How do we stop a repeat of the Oxfam scandal?

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If an employee escapes investigation by resigning, as a minimum charities are obliged to report the matter to the police

Should we be surprised by the revelations that Oxfam staff were involved with something questionable in Haiti? Having worked in the humanitarian sector for more than two decades I have learnt one truth that still seems to surprise many outside of the relief and development sector. While the world is full of wonderful people, for every humanitarian and dedicated soul, there is the polar opposite.

Aid organisations consist of both faith-inspired as well as secular agencies and the assumption is these organisations attract only ‘angels’ that go where ‘devils’ fear to tread. Staff are sent out to war zones, famines, droughts, the remotest of places and the harshest of terrains. Therein lies the problem; distant far-off lands full of vulnerable communities with 'opportunity' for predators. The aid industry sadly does not attract only ‘angels’, and too often in the so-called ‘developing’ world hierarchical power structures mean authority is not only respected but is unchallenged. The definition of who is vulnerable includes locals – women and teenage girls affected by the disaster – as well as comparatively junior aid staff who quickly learn who the ‘untouchables’ are.

In the initial period following a major disaster the machinery of aid organisations kicks in; the marketing begins, monies are allocated and disaster response personnel are dispatched. That initial period is a race against the clock with locals recruited and decisions made very quickly to respond in as short a timeframe as possible. This period is the greatest risk to the operation’s success but also establishes key individuals as the decision-makers with power.

Internal and external audits and evaluations do follow in the wake of the disaster but are reliant on a culture of ‘speaking up’. In my experience these kind of allegations only surface when a staff member is disgruntled, bypasses internal local structures and escalates the matter to headquarters.

It would be remiss of me not to comment specifically about the Oxfam case but I want to use this to ask some wider questions about the reality on the ground. Staff who resign after being suspended often go on to another agency as they will have the qualifications, experience and competences. Those that resign before an investigation is carried out leave the charity with a quandary and what actually happened is never resolved, with no recourse to the individual(s) concerned.

So what can be done to stop a former employee from joining another organisation? Should charities report any uninvestigated concerns in response to a reference request? Is it factually correct to state there were uninvestigated allegations in a reference? What about innocent until proven guilty? In light of the GDPR is a blacklist of individuals the answer? This clearly needs wider debate.

If an employee has escaped investigation of a serious offence by resigning, as a minimum charities have an obligation to report the matter to the police and issue a serious incident report to the Charity Commission explaining what has happened and what the charity did in response. This allows the proper authorities to investigate and take action accordingly so that the individual concerned doesn’t just move on to the next charity.

Transparency International describes Haiti’s institutions as having endemic corruption and that definitely exacerbates the situation as officials in public office can be swayed. This is not to excuse the behaviour of the predators but simply highlights the challenge around aid distribution overseas. Haiti is not unique and is not the first nor sadly the last.

Shakil Butt is a consultant at HR Hero 4 Hire and former HR and OD director at Islamic Relief Worldwide

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