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What to read on Oxfam’s sexual misconduct crisis?

February 19, 2018
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Like anyone else connected with Oxfam, I’ve been glued to the media, and my emails over the last 10 days. It’s been pretty harrowing, a crushing dissonance between the revelations of sexual misconduct in our responses to emergencies in Haiti, Chad and elsewhere, and what I know of Oxfam’s focus and work on gender, women’s rights and working with women’s organisations, based on my 14 years with the organization.

Winnie Byanyima, Oxfam International’s Executive Director, captured how we all feel right now

Some of you have asked me to comment, but I’m not sure I have that much to add to some excellent commentary by others. I’ve never worked on the humanitarian side; nor do I have any particular inside track – one of the joys of my role of ‘pointing outwards’ for Oxfam is that I spend my time reading, blogging, writing and talking to non-Oxfam people, rather than sitting in loads of internal meetings. As you can see from FP2P, I’ve been carrying on with that role (with some relief) over the last week.

But after a while the elephant in my study becomes too big to ignore, so here are the pieces that I have found most illuminating (rather than infuriating) on what Oxfam is now calling its ‘sexual misconduct crisis’.

Oxfam’s response:

In addition to heartfelt expressions of shame and remorse, here are the concrete actions we are proposing (some of them quite far-reaching) to put it right.

This is not an argument for cutting aid or defunding Oxfam:

Zoe Williams: ‘Nobody whose serious interest is in the welfare of the girls and women of Haiti and Chad wants to see aid workers shut up shop and go home. There is a principle behind international aid: it’s not a wing of soft, diplomatic power to further Britain’s interests, as Boris Johnson has it, nor a way to “kickstart growth and development” and give us better trading partners, as David Cameron maintained. It’s the manifestation of a driving moral imperative to help another person in desperate need, whether suffering from natural disaster or manmade violence.’

Megan Norbert, who suffered a horrendous experience while with a humanitarian organization (not Oxfam) in South Sudan: ‘I feel quite strongly that dragging down the sector serves no purpose. Despite having been harmed while undertaking humanitarian work, I feel no ill will for humanitarian action as a whole; the hundreds of survivors I communicate with on a regular basis express similar feelings. What will help is pushing for more change, encouraging humanitarian organisations to act, and providing them with the resources to do so.’

Owen Barder set out his thoughts on twitter: ‘It can be harder to uncover and tackle abuse in a sector in which many of its supporters and employees feel strong affinity to the mission. People are reluctant to undermine the institutions This has led to cover ups in churches, politics, trade unions, and in NGOs…..It would be especially paradoxical to single out @oxfamgb which has fought an important fight for women and girls, and for rights, and against sexual abuse around the world. They are a key voice against abuse in the aid sector and in society.’

Heck, even Jeremy Clarkson weighed in (gated).

How to stop abuses in humanitarian response:

Save the Children UK’s Kevin Watkins argues that ‘an international registry of humanitarian workers backed by a “passport system” would enable us to prevent individuals exploiting recruitment loopholes. The UK’s large international development agencies could also come together to create a global centre on child safeguarding and sexual exploitation, working in cooperation with DfID and national authorities to prevent problems and support victims.’

Mike Edwards believes this should galvanize the push to localize spending and power: ‘For at least the last 25 years there has been a lively debate about power, aid and NGOs, focusing on the inability or unwillingness of agencies to hand over control and share their resources—as opposed to building their own brands and competing for market share from their fundraising base in the global North, and notwithstanding the recent trend to decentralize some parts of their operations. There are echoes of this debate among the friendlier critics of Oxfam since the Haiti scandal broke. The central issue is that, while NGOs are happy to criticize inequality when it is caused by others—billionaires for example, or the World Bank or multinational corporations—they have not been prepared to face up to the inequalities for which they themselves are at least partly responsible.’

Why is Emergency Response so prone to abuses?

Maggie Black in New Internationalist: ‘These environments are invariably chaotic, lawless, violent and deeply unequal. The people hired to work in such settings frequently have to face down warlords to get access to victims, argue aid convoys through armed checkpoints, risk their lives, and sometimes lose them, in the effort to bring relief to vulnerable people. Those able and willing to do those things often have a go-getting, driven and macho mentality. And this can lead to the creation of a dysfunctional and testosterone-loaded micro-culture…. To do the work on the ground, teams of itinerant workers are hired on short-term contracts and deployed in the world’s multiplying hot-spots. These conditions are where the micro-culture of aid dispensation is most vulnerable to abuse. The situation exerts huge pressure on human resources management.’

Wider Reflections:

Tim Harford on outrage as a positive feedback loop, feeding off itself.

Finally, the other, heroic, side of our Haiti response: the wonderful Yolette Etienne on Channel 4 News

And in the unlikely event that you still want more, here’s Aidnography’s regularly updated guide to the coverage (60 resources and counting)


  1. Duncan,

    Good words. You may wish to deepen your analysis of the causes of abuse past the context. Abuse is linked to “vertical social structures” – army, family, church, prisons, and yes emergency aid. Absolue power corrupts absolutely. Abuse is inherent and often rests on abuse of confidence. Predation comes with often with a caring smile, not a growl.

    In your work, you may point to such collateral effects of verticality. A rich territory.

    1. Agree Aldo, and would add sport and schools/universities as two other arenas where disparities of power make abuse almost inevitable. So everything depends on leadership, norms and safeguards

  2. Thanks Duncan – a very helpful piece with some great references to follow-up
    There are also some good discussions on Richard Murphy’s Tax Justice blog – http://www.taxresearch.org.uk/Blog/
    Scroll down to pick up the discussions. Not un-critical but generally fair, with a recognition of the underlying political nature of the current attacks.
    The sector as a whole really needs to stand together on this as Oxfam is being used as a particular scapegoat, not unrelated to its leadership on tax evasion and inequality and other topics unpopular with the government.

  3. Thanks for the references Duncan (even the Clarkson one) and underscoring the political nature of using aid workers as scapegoats for all sorts of agendas. There are some strange standards here though. Commercial consultancies, such as Adam Smith International most recently, had all their funding cut off for being ‘dirty tricks aid barons’ (!) Will Oxfam lose their funding? I very much doubt it. If it was a commercial consultancy involved in a “sexual misconduct crisis” they would have lost their funding in a nano-second no matter how many actions they proposed to tackle the issue. Many many innocent aid workers lost their jobs in ASI and no one seemed to care much about that. Will the UN lose funding because of ineptitude and endless ‘scandals’, I doubt it. I have worked for NGOs, UN, IFIs and Commercial Consulting companies for 35 years and the only swift action I have ever seen to deal with poor performance, corruption, unethical behaviour etc, was that taken by various consulting companies. As for Kevin Watkins suggestion for job passports – an international registry of humanitarian workers? Who will define humanitarian? Who will manage and pay for it? Who will keep the data? Who will judge the behaviour? Why just humanitarians? Why not diplomats, DFID staff, seconded military personnel, UN Contractors, etc etc?

  4. Thank you for sharing this Duncan.

    There is no doubt that what happened was awful and totally unacceptable. And yet, I feel very strongly that Oxfam should not be left alone to face the backslash from donors (some more ‘self’ protecting than constructive on the issue). We all know that, in relation to such serious issues, Oxfam had at the time and still has some of the best standards in the profession. There are very few INGOs that could say – in all honesty – that their systems would have worked much better than those of Oxfam’s at that time (and for many, I am not sure the systems would work better now!). We just need to read all the comments from NGO workers to learn that so many of similar issues have been brushed under the carpet and the staff allowed to leave quietly with no reporting to any donor or any form of internal process so great is the fear for organizational reputation or any further damage to the work to be done by an overwhelming majority of highly dedicated and professional staff.

    I would therefore expect some levels of INGOs’ solidarity now and for all the other actors to honestly say that there is not point and justification to hand Oxfam high and dry and to bar the organisation from project bidding until they have sorted out their systems as few – if any – of the other organisations’ systems are any better.

    It would be more honest – and much more useful if one truly seeks to address the core of the problem – to propose that ALL INGOs work together to make sure the zero tolerance effectively applies and the systems for not recycling the perpetrators are developed. This would be a much more effective move for the donors (who could support such a process) than trying to stop funding Oxfam!

    In fact, donor expertise is going to be really helpful to ensure a good reflection on situations where the context makes seemingly obvious processes such as prosecution extremely difficult because dysfunctional or heavily corrupt police and justice systems do not guarantee the safety of either whistleblowers or victims.

    But seeking to address the root of the problem requires first that all recognize that the current Oxfam bashing is not the solution, far from it.

  5. Thank you for these, Duncan. It got me thinking about the responsibilities of researchers in relation to this terrible business. I hope it has given us all the push we need to be more honest about the challenges and limitations of aid in general (not just Oxfam), and to treat such open discussions as a matter of global citizenship. It occurs to me that all aid programmes should be judged by their respect for that citizenship. People affected by aid must be treated not as beneficiaries, but as world citizens with a right to protection and participation and accountability. They must be able to complain when things go wrong, and not feel beholden to any ‘saviours’. On the other hand, citizens who donate and contribute, including through their taxes, also have a right to far better understanding of how aid works in different places, and the complexities involved. We (I include myself) are often guilty of simplifying the vast challenges of unequal power involved and making like its all good. I’m thinking in particular of the continuing faith in quick fixes (‘what works’, RCTs) that generate nifty stats about how numerous lives are changed by aid, with little context or analysis. It is definitely time for a more honest and open discussion about power, inequality, citizenship – including in particular, about race, class and gender – throughout the aid relation, if we are going to ensure such things never happen again.

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