Oxfam, Save the Children… what does it mean for the future?

Public health hygiene painting on latrines, in a temporary camp, Haiti
Public health hygiene painting on latrines, in a temporary camp, Haiti. Creative Commons licence

Oxfam, Save the Children… what does it mean for the future?

Sexual abuse, exploitation and assault, and resulting cover-ups at Oxfam, Save the Children and others have dominated headlines — failing women, letting down the people these organisations are meant to serve, sending shockwaves through the sector, generating a media and political storm, and shaking public faith in charities and aid.

Governance and accountability

“Globally, there is a distinct lack of governance at a granular level. It’s also why it is so hard for volunteers to speak out about the poor practice that the above comment refers to.”

“There are not enough checks and balances clearly and things have to change. Unfortunately societal norms are not shaped by values and principles any longer and all powerful institutions have such corruption and abuse in their ranks.”

“If Haitian women were running Oxfam and Save the Children and the rest would what’s happened have happened?”

Culture change

“We’ve got to change the culture. I know people I’ve worked with who haven’t spoken out about abuse they know of because it feels like betrayal, like breaking ranks. We can’t continue like that if we’re going to be true to the values we say we have.”

“What happened at Save the Children UK wasn’t a just a ‘mistake:’ achieving change for children, went the argument, needed Save the Children to be firmly led by powerful charismatic leaders who ruffled feathers and who should be followed obediently by staff. When staff started complaining about the bullying culture that was brought in by former Number 10 special advisors Forsyth and Cox, they were derided as moaners. Everyone learned that it was ‘their way or the highway.’ So when several women suffered repeated mistreatment, this was dealt with by leadership as part of the price of being an ‘effective organization’—and staff felt that it was dangerous to complain as a number of them later told the BBC.”

Sector-wide action

“There is an argument that a sector wide approach is needed to improve the image of “charity” and rebuild public trust. Our large national infrastructure organisations, working in partnership with the Charity Commission, to develop our society’s understanding of modern-day charities is potentially one solution.”

“Real cultural change is needed, so that modern-day charities are better understood in the wider community. The environment in which charities operate needs to change if we are to thrive. Our society would benefit from appreciating that charities are businesses with overheads; so that proper HR, good safeguarding systems, professional fundraising and good governance should be fully resourced.”

Good examples

“I would point to the good work of the charity ‘Indigo Volunteers’. As well as connecting volunteers to vetted projects in crisis zones & refugee camps in Haiti & Greece, they are pioneering the development of on the ground governance structures.”

 

Read on for more in the comments below and add your own view

 

2nd March 2018

4 comments

  1. Anon NGO worker says:

    I know everyone talks about more safeguarding, and I agree that’s important, but for me it’s about something much bigger. It’s who’s in power in charities/groups, whether it’s development or disability or anything else.

    I think we need to turn things upside down so that “beneficiaries” (I hate that word – “real people”?) are at the top, running boards, in leadership positions. If Haitian women were running Oxfam and Save the Children and the rest would what’s happened have happened?

    I also feel we’ve got to change the culture. I know people I’ve worked with who haven’t spoken out about abuse they know of because it feels like betrayal, like breaking ranks. We can’t continue like that if we’re going to be true to the values we say we have.

    • Jonathan says:

      Globally, there is a distinct lack of governance at a granular level. It’s also why it is so hard for volunteers to speak out about the poor practice that the above comment refers to.

      I would point to the good work of the charity ‘Indigo Volunteers’. As well as connecting volunteers to vetted projects in crisis zones & refugee camps in Haiti & Greece, they are pioneering the development of on the ground governance structures.

      The impact can be immediate. Volunteers who until now had no structure to report issues or problems now have someone to go to. Skilled volunteers who were totally miss-matched to their projects can be connected to the right projects. This saves considerable time & money that charities normally spend on recruiting new & replacing leaving volunteers.

  2. Fran Stanfield says:

    I feel hugely let down by the minority of charity workers who abuse their power and exploit those whom they have been trusted by donors to help. I have a belief that most aid and charity workers have good intentions but there are not enough checks and balances clearly and things have to change. Unfortunately societal norms are not shaped by values and principles any longer and all powerful institutions have such corruption and abuse in their ranks.
    Clear leadership models are needed, with oversight of those in the field. Standards of human rights need to be at the forefront in society but sadly these have been sidelined by successive governments so there is no one to hold to account those who abuse the vulnerable.

  3. Issues of safeguarding, equality, fundraising regulation and governance are so important for the voluntary sector and we (all charities) should be doing better. Over the past few years, serious failings have been found in a small number of very large charities, that have tarnished the whole of our sector.

    To answer the question about what’s needed…. there’s a long list of things that charities must do to get their houses in order – including improving governance, gaining inspirational leaders who have strong management skills, implementing appropriate safeguarding, whistleblowing & equality policies, and improving their charities’ financial planning for long term sustainability. Ultimately, charities must be better managed and well run, while always ensuring their beneficiaries are properly supported and are placed at the heart of their organisations. In this respect, it is possible to argue that larger charities could learn a lot from smaller, less complicated charities.

    But charities being governed better, on its own, is not enough. Real cultural change is needed, so that modern-day charities are better understood in the wider community. The environment in which charities operate needs to change if we are to thrive. Our society would benefit from appreciating that charities are businesses with overheads; so that proper HR, good safeguarding systems, professional fundraising and good Governance should be fully resourced, not optional extras to be overlooked if funds are running low. UK charities should not blame the lack of time and resource for their mistakes; but there needs to be the understanding by donors and funders that charities must be appropriately resourced. For example, to recruit the brightest and the best into the voluntary sector, charities need to pay people salaries comparable with the for-profit sector.

    It’s not just the public that doesn’t understand the nature of charities. Inconsistency in communications by central Government has sent us mixed signals and hasn’t supported the voluntary sector properly in recent years. Given the majority of our sector consists of small charities, the messages we have repeatedly heard are that we should not lobby, that we should all merge and be subjected to increased regulation. There’s also been no recognition that many small charities with very scarce resources have seen huge increases in demand for services, driven by our Government’s punitive austerity measures, and are without additional help to meet that demand.

    Additionally, the trend away from grants to contracting by local Government has driven many charities to prioritise efficiency over good customer service. It has left many charities with narrow margins, without enough investment in their overheads to fund the infrastructure required for operating high quality public services.

    Clearly, the public and our politicians don’t understand our voluntary sector or what is needed for charities to thrive. There is an argument that a sector wide approach is needed to improve the image of “charity” and rebuild public trust. Our large national infrastructure organisations, working in partnership with the Charity Commission, to develop our society’s understanding of modern-day charities is potentially one solution.

    But ultimately, whatever the environment in which we operate, we must ensure our charities are managed to the highest standards; without this, trust and confidence in our sector will continue to decline.

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