Let me start this piece by explicitly stating my abhorrence of the actions of the former Oxfam employees in Haiti in 2011 and Chad from 2006. What they did was inexcusable, Oxfam didn’t manage the situation as well as it should have, and the charity has violated the trust of its other employees, volunteers, and supporters. In writing this piece, in no way am I condoning the behaviour.
That said, with the constant stream of coverage around the scandal over the past week, I cannot help but begin to question at what point the media cycle becomes a witch hunt.
There is no question that it was in the public’s interest that the abuse of power, abuse of women and abuse of children was exposed by the media. Oxfam has rightly been called to account for the actions of the aid workers involved.
But we now need to decide what we want the outcome of the scandal to be.
Violating its own mission
Unfortunately, there are rotten apples in all organisations. There are people that take advantage of their position in government, in Hollywood, in the church, in social care, in their own homes - a small group of people that commit despicable actions.
And the third sector is no different, as we’ve seen. Not all those who work for charities are as honourable as the goals that the organisation works towards. The former employees that commited the abuse were acting in direct contempt of Oxfam’s mission to end all violence against women and girls.
The choice now is whether we - the public - want to continue to support Oxfam for the amazing work that it has done in the past and continues to do around the world today. Or, whether we’re going to vote with our wallets, retracting our support and encouraging public and private sector organisations to do the same.
Since the news broke, a number of the charity’s high profile supporters have decided to withdraw their endorsement, including South African Nobel laureate Desmond Tutu, actress Minnie Driver and singer Tallia Storm. And I understand that they feel let down, angry and don’t want to associate their own personal brands with the repulsive acts.
But I also believe that now, while we must denounce the actions of those who committed the abhorrent acts, we must also appreciate the massive scale upon which Oxfam delivers essential services to vulnerable people across the world. Because unlike a private company, when people withdraw their support it’s not just the organisation it’s hurting. And we need to ensure that those benefitting from the great work of employees and volunteers around the world aren’t impacted by the scandal.
From providing emergency support in the Yemen Crisis, helping secure the rights of people living in poverty to food, income security and decent work, to campaigning on climate change, Oxfam undertakes incredibly important work. And many of its employees and volunteers are making sacrifices to do it: whether that’s living in a war zone, flying into natural disasters to provide immediate support, or having a daily commute to a Syrian refugee camp. It’s not always easy and it’s not always safe: in 2016, there were 158 major attacks against aid operations, in which 101 aid workers were killed, 98 wounded and 89 kidnapped.
Why we must decide the desired outcome now
Abhorrent actions were committed. The situation wasn’t dealt with as well as it should have. That is unquestionable.
But now we must now decide what we want the outcome of the Oxfam scandal to be - before the media cycle gets beyond control and salvation. Because with Tory MPs Jacob Rees-Mogg and Philip Davies actively lobbying the Prime Minister to cut the foreign aid budget, Britain’s future in supporting humanitarian work is on the line. With the media circus, much more is at stake than Oxfam’s reputation.
So, what do we want the outcome to be?
I want Oxfam to ensure this never happens again. I want Oxfam to find and compensate all those affected. I want criminal charges to be brought against those that committed the acts.
I don’t want Oxfam to stop doing its incredible work across the world. I don’t want Oxfam’s time and resources to be spent on crisis communications, instead of on achieving its goals. I don’t want all Oxfam workers to be painted with the same brush as the few that let them all down.
Oxfam must be allowed make amends, make changes and continue doing the amazing work that it is doing. That, I believe, is the right outcome.