigations. Potential whistle-blowers in Haiti did not feel empowered to escalate their concerns when they were unable to report them to the local HR personnel or Country Director.

Here’s more information about the importance of whistle-blowing and how we can support. If you have any questions then please book a free consultation or contact Ed Marsden on 020 7494 5670 or [email protected].



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