What critics are missing about Oxfam

Posted in: Charity, Giving, Governance, Policy, Voluntary Sector

Reflecting on the recent revelations about the behaviour of staff working for Oxfam and other aid charities, Prize Fellow Stefan Hielscher argues for a more nuanced approach to unravelling the accountability questions at stake, and suggests that cross-sector leadership is needed to improve accountability and compliance in the future. 


For those looking to solve the accountability problems presented by the Oxfam scandal, we need to distinguish between two fundamentally different concepts: corporate responsibility and private responsibility. Have Oxfam staff misused Oxfam’s resources, including time, money, aid, and occupational roles, to engage in illegal activity? Or have Oxfam staff used their private resources to engage in legal, but morally questionable behaviour?

However current debates in the UK about Oxfam’s alleged transgressions have taken a different route, and become a battle over aid budgets. Two antagonist positions prevail. One holds that incidents of sexual abuse, child abuse, and prostitution in Haiti, Chad and elsewhere, are testimony to severe legal and moral failures of a charity whose aid allocations should be cut as a result. The other, progressive position, accepts Oxfam’s moral wrongdoing, but argues that this should be no reason to cut aid, which will only harm beneficiaries in the UK and overseas. But while both points of view are an obvious (and probably quite rational) response, such a dispute disregards some important lessons for charities.


Corporate and private responsibility

A considered debate is needed to distinguish between corporate and private responsibilities. If corporate responsibility applies, Oxfam staff have clearly and severely violated the agreed-upon accountability standards of good practice in the civil society sector. These cases need to be scrutinised carefully, and if found guilty, those staff involved must be called to account. If allegations turn out to be true, and Oxfam hasn’t acted upon them appropriately, then a disaster has occurred. It is a moral disaster for an organisation with advanced accountability standards (much more advanced than many others), and it is a moral disaster for a sector that claims the moral high ground by taking the side of the weak and vulnerable.

However, if private responsibility applies, things are more complicated and need to be viewed with more care. If Oxfam staff have used their private resources to, let's say, engage with prostitutes, and they have paid a customary price, have not engaged in any form of abuse and dangerous sexual practices, or any form of illegal behaviour, the situation is different. Some people might react with disgust or moral outrage. Overall, however, if the incidents are viewed in this context, they are unfortunate but should not lead us to condemn the organisation as a whole.

Clearly there will need to be ongoing investigations, full transparency, and cooperation with funders to verify the current allegations. But aside from this, the whole sector needs to take further steps to mitigate the adverse effects caused by this case and any future cases, and strengthen their accountability.


The role of Accountable Now! 

First, the sector is currently in a learning process of strengthening the rules for complying with sector-wide accountability standards. Oxfam is a founding member of the only global and cross-sector accountability framework, Accountable Now! (AN). AN develops various accountability standards and global commitments in partnership with other regional accountability networks (Global Standard). If the allegations are substantiated, Oxfam will have failed on many of these commitments, including Women’s Rights and Gender Equality, Empowered and Effective Staff and Volunteers, Responsive Decision-making, and Responsible Leadership.

Oxfam and the sector should use the scandal as an opportunity to reinforce the rules that ensure compliance with standards, including monitoring, evaluation, as well as sanctions. The sector should seriously consider giving AN a mandate to speak out in public on behalf of members. AN could take a nuanced stance, seeking to disentangle corporate from private responsibilities, and separating the case from the learning process and the improvements the sector has already made.

If mandated now, AN’s possible approach could be to interpret the Oxfam case not as evidence for declining values and practices in the sector, but as a signal that the sector’s efforts to improve accountability are bearing fruit. Without regular accountability reporting by NGOs, including Oxfam as a model case, it is unlikely that newspapers could have broken the story in the first place. A more active role of AN (and other accountability networks) would shield members from the targeted and strategic public criticism that organisations endure if they speak out alone (or refrain from it). Seen in this light, a stronger mandate for third parties, including AN (and other actors), would not conflict with the independence of the sector, but reinforce its autonomy.


Self regulation and accountability

Second, the sector can start portraying a more realistic picture of its organisational practices and purposes. Disasters of private responsibilities turn out to be real disasters only if charities portray an idyllic picture of themselves as actors morally superior to organisations in other sectors, including governments and corporations. Yet, as reported and studied cases repeatedly demonstrate, the charity sector is not fundamentally different from the private and public sectors. In all sectors, organisations are run by people and sometimes people show poor judgement or make bad decisions. The charity sector should acknowledge the similarity with other sectors and introduce stronger incentives for self-regulated accountability standards (maybe supported by stronger government enforcement) as a way to protect and promote its moral objectives.


Header image by Oxfam International under licence CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Posted in: Charity, Giving, Governance, Policy, Voluntary Sector


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