Is Oxfam the Worst or the Best?

The sexual abuse allegations against Oxfam staff came to light because Oxfam has one the best reporting systems in the aid industry. Sexual harassment, exploitation and assault is commonplace in the entire aid business, from the smallest voluntary agencies to the biggest United Nations organizations. The claims about orgy parties in Oxfam compounds, hiring of sex workers, and sexual assault of children in Oxfam’s British charity shops are sadly very credible. What they point to is a system-wide problem, which needs a radical change in institutional culture—not a vindictive scapegoating of one particular agency.

Today, Oxfam is the target of universal condemnation for having, allegedly, hired staff who were sexually abusive, and then covered up these wrongdoings. But the reality is that, far from being the worst, Oxfam Global is today one of the best international aid agencies in terms of reporting, investigating and addressing sexual harassment, exploitation and abuse of its staff.

My colleague Phoebe Donnelly and I recently carried out a two-year study on sexual harassment and assault experienced by humanitarian and development aid workers. Our findings shed important light on the crises unfolding around Oxfam and the humanitarian sector today.

There are three important lessons from that research.

First, the issue of sexual harassment, exploitation and assault is a sector wide problem. This is a clarion wake-up call to the humanitarian industry. Time’s Up. We found that sexual harassment and assault of aid workers is widespread, with many survivors reporting multiple experiences of abuse.  Yet it remains grossly under-reported and under-acknowledged. The best data we have comes from a large-scale survey (1,005 respondents) by the Women’s Humanitarian Network, which found that 24% of respondents reported they were sexually assaulted while on humanitarian or development missions. Women make up the vast majority of aid workers who are survivors of sexual harassment and assault. Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender aid workers also reported sexual harassment, blackmail, threats, and assaults.  The victims/survivors come from different nations, and have diverse education levels and experiences.

Second, as in the Oxfam alleged cases, male aid workers make up the vast majority of perpetrators.  They are often in supervisory or higher-level positions compared with their victims.  Male security providers are another group that inflicts these abuses.

Third, few agencies have formal training and policies and procedures for preventing, investigating, and responding to sexual assault. And even then, too often they are not followed. We found that women and LGBT aid professionals who did report were widely dissatisfied with their agencies’ responses. In fact, they experienced more harmful professional and personal consequences than their assailants, who often remained in their positions and continued their violations with impunity. Rarely do agencies provide the kind of care and response survivors need. More often, they blame, fire, blacklist and stigmatize survivors.

As part of our research we asked people about best practices for addressing sexual harassment and assault by these agencies. The people we interviewed repeatedly spoke about Oxfam Safeguarding team, which we highlighted as a Best Practice in our report. As the allegations come to light now, we still stand by this assessment.

There’s a simple reason why aid agencies—like companies, or governments—that have the best reporting procedures for sexual offenses have the highest reported rates of these crimes. If a victim of a crime has no confidence that her report will be taken seriously, discussed sensitively and in confidence, and acted upon, she will simply remain quiet. That’s why (for example) Sweden and Canada have higher rates of recorded sexual violence than South Sudan or Libya.

I am confident that, in part, this is what we are seeing today in the aid world. Oxfam Global has one of the best Safeguarding Teams of any international agency. As a result, its staff members know how to report abuses and are willing to come forward, while the agency has teams to investigate and respond. For sure there were failures in Oxfam, but we need to identify precisely where they happened and why.

Let’s begin Haiti in 2011—one of the main elements in today’s scandal. In response to this, Oxfam set up a ‘Safeguarding Department’ the following year. It is one of three independent functions in Oxfam’s Internal Audit Department that assist the organization’s Trustees and Leadership team by independently reviewing Oxfam’s activities, processes, and systems.

The job of the Safeguarding team is to help prevent abuse among staff, volunteers, and partner organizations. It focuses on sexual misconduct, but also looks at different forms of abuse against children or vulnerable adults. A key tenet of is building confidence in the organization’s practices so individuals feel comfortable reporting abuse. If people don’t trust the system, or systems don’t even exist, there won’t be any reports at all.

Since the Safeguarding team was created in 2012, on average, reported incidents have increased 100 percent per year. In 2015/16, Oxfam had 64 incidents reported. Before the Safeguarding Department, most cases could not be acted upon because the survivor did not want to proceed with an investigation due to a lack of trust in the process. Now the Safeguarding team investigates 93–95 percent of cases reported. That’s an impressive record.

The Safeguarding team tries to be accessible to survivors. It has a focal point in each of Oxfam’s six regional centers, who are usually senior personnel who have been trained on how to deal with survivors of sexual violence. Individuals want to report to people they know and trust, and to make this work, by last year, Oxfam had approximately 80 trained country focal points. Each had a clear line of communication to headquarters.

The process works like this. A survivor makes a complaint, usually to a focal point. Then the Safeguarding Department sends a specialist investigator to contacts that person. This is usually at headquarters, because survivors often worry that if the complaint is handled within the office where they work, it won’t remain confidential, and they could be open to intimidation. Often, survivors do not want to recount their experience to a colleague whom they see on a daily basis. The Safeguarding team then gathers supporting documentary evidence and a list of further people who could speak about the incident. Oxfam needs to balance the duty of care to the subject of the complaint, while at the same time carefully following employment laws.

The Safeguarding team’s investigators write a report that is given to a pre-determined senior “decision maker,” who then decides whether or not to uphold, or partially uphold, the original complaint along with any sanctions. If the accused is found to have carried out the alleged action, at a minimum, he/she will be given a final written warning. More often than not, the penalty is termination.

In the cases that have hit the headlines, we can see that the Safeguarding Department did its job. The cases were reported, investigations were made, and the former head of Safeguarding Helen Evans obtained the evidence. Up to this point the system was working as it should. Where the failure now appears to lie is at the highest levels of Oxfam’s leadership, where the Safeguarding investigations and reports hit a brick wall of inaction and indifference.

Senior Oxfam staff have resigned and the organization as a whole is paying a high price for this failure. But while we rightly condemn the abuses themselves, and the shortcomings at the highest level, we need to learn the proper lessons from this. First, Oxfam has a clear policy against sexual exploitation and abuse, and one of the best industry practices for reporting. Ironically, it is precisely because of this, that the cases have come to light—and Oxfam’s Safeguarding teams should be commended for doing their job. Second, the problem is deeply embedded in an industry in which the familiar system of senior staff (usually male) have huge power and authority over junior staff (usually female), compounded by specific problems of international staff having even greater power over vulnerable local people.

Oxfam may momentarily appear the worst—but that’s partly because it has been the best in addressing the challenge of sexual exploitation and abuse.

Let’s use the overdue exposure of these cases of abuse for a much-needed overhaul of the power hierarchies in the aid industry, not a vindictive attack on the individual agency that happens to be caught in the spotlight.

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