Can Oxfam “sex scandal” controversy be completely avoided?

Between the human condition and the extreme conditions international aid work is often carried out, probably not. Not entirely. That said, screening, safeguarding and whistle blowing processes must be in place to prevent abuse of any nature. However, when deplorable acts are uncovered and dealt with, they should be seen as a success of these processes, rather than an indictment of the agency concerned. The wrong doings of a few rogue elements shouldn’t be used to ‘pathologise’ the whole organisation as bad, as some have done in the case of Oxfam, an organisation that has and continues to do so much good.

The best any organisation can do is to put in place rigorous processes to reduce the risk of abuse and to enact protocols for dealing with transgressions when they happen, swiftly and openly.

For British charities, developing and codifying (mis)conduct, safeguarding and whistleblowing  policies is mandatory and in many ways the easy part of the equation – write the policies, stipulate the consequences and sanctions for misconduct and communicate this throughout the organisation.

However, turning desired behaviours into lived practice and creating a culture of zero tolerance to abuse given the geographical spread, busyness, complexities and chaos of crisis response is another matter altogether.  Getting the whole system to live up to the highest ethical standards is a relational achievement that involves carefully planned Organisation Development activities that results, not only in organisational members embracing but also embodying espoused values in ways that heightens vigilance to unacceptable behaviours. Unfortunately in a sector increasingly obsessed/stressed with meeting compliance requirements and driven by KPIs and ROIs such culture building activities are often seen as a luxury and a waste of time.

International charities need to be both diligent about developing and implementing preventive policies; and pay equal, if not more attention to co-creating an ethical culture where all organisation members are working towards eliminating all forms of malpractice. Having done this, when things go wrong, and they will, we should hold the organisation concerned accountable for learning from their mistakes and for making tangible improvements, rather than hounding them in ways that reduce their support and consequently their ability to serve their beneficiaries.

Oxfam is a great humanitarian organisation that has and continues to do so much good. They should be encouraged and supported to do better. A retributive approach does not serve the greater good.

Most aid workers put themselves in harm way to serve others. When the instinct is to run away from danger, this special breed of people run towards it. They do so out of compassion and a desire to alleviate suffering. What this current debate ignore, is that for each incident of aid workers abusing beneficiaries, there are an equal, if not more, abuses perpetrated on aid workers and volunteers in the cause of their work. The ones I know carry on regardless. Don’t let the misdeeds of a few taint the honourable, often self sacrificial work of the many.

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