Failure of leadership at Oxfam

By Martin Vogel

Haiti was devastated by an earthquake in January 2010.

Oxfam’s sex exploitation scandal (£) is a case study in how easily leaders can trash the reputation of their organisation when, through wilful blindness, they convince themselves that they are acting to protect it.

In a series of articles, The Times has revealed how Oxfam betrayed its purpose to help the vulnerable in Haiti, in the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake. It was a time when the country was devastated, and political authority had all but broken down. Senior aid workers in Haiti were able to seize the opportunity to organise the sexual exploitation of young women – including underage girls – whose desperation in the disaster presumably secured their compliance. There were said to be orgies and the exploitation of underage girls.

On Friday, Oxfam’s chief executive, Mark Goldring, nauseatingly missed the point when he spoke of “the few” who had not upheld “Oxfam’s or society’s values”. Only, it seems that the few had acted consistently with Oxfam’s values which have been revealed to be duplicitous and self-serving.

Scandals are rarely the work of a few and are indicative of a systemic malaise. We have learned not only that the sexual exploitation was able to be contrived under the auspices of Oxfam but that the organisation ignored numerous expressions of concern about the perpetrators, covered up the scandal when it came to light in 2011, and enabled the men to find employment elsewhere in the aid sector. Dame Barbara Stocking, the Oxfam chief executive at the time – now president of a college in Cambridge – allowed Oxfam’s country director in Haiti, Roland van Hauwermeiren, “a dignified exit”. Apparently, she was concerned that sacking him would have “potentially serious implications” for Oxfam’s reputation.

As The Times reports, he found employment in Bangladesh with a French charity that was given no warnings by Oxfam about his unethical conduct and even received positive references for him from Oxfam staff, including “an HR person”.

The Sunday Times reported that the Oxfam scandal is unlikely to be an isolated case. It revealed that more than 120 workers (£) for British aid charities were accused of sexual abuse in just the past year.

Given all we know about abuse scandals, it is not surprising that the aid sector should become an arena for exploitation. In fact, as The Times commentator, Libby Purves, tells us, it is a well-understood phenomenon (£):

“This is known, by those who study the workings of aid organisations, as an ‘imbalance of power’. As for the sex, a mild way to refer to it is as prostitution, with the comforting implication of a market. But really it is rape, violation, exploitation. United Nations peacekeepers in Africa have been found guilty though rarely punished. Sexual predation by both soldiers and aid workers is reported from the Philippines and Haiti. In Cambodia and Mozambique prostitution measurably rose after UN forces moved in, and hitherto rare sexually transmitted diseases became endemic, often among children. Nato peacekeepers in Bosnia and Kosovo have been implicated too. It’s a known risk. Any well-run aid organisation knows that and, for the sake of the work and its majority of decent employees, it should be wary and pitilessly intolerant of abuse. This is not just ‘misconduct’ or ‘inappropriate’. It is crime, as serious as it would be on our own turf. When one of our most revered charities can’t grasp that, we are cumbered with shame.”

The leadership of Oxfam is finally beginning to show some, well, leadership. The deputy chief executive has resigned, taking full responsibility for failing to deal properly with the events of 2011. The charity’s chairwoman of trustees has spoken of her “anger and shame”, promising openness and transparency in order to learn the lessons of the affair. So far, this is no more than damage limitation. Turning things around will be a challenge; and the chief executive has not shown that he understands it.

The thing about reputation is that it’s not a quality that exists independently of an organisation’s behaviour. It is a direct function of the latter. The only way for an aid organisation to build a durable reputation is to inculcate high ethical standards among its staff, anticipating the possibilities for corruption and acting to prevent them. Instead, at Oxfam – staff told The Times – Roland Van Hauwermeiren and his cohorts “hid behind a weak code of conduct, which only stated that staff should not bring the organisation into disrepute.”

Having discovered in 2011 that it had a scandal on its hands, the temptation the leadership faced to cover up is all to obvious. The demand of stewardship, though, would dictate candour. Libby Purves again:

“The honest, painful way to protect your brand is to cauterise the filthy wound, hand the creeps over and reveal and reject and disgrace previously cherished colleagues.”

The attention leaders give to brand and reputation is looking at things through the wrong end of the telescope. It is to prioritise protecting the existence of an organisation above pursuing the purpose for which the organisation exists. Integrity of purpose is the best way to protect reputation. Oxfam’s purpose is to serve the most vulnerable in the most desperate of circumstances. To execute this purpose it needs to foster trust above all. Those who betray the purpose should be rooted out quickly and publicly, and lessons learned in full transparency.

How has protecting its reputation worked out for Oxfam? It is at risk of losing public funding – UK and European – and a large volume of individual donors will also surely drift away. At worst, its continued existence must be in doubt. At best, it has a mountain to climb, far steeper than that it faced in 2011 when it had the choice to come clean.

Image courtesy United Nations Development Programme.