The truth isn’t always easy. When good journalists in February 2018 exposed the appalling behaviour – let’s call it what it is: sexual abuse – by some Oxfam employees in Haiti in 2011, and our failure then to deal properly with these cases, the message was clear. Oxfam must humbly learn and change.
We set off on a journey of deep-rooted reform and set that out in a comprehensive 10-Point-Plan. One of the first things I did was to set up an Independent Commission on Sexual Misconduct, Accountability and Culture Change with full powers to examine all aspects of our work – in public. The Commission is composed of human rights leaders, from a former Women’s Rights Minister in Haiti to a global expert on Sexual Violence in Conflict.
I didn’t want some sugar-coated analysis or a puff piece designed to restore Oxfam’s tarnished image. I wanted the hard truth because women’s safety, rights and dignity were at stake. We need to know the reality of where Oxfam is now in order to build the Oxfam we want – one where our core values of equality and dignity are lived in every office, and by every individual.
At the same time, the UK charity regulator, the Charity Commission, began its enquiry into Oxfam Great Britain and the way it handled what happened in Haiti in 2011. On Tuesday the UK Charity Commission published its report into Oxfam Great Britain and I have underlined the response from Caroline Thomson, the chair of Oxfam GB, in welcoming and accepting it.
Here I will focus on the Independent Commission. We asked it to dig deep, talk to staff and partners, travel to some of the most challenging places we work, and listen to survivors of abuse. That’s precisely what it’s done. This week the Commission published its report. I accept all the Commission’s recommendations wholeheartedly and will implement them.
The report is at times painful to read, at others deeply hopeful about the journey of change we’re on. Before all, I want to humbly apologize to all of the staff and community members who have been harmed by Oxfam.
The Commission is telling us harsh truths about parts of our working culture. As an African woman, I encounter sexism and racism in many places I go. I know what it feels like. I’m pained and angered that some colleagues are suffering that within Oxfam.
The report also revealed sexual exploitation and abuse from its visits to communities in three humanitarian responses where multiple agencies were operating, including Oxfam. Where they heard specific concerns about sexual abuse they alerted the agencies concerned. The Commission says this “should be of concern to the entire aid sector, not just Oxfam”.
While the Commission did not refer to Oxfam any new allegations of a sexual nature about our staff as a result of their research, that fact in no way diminishes our concern or our duty to act. We have not done enough in the past to ensure that the communities we work with are protected adequately and able to live their lives with dignity.
Culture, culture, culture: that’s the biggest focus now for change for Oxfam and organizations like ours. Our big challenge isn’t only in writing new rules but tackling hard the root causes of sexual abuse. We need to reform age-old harmful socialized sexist ideas and build a culture that repudiates abuse and affirms equality and dignity.
To exactly that end, the report gives us the conviction to accelerate the journey of change we’re already on.
I’m heartened that the Commission says we have “tremendous will, energy, and commitment to reform”. We have changed a lot already. In fifteen months, we’ve invested €3.1m in new safeguarding staff and global systems, put staff focal points into every country we work in, and strengthened our hotlines for people to report problems. We have new Oxfam-wide policies for preventing sexual misconduct.
I take this opportunity – as I take every opportunity – to invite anyone who knows about misconduct to report it. Nobody can hide anymore. I mean zero tolerance when I say it. We’ve acted against 79 staff on safeguarding issues in the last year, including over 40 cases that led to dismissal.
And we’re not stopping there. This week I have announced new investment of over half a million euros into helping grassroots organizations to fight abuse. We are going to strengthen our safeguarding capacities further in the most fragile and challenging environments in which we operate. I am establishing fresh leadership with two new global senior roles of Chief Ethics Officer, as well as a Global Culture Lead.
I echoed to our staff this week the Commission's recognition that: “Oxfam’s greatest asset is its staff” who are “eager to contribute to building a safer Oxfam”. I ask our staff, and all our supporters and the public, to keep challenging and advising us. We are changing and we know we need to do more. We value and welcome more accountability.
I am still proud to be part of an organization where the vast majority of our work is done with respect and in safety with a profoundly positive impact with people living in poverty. And I am proud to lead an organization that is able to own its failings and face our hard-truths – so we can truly become a place of safety and dignity for all. We’ll do all we can to get there.