Rate This Apology: Oxfam Is Sorry, But Can We Forgive Them?
As more sexual misconduct cases make the headlines, many of us have been forced to re-examine our interactions with companies as well as our support for individuals. Sometimes a boycott might be relatively straightforward. We can avoid Woody Allen films without too much difficulty. But what happens when an organization that’s rightly under fire is a charity that you’ve proudly supported for a long time — one that has saved lives? If people leave it in droves because of the actions of a few, then will those in need suffer more?
That’s where I’m at, today. I’ve supported Oxfam for years, choosing them because I wanted a well-established international aid charity with a solid reputation. I’d already picked a national charity as my second cause, and figured one of each would be a nice balance. (My other charity is Guide Dogs for the Blind, FYI. I sponsor Very Good Doggos in their training. Please let nothing horrible come out about them.)
Then the news broke. There were allegations about aid workers paying earthquake survivors for sex in Haiti, as well as other incidents of inappropriate sexual behavior, bullying, harassment and the intimidation of staff in the Haiti office. There were further allegations about the use of sex workers in Chad. That’s right, people whose literal job it was to help people in need, were instead sexually exploiting them. Oxfam were accused of covering this up.
Britain’s charity regulator said Oxfam had failed to mention allegations of abuse of aid beneficiaries in Haiti and potential sexual crimes involving minors in a report to it in 2011. It took no further action at the time. (The Guardian)
As a result, the government has threatened to break financial ties with the charity:
The international development secretary has said the government will end funding to Oxfam unless the charity shows “moral leadership” and hands over all its information on its aid workers’ apparent use of prostitutes in Haiti. (The Guardian)
Oxfam has already made some changes to try and repair their reputation. On Saturday, they announced that they have amended their code of conduct:
“Our code of conduct now stipulates: ‘I will also not exchange money, offers of employment, employment, goods or services for sex or sexual favours.’ In 2011 the code only prohibited sex with beneficiaries and anyone under 18.” (The Guardian)
Have they done enough to show “moral leadership”? Here’s one response:
Megan Nobert, a human rights lawyer, who founded Report the Abuse, the first organisation to challenge the silence surrounding sexual violence in the aid sector, said that the incident in Haiti was “a catalyst for change within Oxfam, and they are now leading the way to address this issue within the humanitarian community”. (The Guardian)But Oxfam knows that they have a lot more to do to restore public trust. They have already lost one of their celebrity ambassadors, Minnie Driver:
All I can tell you about this awful revelation about Oxfam is that I am devastated.Devastated for the women who were used by people sent there to help them, devastated by the response of an organization that I have been raising awareness for since I was 9 years old #oxfamscandal— Minnie Driver (@driverminnie) February 13, 2018
Pandering to the media? I have worked with Oxfam almost exclusively on the rights and plight of women in developing countries. Women who HAVE to supplement their factory/manual labor with sex work. There are NGO's who do not cover up the egregious abuses of their employees. https://t.co/Zx9MX0oG3g— Minnie Driver (@driverminnie) February 13, 2018
To try and prevent people like me cancelling their direct debit payments, Oxfam have sent out an official apology. It’s a good apology. It’s thorough and unflinching. Under the circumstances, it should bloody well be good. Here it is in full:
I’m writing to you today heartbroken about the devastating stories you will have seen in the news, reporting the sexual misconduct of some former Oxfam employees in Haiti in 2011 and Chad from 2006.
I know that this apology is by no means enough but I want to offer it unreservedly to our supporters, volunteers, staff and the people of Haiti and Chad for the things that happened in our name. I am so sorry.
I can’t overstate what a massive blow this week has been to our mission to help people around the world. I am also greatly saddened by the resignation of Penny Lawrence our Deputy Director. She is appalled that these events happened on her watch and recognised it was only right to stand down. Penny has dedicated her life to the fight against poverty and is a huge loss to all of us.
I feel great responsibility for the trust that you all - as supporters, shoppers, staff and volunteers - place in Oxfam and I know that these devastating reports will have damaged that trust. All I can say is that we are working to rebuild that trust.
Along with our Chair of Trustees Caroline Thomson, I have already met with the Secretary of State for Development and was able to update her on the significant improvements we have already made since 2011. We are also committed to developing a more comprehensive package of measures, including:
• Establishing a stronger and independent confidential ‘whistleblowing’ line to ensure that we do all we can to prevent sexual abuse and misconduct happening in the first place.
• Strengthening the vetting of staff, including making safeguarding a mandatory part of the recruitment process for senior leadership positions.
• Revisiting improvements already made and learn additional lessons from Haiti 2011.
We will be working closely with the Department for International Development (DfID) and the Charity Commission to make sure we do everything in our power to protect the people we serve around the world.
You will also have seen reports of sexual misconduct in our UK shops dating from before 2014/15. These were among cases identified through our whistleblowing procedure, which were dealt with at the time. Since then we have introduced a whole range of more robust measures to improve how we deal with these issues. I know that today, our shops are a safe place for staff and volunteers alike.
The coming weeks and months will be among the hardest in Oxfam’s history. Please know that we will learn from this. And please also know that this organisation is still full of amazing, brave, committed staff and volunteers who are making remarkable life-saving, life-changing work happen in desperate situations. Just last month I saw first-hand our vital response to the Rohingya crisis in Bangladesh. I think of the unfolding disaster in DR Congo where dedicated Oxfam teams are getting clean drinking water to people without thought for their own personal safety. The ongoing conflict in Yemen where we are reaching people with much needed food. Our relentless campaigning to break down the barriers that keep people poor. This work continues and, with your support, we won’t stop fighting poverty and suffering wherever it exists.
Once again, I offer my apologies to you all.
Thank you for your support.
Chief Executive, Oxfam GB
PS. I would like to add a huge thank you for all the messages of support we have received over the last few days. It really does mean so much to know you are there with us.
What do you think: Have Oxfam learned their lesson? Do I quit? If I quit, do I punish the wrong people? Are any of you in the same predicament? If I quit, do you have any recommendations for an alternative charity?