Regulator slams Oxfam over governance failings

The Charity Commission has published a highly critical report on Oxfam GB, stating that aspects of the charity’s past record on safeguarding amount to mismanagement through governance failures, and saying there was a culture of ‘tolerating poor behaviour’

The regulator’s statutory inquiry opened in February 2018, after it examined documents shared by the charity regarding allegations of misconduct by staff involved in its humanitarian response in Haiti, which were first raised by a whistleblower.

The Commission was, at that time, already engaged with Oxfam GB on safeguarding matters, and in November 2017 had issued the charity with an action plan setting out a range of actions the charity was required to undertake, including an externally led review of its HR culture, and a review of the organisation’s structures, management reporting lines, and resourcing.

The inquiry found the charity failed to heed warnings, including from its own staff, that its culture and response around keeping people safe was inadequate, and made commitments to safeguarding that were not matched by its actions.

The report is based on over 7,000 items of evidence and examines the charity’s handling of events in Haiti, and separately its more recent record on protecting people, including its beneficiaries, volunteers and staff, from harm.

It said an internal Oxfam investigation in 2011 into claims that members of its staff working in Haiti were involved in sexual exploitation resulted in four people being sacked and three others resigning, but did not deal with the root causes.  The Charity Commission said the incidents in Haiti identified in 2011 were not ‘one-offs’, with evidence of behavioural issues as early as June 2010.

There were also issues at some of the charity's UK shops - the report highlighted 16 serious incidents involving volunteers under the age of 18.

It concludes that some of the charity’s failings and shortcomings amount to mismanagement, and the Commission has used its powers to issue Oxfam GB with an official warning.

The regulator found that the then executive of Oxfam GB mishandled aspects of its response to allegations of misconduct in Haiti in 2011. Overall, the Commission concluded that there had been a ‘culture of poor behaviour’ and poor accountability among staff in Haiti at the time, of which individuals took advantage.

The Commission also found that the charity’s reports to donors and 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’. The inquiry’s view was that Oxfam GB’s approach to disclosure and reporting was marked, at times, by a desire to protect the charity’s reputation and donor relationships.

Specifically, the inquiry found that the charity did not adequately follow-up whether victims of sexual misconduct in Haiti were minors and did not report allegations of child abuse by Oxfam GB staff in Haiti, failing to take the risks to alleged victims seriously enough.

Oxfam also dealt with staff members implicated in sexual misconduct in Haiti inconsistently, notably by appearing to treat senior staff more leniently than junior staff, as well as missing opportunities to identify and tackle early warnings before the events in Haiti in 2011.

The inquiry also examined Oxfam GB’s wider approach to safeguarding, historically, and more recently, and concluded that the charity’s own commitments and promises in the past were not always matched by its actions.

It says this resulted from its leadership, up to 2018, applying insufficient resources to keeping people safe from harm, and concluded that this and other systemic weaknesses amount to mismanagement in the administration of charity.

Specifically, the Commission found resourcing and capability around safeguarding at the charity between 2015 to 2017 did not match the risks associated with the charity’s global reach and the nature of its work.

The charity’s approach to safeguarding case work was at times unstructured and a lack of adequate assurance and oversight mechanisms meant trustees were unable to identify serious failures in case handling, including poor record keeping, failings of which the inquiry is ‘extremely critical’.

Weaknesses in the charity’s HR practices prior to 2018, particularly concerning problems around vetting and referencing and management oversight, led to a ‘culture of tolerance of poor behaviour’, while as late as 2017, promises that the resources for safeguarding would be increased were not delivered.

Helen Stephenson, chief executive of the Charity Commission, said the regulator’s findings demonstrated that the incidents in Haiti were symptoms of a wider problem: ‘What went wrong in Haiti did not happen in isolation. 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 more importantly, an organisational culture that prioritises keeping people safe,’ she said.

Stephenson warned that ‘significant further cultural and systemic change is required to address the failings and weaknesses our report identifies’, and said the Commission would be watching Oxfam’s progress in this regard very closely.

Oxfam's chair of trustees, Caroline Thomson, said the charity accepted the findings, describing them as ‘uncomfortable’.

‘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.

‘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.’

Since news of the Haiti allegations first broke, Oxfam has lost 7,000 regular donors worth £14m, and the government has cancelled £20m in funding over the last 18 months.

Charity Commission Inquiry: Oxfam GB issued 11 June 2019

Pat Sweet

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