Oxfam scandal: regulator delivers damning verdict on management and culture

The Charity Commission has delivered some damning conclusions about the Oxfam Haiti scandal, with implications for the wider sector, in a highly-anticipated report published today.

The charity regulator has issued an official warning to Oxfam GB, with trustees ordered to submit an action plan by the end of June, setting out how the charity will implement outstanding actions and recommendations required by the commission.

The report of the statutory inquiry, launched in February 2018 and published today, found the charity to have repeatedly fallen below the standards expected of it, and to have a culture of tolerating poor behaviour and poor accountability among staff in Haiti, of which some individuals took advantage.

Furthermore, it found Oxfam failed to heed warnings, including from its own staff, about its culture and approach to safeguarding; and that commitments it made to safeguarding were not then matched by its actions up to 2018.

The commission also found the charity’s reports to donors and to the commission itself were “not as full and frank about the nature and seriousness of the incidents and problems in Haiti as they should have been”; and that Oxfam GB’s approach to disclosure and reporting was instead marked at times by a desire to protect its reputation and donor relationships.

The inquiry revealed the charity did not adequately investigate whether victims of sexual misconduct in Haiti were minors; did not report allegations of child abuse made by Oxfam GB staff in Haiti and failed to take the risks to alleged victims seriously enough; dealt with staff implicated in sexual misconduct inconsistently, appearing to treat senior staff more leniently; and missed earlier opportunities to identify and tackle issues of this kind.

The report took into account more than 7,000 separate pieces of evidence as it examined both the charity’s handling of events in Haiti and its more recent record on safeguarding.

"Symptomatic of a wider problem"

Its findings suggest that Oxfam GB’s leadership continued to apply insufficient resources to keep people from harm up to 2018; and that this and other systemic weaknesses amount to mismanagement.

It condemns the charity’s approach to safeguarding case work as being unstructured at times, while a lack of adequate assurance and oversight meant trustees were unable to identify serious failures in case handling. Weaknesses in HR practices prior to 2018, particularly in relation to vetting, references and management oversight, contributed to a culture that tolerated poor behaviour.

Charity Commission chief executive, Helen Stephenson, said the findings of the report show the incidents in Haiti were 'symptomatic of a wider problem'.

“What went wrong in Haiti did not happen in isolation,” she said. “Our inquiry demonstrates that, over a period of years, Oxfam’s internal culture tolerated poor behaviour, and at times lost sight of the values it stands for.

“The charity’s leadership may have been well-intentioned. But our report demonstrates that good intentions have limited value when they are not matched with resources, robust systems and processes that are implemented on the ground, and […] an organisational culture that prioritises keeping people safe. […] the conclusion of our inquiry marks the beginning, not the end of the process of change for Oxfam GB. Its leadership has hard work ahead of it. We will be watching their progress closely in the weeks and months ahead.”

"A terrible abuse of power"

Oxfam GB's chair of trustees, Caroline Thomson added: “What happened in Haiti was shameful and we are deeply sorry.

"It was a terrible abuse of power and an affront to the values that Oxfam holds dear. The Commission’s findings are very uncomfortable for Oxfam GB but we accept them. We now know that the 2011 investigation and reporting of what happened in Haiti was flawed; more should have been done to establish whether minors were involved.

“The decision to allow the Country Director to resign without a fuller investigation of his own conduct would not be permitted today, under our current policies and practices. And while the Commission makes it clear that it found no record of a cover-up, we accept that Oxfam GB should have been fuller and franker in its initial reporting of the allegations.

“We should have acted more decisively to address resourcing concerns raised by our own safeguarding team and been more proactive in our reporting of serious incidents. But I am confident that Oxfam GB is changing, and that the steps we are taking are putting Oxfam on the right path for the future. […] Oxfam will act to change its broader working culture […] and we will ensure that improvements are embedded at all levels of the organisation.”

"We apologies to all those affected"

Alison Talbot, partner and head of national charities at Winckworth Sherwood released a statement on behalf of former Oxfam GB trustees and senior executives, expressing a hope that the report will contribute to ongoing improvements in the way Oxfam works, but also acknowledging that the efforts trustees and executives made to investigate and improve processes in 2011 “were insufficient”.

“As trustees and senior executives, those of us then in office were appalled when in 2011 we found out about the behaviour of some of Oxfam’s staff posted to Haiti,” said Talbot. “These members of staff let Oxfam, and our beneficiaries, down badly. We apologise to all those affected.

“ […] We recognise that the Charity Commission has identified weaknesses in the handling of the events in Haiti. We implemented a detailed action plan to address the wider issues identified by the investigation both in Haiti and across our international programmes. […] and we established a number of programmes and initiatives to prevent and identify safeguarding issues.

“ […] We recognise today that our efforts in 2011 and subsequently were insufficient, especially in the light of all of the information available to the Charity Commission in the course of this statutory inquiry.”

Writing in the report, Baroness Stowell, chair of the Charity Commission, said: “No charity is so large, nor its mission so important that it can afford to put its own reputation ahead of the dignity and wellbeing of those it exists to protect. […]

“Ultimately being a charity is more than just about what you do, it is also about the way in which you do it. The Charity Commission is determined to reassure the public that it understands this fundamental point and will work with the sector it regulates to demonstrate that fact in the months and years ahead.”

The back story

In February 2018, The Times published a story based on leaked internal documents that suggested Oxfam had covered up an investigation into some of its staff hiring sex workers, some of whom may have been minors, in the period following the January 2010 earthquake that devastated much of the country’s infrastructure and killed at least 160,000 people.

The original 2011 internal investigation led to four individuals being sacked for gross misconduct and another three resigning, including the charity country director for Haiti, Roland van Hauwermeiren. In 2018, within days of The Times publishing its story, further allegations emerged relating to Van Hauwermeiren.

Following the publication of the allegations, more than 7,000 people cancelled direct debt or standing order donations to Oxfam GB and a number of high profile supporters cut ties with the charity. Oxfam GB deputy chief executive Penny Lawrence resigned from her post and the chief executive Mark Goldring announced he would step down at the end of 2018.

In 2018, Oxfam itself established the Independent Commission of Sexual Misconduct, Accountability and Culture Change. Its interim report, published in January 2019, highlighted inconsistencies in the way safeguarding issues are handled in the different countries where Oxfam operates.

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