COMMENTARY: Humanitarian sector’s fall from grace is a stark reminder that no organisation is immune to misconduct

Angharad Neagle, group managing director of Freshwater UK, examines how the current crisis engulfing Oxfam GB has brought the international humanitarian sector to a watershed moment.

It started in February when The Times revealed allegations, made in 2011, of sexual exploitation and abuse committed by several Oxfam workers in Haiti following the earthquake. The international aid and development charity investigated the claims at the time and dismissed four people, and three resigned before the end of the investigation. But some went on to work for other aid agencies, which were unaware of the reasons their recruits had left Oxfam.

The story dominated the headlines for several days and, as it snowballed, further revelations emerged of sexual misconduct committed by staff of other international aid organisations. Twenty-two major aid agencies signed an open letter apologising for the sector’s failings, saying “we must and will do better”.

Rightly or wrongly, we have a tendency to put aid organisations on a pedestal. We expect them to be infallible and a shining beacon in an otherwise bleak world. We hold them to the highest standards, entrusted as they are to support and protect the world’s most vulnerable. So when they fall from grace; they fall extra hard.

Since the story broke, Oxfam has lost 7,000 regular donors, and two of its high-profile ambassadors, the actress Minnie Driver and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, have stepped down. Corporate partners have also expressed serious concern, and there were fears the charity could lose its annual funding from the Department for International Development.

As always, how a brand communicates to its supporters, employees and the media – when faced with a crisis –– will always matter. But, even though I work within the industry, there is only so much that good communications can do.

You can have a robust reactive media statement; communications to all of your stakeholders mapped out and finely tuned and a highly skilled spokesperson media trained and ready to roll, but this will only go so far if the reason for the crisis is because you failed - and are continuing to fail - to get your house in order.

You need to ask yourself those difficult, and at times, uncomfortable questions about your organisation’s values and the processes you have in place to ensure everyone lives up to them. What is best practice? Are you following it? Can you identify any reputational risks you face, past or present, and what are you doing to fix them? As the Oxfam case demonstrates, scandals have a horrible habit of reappearing, even when you think you have dealt with them.

When damaging allegations arise, investigate thoroughly and ensure those responsible are held to account and robust measures are put in place as soon as possible to ensure it cannot happen again.

In the aftermath of Oxfam’s investigation of the Haiti case, it created a dedicated safeguarding team, a confidential whistleblowing line and more comprehensive policies. Since The Times’ story broke, the charity has also announced a range of additional measures to further improve safeguarding within Oxfam.

One of the things to take away from this scandal, is that it has forced to the forefront serious issues that the international humanitarian sector must work collectively to address – to protect both its beneficiaries and staff.

And while the majority of us will, hopefully, never have to deal with an issue as serious as the one that the various aid organisations have faced of late, it still serves as a reminder that we need to make sure that our own internal checks and balances are in place and working well.

This article appeared in the Western Mail newspaper on 12 March 2018.


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Impact Report 2017

Impact report 2017