Oxfam’s Crisis: abuse, accountability and trust

For any institution, trust is possibly one of the most important forms of capital it can possess. Trust can be one of the most enduring, strong and sticky types of capital. But that strength can mask its fragility, and it can vanish almost overnight once confidence in that institution is lost. In 2015, the Edelman Trust Barometer showed that NGOs were one of the most trusted of institutions: 63% of those surveyed trusted NGOs to do what was right, well ahead of business (57%), the media (51%) and government (just 48%). Two years later, following sustained attacks against NGOs and international development in the media and by some politicians (one of whom would go on to become the Minister for International Development), and after scandals about fundraising practices and engagement in politics, public trust had fallen dramatically. In the 2017 survey, not only had trust in NGOs fallen to 53%, but NGOs were no more trusted than the private sector.

The implications for Oxfam following the revelations about the terrible behaviour of some of its employees in Chad and Haiti are still unfolding, but it couldn’t be more serious for the charity. Penny Mordaunt, the new Minister for International Development, has suggested government money could be withdrawn, and yesterday the European Union issued a similar warning. The Charity Commission has launched a statutory inquiry into Oxfam’s response to allegations of sexual assault raised by whistle-blowers in Haiti. And surely many individual donors will be rethinking their direct debits. Whilst I think Oxfam retains enough residual strength and goodwill to survive this storm of (justified) outrage, it is far from certain. Much will depend on how open it has been, and continues to be, in the next few days and weeks. Trust in NGOs, especially as allegations about similar occurrences, and of abuses against employees and volunteers within aid agencies, spread throughout the sector, will fall again.

Falls in trust matter for NGOs, because the success of the NGO sector is largely built upon a set of assumptions that NGOs are a better form of actor: better in their global aspirations (helping the world’s most vulnerable), better in the things they actually do, and better in their impact. If we can’t trust NGOs to be better, why would we continue to support them over other types of development and humanitarian actors?

One of the pillars of that trust has been a defence of good intentions. Typically, when I and others have challenged and critiqued the idea that NGOs are inherently better in lectures or print, a standard response is that NGOs don’t mean to cause harm, they intend to do good, and criticisms are thus mean-spirited and damaging. Projects are started with good intentions, promises to deliver certain services are fully intended to be met. It’s true that many aid workers, most, do care about the wellbeing of those they are seeking to help, and agonise about the failures that occur. So how can we criticise such efforts?

That pillar is looking increasingly inadequate. The desire to do good is admirable. Good intentions do matter, of course. But what happens when those good intentions (in the case of Oxfam, those of the organisation itself) result in harm? Decisions made by NGOs, and the way systems and processes work (or don’t work, or don’t exist) can and do cause harm regularly. And the scope for harm is magnified considerably in the context of a humanitarian disaster where resources are limited, and the power held by aid agencies and actors is immense in comparison. Allowing the defence of good intentions is to downplay the harm experienced by those at the sharp end, those who are already vulnerable. It is to put the interests of those with more power first.

Sometimes that harm is limited and minimal; but as the scandal over the behaviour of some of Oxfam’s aid workers in Chad and Haiti has shown, it can be extremely serious in its consequences and impact on those affected. And good intentions offer no protection. Oxfam did not mean to cause harm in Chad and Haiti, but, through the actions of its employees, it did. That questions were raised about one of those involved in Chad before they were moved to Haiti adds to the seriousness of the charges against the NGO. The harm may have been  unintentional on the part of the organisation (this becomes harder to maintain if it turns out managers were aware of the allegations but failed to act), but if it happened, can we simply shrug our shoulders and say, ‘at least they meant well’? If a for-profit company failed to meet its commitments, if it was shown to have bid for work it was unable to cope with, would we excuse it, or hold it to account? Or if employees of a for-profit company engaged committed sexual assault or abuse, would be not ask why processes were not in place to stop that in the first place? And why would we do anything differently just because the organisation is a charitable one?

Underlying the scandal that has previously hit various UN organisations, has now affected Oxfam, and may well spread to other humanitarian organisations, is a failure of accountability. There are two forms of accountability here: one upwards, to the donors, and essential for creating trust amongst an NGO’s giving community; the other is downwards, accountability to affected communities, giving them the opportunity to challenge behaviour, decisions and poor outcomes.

Much of the focus of the current set of debates in response to this crisis has been on the former: what mechanisms can be put in place to reassure governments, individuals and other donors that an NGO is undertaking its work appropriately and is able to respond to breaches in a timely and effective manner. This is important. Strong processes for reporting, monitoring and acting will reduce harm as well as rebuild trust. Critics of aid spending often argue that too much money is ‘wasted’ on needless bureaucracy, regulation and administration. What happened in Chad and Haiti is a powerful reminder of why these matter and how they can (when in place and working well) act as vital parts of protection for the most vulnerable. It was the insufficient working of such processes that allowed a culture of impunity to flourish and continue amongst a small minority of staff.

But attention should also be paid to how NGOs and other humanitarian actors can be made more directly accountable to the affected communities with whom they work. As I have long argued, there is a serious accountability deficit in this area. When harm is caused, when there are concerns about behaviour or policy, how do individuals and communities complain or challenge decisions? The changes proposed by Oxfam and others keep power and accountability within the sector. Unless and until mechanisms exist for communities and affected individuals to directly hold NGOs to account for their actions, to report on abuses (and see action), NGOs will struggle to rebuild and maintain trust amongst perhaps its most important constituency: the communities and people they say they are working with to alleviate poverty, suffering and marginalisation.

Humanitarian crises are sites of profound inequalities and imbalances in power, perfect conditions for abuses and harm to flourish. Strong sectoral mechanisms for monitoring, reporting, and acting on allegations are essential. But so too are ways of empowering affected communities to hold humanitarian actors to account for the promises they make, and the things that they (or their employees) do or don’t do.

Oxfam has responded quite well to this scandal in the past week, assuming it is now being fully open about what happened, what it knew and when. It has been transparent, self-critical, acknowledged that its previous practices were not acceptable, and proposed significant changes to processes to help limit possibilities of similar behaviours in the future. Its Deputy Chief Executive, Penny Lawrence has resigned, taking responsibility for the organisation’s actions back then. Others may follow. Nor is it likely that Oxfam is the only organisation in which such failings occurred. That does not, of course, make what happened acceptable or excusable, and our focus must remain on the harm done to those affected.

Haiti has become a benchmark for poor practice in humanitarian work, but what happened in one of Britain’s oldest, most venerable and most widely respected of NGOs has added to the catalogue of failures by humanitarian actors in responding to it, and cast a long shadow over the sector. For humanitarian actors in general, as well as for Oxfam in particular, the challenge will be to make meaningful change, enact real and substantial accountability to all stakeholders, and hope that trust can gradually be built up again. For without trust, there will be no Oxfam.


About Mike Jennings

I am Reader in International Development and Head of the Department of Development Studies at the SOAS, University of London. I research, teach and write on Africa, and the history and politics of international development in sub-Saharan Africa. Research areas include: - The history of development in Africa, from the late nineteenth century to the current day - Politics of East Africa (Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda) - the role of non-state providers (NGOs, FBOs and self-help groups) in welfare service provision - Social aspects of health, including HIV and AIDS, and malaria
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