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The Oxfam Scandal and why it is bad news for all NGO’s

The Charities commission has just delivered a damning report on its investigation into one of our largest NGO’s, Oxfam.

International Ngos

In 2018 The Times newspaper published a story under the headline; Top Oxfam staff paid Haiti survivors for sex". The main allegations were:

  • that Oxfam covered up claims that senior staff working in Haiti in the wake of the 2010 earthquake used prostitutes.
  • some may have been underage.
  • Oxfam's director of operations in Haiti, Roland Van Hauwermeiren is alleged to have used prostitutes at a villa rented for him by the charity.
  • there was a cover up.

Further revelations were to follow; allegations of bullying, harassment and “colonial” behaviour emerged and it became apparent that Oxfam senior management were either ignorant of the situation or incapable of confronting it.

It later transpired that some senior officers implicated in the scandal were allowed to resign rather than be dismissed, and that Oxfam failed to inform prospective employers of those officials of the allegations against them. Major donors were also kept in the dark.

This eventually triggered the investigation, and its findings are alarming. In its report it finds “that the charity repeatedly fell below standards expected, had a culture of tolerating poor behaviour, and concludes that it failed to meet promises made on safeguarding, ultimately letting everyone down.”

The charity commission said the incidents in Haiti identified in 2011 were not "one-offs", with evidence of behavioural issues as early as June 2010 and in Chad before that.

There were also issues at some of the charity's UK shops - the report highlighted 16 serious incidents involving volunteers under the age of 18.

The impact on Oxfam has been severe:

  • In 2017/18 income from public donations fell by £3.8 million.
  • Over the past year it has lost 7000 regular donors (£14 million annually).
  • It has lost £20 million in government support and is barred from bidding for new funding.
  • The Swedish government has stopped its funding to the charity.
  • The Charities commission has issued an Official Warning Notice; to clean up its act.
  • The charity now faces cuts of £16 million which will affect staffing levels as well as its aid programmes.

Issues of Trust

So how big a problem is this for the sector? It all comes down to trust, to the belief that the money we donate will be used to benefit those in need and that the officers of the NGO’s will behave in ways consistent with the trust the public has in them.

But trust is a fragile commodity and there is evidence that in the UK it is slipping away as the Edeleman Trust Barometer suggests. Overall since 2013 levels of trust in the major charities have been slipping helped along by the allegations of fraud at Age Concern the closure of The Kids Company, and of course the problems at Oxfam.

Trust In Ngos

Inevitably, the increasing negativity surrounding the credibility of our major charities is reflected in a general decline in the levels of public donations.

Percentage of people who donated money to an organisation focused on international poverty and development in the last 12 months.

Last 12 Months Poverty

This is bad news for two reasons:

  1. Charities like Oxfam will have to cut their programmes even more
  2. They will become reliant increasingly on government funding, which leaves them open to increasing political interference and influence on where money should be spent

And bad publicity hits all UK NGO’s. Already many large donors, including large financial institutions like UBS are having second thoughts about channelling money into the large NGO’s

Angela Fail of New Philanthropy Capital predicts that the Oxfam scandal would have longer-term fallout on the way that rich donors gave to charity. (Financial Times) Whilst Kevin Watkins of Save the Children Fund writing in the Guardian is concerned that:

“The toxic effects of poor practice in any one of our agencies can weaken the entire sector. That’s why we need to work together to stamp out abuse in all its forms and make sure the perpetrators are held to account.”

There are clear issues of accountability and transparency which all NGO’s will need to confront if they are to win back public trust.

Further Reading

Press Release; Charities Commission gives a good summary of the findings.

For the full report click here

By Phil Brighty

Former Geography Teacher

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