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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10 Responses to Is Oxfam the Worst or the Best?

  1. Kate says:

    I wonder how many women from the developed world – frequently young idealistic and probably therefore naive women would continue to want to work in the field of humanitarian / development organisations if they knew in advance that their chances of becoming a victim of sexual assault – quite often by their senior male colleagues – was 1 in 4 ?
    Secondly admirable as Oxfam’s policies and procedures for reporting and addressing after the fact sexual harrassment – assault might be, no-where does this article seem to mention involving the police. The law and order of the place in which it took place might have broken down, but most of the perpetrators are likely to be nationals of countries where it hasn’t AND in many cases where their behaviour is illegal where-ever it took place

    • Response from Dyan Mazurana: Good point to raise on issues of police, Kate. We did look at this, and it is not as straight forward as one might think. If a survivor wants to go through formal judicial systems he/she should be given the option to explore that by the Safeguarding team. But keep in mind that legal action can be complicated. The Safeguarding team would need to work with legal specialists who can answer tricky questions related to judicial procedures in the country where the complaint is made. They should be present to offer their support to a survivor to report their case to criminal justice services, if that is the route the survivor would like to take. However, the Safeguarding Department should inform the victim/survivor of possible complications in this process. For example, frequently the police cannot take a case any further if the evidence has already been tampered with by an internal administrative investigation. For example, the normal investigative procedure for the Safeguarding investigation would be to interview all the people involved, including the accused. But in criminal investigations, the police would want to be among the first to interview the plaintiff and all other witnesses. The accused would be given information of the complaints, investigation and interviewed last, to prevent them from tampering with evidence or intimidating witnesses. Thus, a criminal and legal avenue may have already been jeopardized by an internal investigation that did not clearly explain options and limitations to a survivor. Nonetheless, the Safeguarding Department’s main message on whether to go through criminal justice proceedings is that it should be the survivor’s choice and to best prepare them for what that will entail.

  2. Sarah says:

    Thanks for writing this, Dyan! PS Its the Humanitarian Women’s Network… I would like all the other organizations, including the UN who have dragged their feet on this to see their time in the spotlight now.

  3. Daithi O Cuinn says:

    You must be joking. Oxfam’s abuses came to light because of external investigative reporting. The UK Head of Safeguarding & Protection resigned because senior management refused to act on abuses and were only concerned with protecting the organization’s name. A quote from the UK Minister Penny Mordaunt (Secretary of State for International Development) who is investigating Oxfam:

    They did not provide a full report to the Charity Commission, they did not provide a full report to their donors, they did not provide any report to prosecuting authorities.

    In my view they misled, quite possibly deliberately.

    Even as their report concluded that their investigation could not rule out the allegation that some of the women involved were actually children, they did not think it was necessary to report this to the police either in Haiti or the country of origin for those accountable.

    I believe their motivation appears to be the protection of their organisation’s reputation: they put that before those they were there to help and protect – a complete betrayal of trust.

  4. Anthony says:

    Great article. Balanced.

  5. Angela Raven-Roberts says:

    It should be remembered that Oxam was also one of the organizations that set up many years ago after the rwanda crisis a Accountability partnership to examine and track the ways in which agencies worked in crisis situations and to attempt reform within the system. Put of this was the development of modalities to track PSEA and other abuses including corruption, theft, extortion etc and to require organizations to report instances and to SHOW what they have done to rectify these situations. Whilst progress has been slow, it is precisely because agencies are required to report that these instances are coming out. The reporting and closer examinations of agency modalities shows that like all institutions power and privilege circulates in mundane and extreme ways and abuses occur all the way along the supply chain. As well as applying more stringent systems it is also time now to have a wider conversation on the entire aid architecture, its assumptions, its modalities, its privileges, its inbuilt inequalities.

  6. David Witham says:

    It is refreshing to see a point of view that is well informed and well researched in a world of knee-jerk reaction condemnation. A grateful Oxfam volunteer

  7. Ex-oxfam says:

    international staff having even greater power over vulnerable local people, this is so true in programs of Oxfam in third world countries, where speaking out can get the victim some extra layer of complexity, but I would like also to comment on confidentionality of the complaint where we think that we are safe from spreading around the news however; in Oxfam this is not always the case, there are cases where we experienced that everybody around knows about the complaint and the involved parties. This has to be changed.

  8. Thank you Dyan for your report and as an Oxfam member I reaffirm that we do have safeguarding policies and procedures in place and we continuously apply them. However, there might be failures here and there but should not overshadow what is existing especially the ability to investigate 93-95% of the cases. Given the diverse countries that Oxfam is working this is even more impressive to be able to investigate with such high percentage compared to other institutions!
    As usual there are always room to improve whether in recruitment to get the best talents with the right mix of behaviors and conduct. Most crucially is building organizational culture that is safe for everyone to work or engage with. Our aim is to present a world class model with safeguarding based on human rights, dignity and respect.

  9. John says:

    Dyan, A good analysis until you write of the 2010 Haiti scandal ‘Where the [safeguarding system] failure appears to lie is at the highest levels of Oxfam leadership’.In 2010 Oxfam’s most senior staff member was a woman and both then and since it has arguably led the way in appointing women to very senior positions, including its trustees. Haiti is a country where to be a prostitute is to be a criminal. As a male, I can understand why a woman decided not to report the scandal to the local police. Doing so assumes those police are themselves beyond reproach and uncorrupt. The sad consequence of reporting the victims would simply place them at the mercy of a predominantly male police force and open again to further abuse. Ask yourself again what you would have done?

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