Oxfam is under attack. Some would say rightly so. It allowed sexual predators to be employed – repeatedly – in situations in which women were vulnerable to their power and abuse. And that was absolutely wrong.
When that happened – seven years ago – it launched an investigation, got rid of the perpetrators, issued a press release, informed the Charity Commission and its donors, and then put in place stronger safeguarding measures and channels for people to be able to report abuses. And that was mostly right.
In the middle of managing that huge and complex natural disaster response it had to make some tough decisions – it didn’t report it to the local police, or go into the full details of the misconduct in its public reports – and I don’t know, maybe that was partly or wholly wrong.
The safeguarding system it put in place was starting to work – allowing more cases of abuse to emerge. The safeguarding team asked for more resources and, although not immediately, they were ultimately boosted – and that was a wrong that was at least partially put right.
In January, Oxfam launched a report called “Reward Work, Not Wealth: To end the inequality crisis, we must build an economy for ordinary working people, not the rich and powerful.” And that, in my view is right, but it attracted the ire of some of the rich and powerful.
On Friday Feb 9th (the day that Jacob Rees Mogg presented a Daily Express petition to Downing Street against foreign aid) The Times published the story of the sexual misconduct story from seven years earlier.
Oxfam has apologised repeatedly and sincerely for its mistakes. It has committed to putting in place even stronger safeguarding measures, being even more transparent, working with other aid agencies to make it even more difficult for sexual predators to move between agencies. And that is absolutely right.
But what is so heartbreaking is that the whole of this amazing organisation is being tarred with the same brush, a brush charged with half-truths and vested interests. My colleagues are being attacked and abused, accused of vanity, arrogance, greed, selfishness… and that is so, so wrong.
The Oxfam I know is an organisation that is deeply committed not just to ending the hunger and suffering of millions of people around the world, but finding out – through painstaking research – why they are hungry and suffering and doing something about that too.
The Oxfam I know is a collection of incredibly committed, unbelievably hardworking, thoughtful people who do not by any means see themselves as saints or put themselves on a pedestal above others, but who are simply responding to a strong sense of injustice in the world. As the Guardian journalist who visited Oxfam recently reported, they are heartbroken, angry, distraught – one colleague who has dedicated over 30 years of her life to the organisation described it feeling like “a bereavement.”
The Oxfam I know provided food and medical care to thousands of refugees from the newly formed Bangladesh through my grandparents’ Social Welfare Society in West Bengal.
The Oxfam I know brought doctors to a remote forest in central India to treat tribal people who had no access to medical care – including the man who told me his harrowing story of an infected leg that stopped him from being able to earn his living as a farmer, of going from hospital to hospital but being unable to pay for the treatment he needed, and of being ready to give up and die, before Oxfam provided the treatment he needed and literally saved his life.
The Oxfam I know responds immediately and pragmatically to disasters, like the 2004 Tsunami, when I helped in the communication hub and heard the reports coming in from all the affected countries about the food, housing, water, sanitation, clothing, medicines being rushed in.
The Oxfam I know enables incredible individuals – Indian, South African, Malawian, Bosnian, Zimbabwean, Zambian, Filipino, Haitian etc colleagues – to dedicate their lives to helping the people of their own countries.
The Oxfam I know consists of women and men who repeatedly fly into the most dangerous situations in the world, leaving behind the comfort and safety of their homes and their families to work day and night to help fellow human beings survive wars, earthquakes, volcanoes, epidemics… without abusing sex workers.
And all that is so, so right.
If you – like me – still believe in Oxfam and its work, please send a much needed message of support. And go into an Oxfam shop to hug a volunteer. (It’s ok – there are strong safeguarding measures in place there too.)
I was in tears by the time I finished reading your powerfully expressed truth in the context of an disproportionate attack on an organization that has done much-humbly,unassumingly,daringly,creatively,objectively but most importantly ,earnestly and in good faith.
First time, in my life , when I was made to feel so powerless and helpless when my Co passenger asked me what I do? I was initially stuck but soon I recalled my favourite poet Bharathiyar ,his words, Be fearless even when the big Blue sky falls on your head,I replied ,most of my adult life I was privileged to work for Oxfam.!
Thank you, Push. You were, and always will be, an important part of the Oxfam I know.
Excellent article Shob. Fully support all Oxfam is trying to do. There are a few black sheep everywhere who crop.up from time to time. Kick them out😊😊
I totally agree with your view that a few misdeeds should tar the work of thousands of others who work selflessly to help. Our bad press philosophy plays into prejudice and misunderstanding.
I shall continue to contribute to Oxfam and will certainly hug a volunteer!!
Keep going Shobi!
Thanks, Susanna. x
Good article. If the abuse had been reported to police in Haiti, who would have suffered? The prostitutes. They would have been rounded up and punished as prostitution is illegal on Haiti. If all governments had the resources to look after their people whatever befell, there would be no need for aid. Until that time, there is. Wonderful Oxfam. keep up your good work
Thanks, Christine. Good points.
Thank you Sabita for such clear and reasoned analyses. I started my Humanitarian career with Oxfam and am proud to say I learnt the basics of human development through my engagement with some of the most passionate colleagues in Oxfam. I strongly feel few issues at hand still need to be addressed. First, how do we break the internal power dynamics, which prevents staff from reporting any violations (sometimes even against colleagues) perpetrated by senior colleagues. Second, ‘phased and dignified exit’ (as confirmed by Barbara) and rehiring of some of the perpetrators is gross violation of basic principles and policies, which reinforce the perception of impunity (among the junior colleagues) and creates a privileged and unaccountable (messiah) class. Third, the excuse of possible harrasment of the victims of the sexual abuse as one of the main reasons for non-reporting to police in Haiti is self defeating as it counters one of the fundamental reasons why Oxfam exists. Fourth, sexual abuse by people in power should be analysed from a wider (accompanying) vicious circle of practices e.g. recruitments, purchases & procurements, awards to service providers & contractors etc., because these often go together (if not all at least some) driven by the same mindset of being powerful and unaccountable. Finally, making the whole discussion overtly moralistic with total focus on Oxfam and linking the whole issue (by many policy makers and politicians) to ‘funding’ is fundamentally flawed and to me seems both power and guilt driven. And I must confess that my 8+ years of association with Oxfam in early stages of my professional career has certainly influenced to articulate most of the above arguments. None of the above discussion should be construed as me justifying any form of abuse, violation or appropriation by anybody in the position of power and influence. I am sure Oxfam, the Mission, which many of us have been pursuing, will continue to inspire many more and will come out stronger.
Thank you, Sarthak. All very valid points which I believe Oxfam has taken on board and is addressing.
This is great Sabita – thank you
Sabita, thank you for putting my thoughts into words so eloquently! The OXFAM I know is a brave organisation that has never hesitated to support women’s organisations in remote corners of the world that created space for women’s voice to be raised and heard. The OXFAM I know has not hesitated to right a wrong including those caused by men within its fold abusing their position. Instead of pulling down the organisation let’s find ways to support it so that it becomes a stronger entity and role models the behaviour it believes in. Withholding funding will only harm those in most dire need of support!
Thank you, Tahera. I totally agree with you – in times of crisis, don’t abandon or destroy… rebuild, improve – as Oxfam itself does in emergencies.
Thanks Sabita for this inspiring message. Wherever I have worked in the world with different organisations, I was always identified as ‘Oxfam’ staff, even sometime I did not get chance to tell them that once I worked with Oxfam. It happened because I am influenced by the moral of Oxfam. I carry this vanity with me. I feel proud to be with Oxfam. Within this ongoing crisis, I have seen how Oxfam remain transparent and steady by acknowledging the wrong thing. This is ‘the Oxfam I know’ and wish it will fight with dignity till the end. I think this is the phase to test how strong Oxfam is. This is why I still in love with Oxfam.
Thank you, Tahmina. Oxfam’s strength lies in people like you who have done such amazing work
over the years in your own country and beyond.
Well said, Tahmina! May I join your ex-Oxfam movement and stand in solidarity with you for the Oxfam cause?
Sure Paddy. Most welcome.
That you Sabita for writing so eloquently and accurately. I am privileged and blessed to have worked closely for Oxfam or with Oxfam for many of the last 50 years including with your wonderful grandfather in 1971. Oxfam has changed a lot since those days, becoming more professional but without the caring which has always been there. The words of Tahmina Rahman are also very true.
Thank you, Julian. My grandparents would have been distraught at this news, but hopefully would have maintained their faith in the organisation that helped them feed and treat thousands of refugees.
PS I hope you mean that Oxfam has become more professional but without losing the caring? If so, I agree! That has certainly been my experience of it.
Yes, Sabita, I missed the word. Should have checked then sent a revised comment
RE-writing my earlier comment which had a word missing
Thank you Sabita for writing so eloquently and accurately. I am privileged and blessed to have worked closely for Oxfam or with Oxfam for many of the last 50 years including with your wonderful grandfather in 1971. Oxfam has changed a lot since those days, becoming more professional but without losing the caring which has always been there. The words of Tahmina Rahman are also very true.
Very well said.
I agree absulately with you sabita, this is the action of that inequality reports. I am asking they were sleeping last 8 years? Where they were that time ?
This article sums up very well my own thoughts and experience. I have worked with 3 different Oxfams, overseas and in the UK and am extremely proud of the work we did.
No, everything was not perfect but the response of the British right wing press, fuelled sadly by an increasingly biased BBC has been totally disproportionate when compared to the incredible work Oxfam has done over the years and across the world
This will undoubtedly adversely affect Ozfam and deter other agencies from reporting transparently about any adverse activities.
Thank you, Mary. I do hope that this will drive greater, rather than less transparency as organisations and companies see that painful though it may be, complete openness when things go wrong is the best policy because if not they are leaving a hostage to fortune…
Very well said Sabita. Every word of it what you say is so true. This blog from you actually neatly captures the thoughts of many like me. Thank you
Thank you, Biranchi. So glad you agree.
I think you are naive. Predators are all around us and a lot hide behind charity, good causes. Generally I don’t believe in charity organisations. I believe lots of people are charitable but their contributions are lost along the way. Way back in school I remember there are people in UK who offered to pay school fees and all the children needed for school directly through our school and it worked. I know lots of people who benefitted from this. If they had gone down the charity organisations way they wouldn’t be where they are today and trust must they’re making a difference to our country. I know lots of people don’t want to be overly involved. But these people were never directly involved, they worked with the school. I believe charities don’t work for the current Africa. There is a lot of misappropriation of charitable funds.
Thank you for sharing your views, Vic.
I do not get what you try to say. For the record I am a tax lawyer and have nothing to do with charities. However, how do you transpose your school funding example to a natural disaster in Africa? Local government may be overstretched, or failing for other reasons. Who do you send your school money to?
It seems to me that is naive to trust government to do everything. Most of them don’t. Helping the poor in times of disaster is rarely a profitable affair (and if it is its usually morally wrong), so that takes business out of the way. Seems to me the only ones left to pick up the pieces are the charities, or am I missing someone? (And no, the UN does a lot of good work, but it does not cover everything either.)
Does all this absolve charities from predatory behaviour? Never. Does it mean that charities saved from incompetence, internal politics and other human short comings. No. Does that justify a broad brush rejection of all charities. Uhm. No.
There is truth in what you say, however, Oxfam is among the better humanitarian work, and I think if you explored them and understood humanitarian work (not charitable, the word is misleading) you would see that they stand out. The development/aid world is complex and has many, many shortcomings, but I think we would be in a mess without them. They do what governments cannot do.
Thank you for sharing your moving and heartfelt response to the current situation. Oxfam needs more and more people like you right now to speak up and out; not because we say so, but because they care. I agree, hugs are important! Very best xox
Thank you very much, Ruth.
Thank you for this beautiful text. I never worked for Oxfam but have worked ‘with’ Oxfam for many years, first in a consortium of INGOs and then when I was with Save the Children in Eritrea, Bangladesh and Tanzania. The Oxfam I know taught me a lot, inspired me and enabled me to become a more thoughtful and alert manager.
What happened in Haiti is intolerable, full stop. But really, how many INGOs could say, in all honesty, that they would have fared much better in handling a similar case? So many testimonies shared in the last ten days show that deafening silence or quiet dismissals are more often the norm!
I hope other large organisations will have the courage to rally on the side of Oxfam and say that it’s a sector-wide problem for which we all have to look for collective and enforceable solutions (as you say, prosecution is easily recommended but in situations where you know it may harm the victims more than the perpetrators, hesitation to go down this way is understandable).
In the meantime, do keep the good work!
Thank you so much, Martine.
I feel what I am and who I am is because of Oxfam, the values so deeply entrenched in me because of Oxfam. Yes I had felt frustrated at times with them but I see Oxfam learnt its lessons. What is going on now is clearly a conspiracy to destroy this great and brave organisation as they take in some rich and powerful people with great courage. I hope to see a stronger Oxfam emerging from this despite this damage.
Don’t give up on Oxfam. They have done more than many NGOs to deal with this kind of problem.
Its a time of crisis and needs to be addressed without any fail. Saying that there are multiple layers we need to talk about INGOs, perhaps need to go back to the basics.
Thanks! Oxfam is a great organisation, and the forces salivating over the scandal are so so wrong….