Revelations, recriminations and resignations abound at Oxfam, whose reputation suffers further damage almost by the hour. It is not the sole charity affected by the scandal of allegations of sexual misconduct, abuse and the failure of inadequate safeguarding – other charities across the sector, including others operating within international aid, may make headlines of their own. But household name Oxfam has dominated the media in recent days.
Public outcry has been led by government figures, Oxfam’s corporate partners, the charity’s now former celebrity ambassador and the Charity Commission. Reactions of shock and horror to appalling allegations are justified. Charities are rightly held to the highest standards, as they are entrusted with public money and very often work with highly vulnerable people. Charities should also expect their staff and volunteers to adhere to their charities’ values and not engage in conduct, which could bring the charities into disrepute.
Training, guidance, clear policies and procedures and appropriate support to deal with such issues as may arise should all be provided. However, staff and volunteers also have private lives and it is important to strike the correct balance between respecting those and requiring them to abide by duties owed to the charities for which they work or volunteer.
The morally repugnant nature of the Oxfam allegations renders most people swift to condemn those involved. Individual allegations require detailed investigation, however, to assess where the line has been drawn between illegal activities, contextually inappropriate activities and those which, while perhaps not to everyone’s taste, did not breach duties owed to the charity employer.
Some of the alleged activities, such as paying prostitutes for sex, are not – on the face of it – illegal. If, however, there is coercion, if there is exploitation, if there is intimidation, if there is aid traded for sex, if someone is under-age, for example, it becomes a very different matter.
Robust governance and strong safeguarding policies and procedures are essential to make clear what is illegal and what is not acceptable. A charity’s culture must prioritise safeguarding for everyone engaged with the charity, including beneficiaries, staff and volunteers.
Safeguarding principles should be embedded throughout the charity, from recruitment to induction, training and operational matters. Policies require regular review and training should be regularly refreshed. There should be no doubt as to what constitutes acceptable or unacceptable conduct and a secure system through which concerns or complaints may be raised and investigated sensitively should exist.
There are particular governance challenges for charities working overseas, where local laws and culture may be different, where the environment may be pressured and where, because of physical distance, it may be difficult for the UK board and senior executives to maintain sufficient oversight and control. But charities must tackle and overcome such challenges, as many successfully do.
The Charity Commission itself faces questions regarding its prioritisation of safeguarding issues and its actions in respect of Oxfam when allegations were reported to it in recent years. The whole sector can learn from the Oxfam scandal and take this cue to review and revise policies, procedures and training.
Jayne Adams is a partner at law firm McCarthy Denning, where she specialises in charity law and governance. She is a member of the Charity Law Association and the Association of Charity Chairs.