I couldn’t quite believe it when I read last week not only that senior Oxfam staff had sexually exploited Haitian women and girls, but also that Dame Barbara Stocking, its chief executive in 2011, gave some of those involved what seems to have amounted to an honourable discharge.
Two things stand out to me, as an observer of the UK third sector. The first is that international non-governmental organisations seem to operate in a different way from the rest of the charitable sector. With dispersed, decentralised operations and powerful in-country managers, there appears to be little that a global headquarters can do quickly when an in-country operation goes rogue.
My second observation is that in-country managers of NGOs appear to have an awful lot of power, money and status, relative to citizens of those places
These managers are often big players dealing directly with presidents and prime ministers. They fly around, get driven everywhere and, in a very real sense, are often forced to play God. In these conditions certain types of people, particularly under the pressure of a major international incident and away from the constraints of life back home, go off the rails, with no one, really, to call them out.
So you can see how a combination of low oversight and high-roller lives can lead to all sorts of problems. And it is safe to assume now that this isn’t only Oxfam’s problem.
What can be done? There are clearly governance and management weaknesses that international NGOs can address. If Amazon can create disciplined, brilliantly led operations across diverse territories, so too can organisations such as Oxfam and Save the Children. It’s about NGOs creating accountable structures, supporting their leaders properly and recognising the human risks that come with the power imbalances that NGO operations create.
An immediate thing that the charities can do – today – is to stop saying "yes, but..." and going off on one about transparency and all the good their thousands of staff do. People are not hearing this. Whoever is advising Oxfam on its comms, let me tell you, it’s not working – and I donate. It’s time, frankly, to apologise without immediately appended mitigation.
I think we have some of the best international NGOs, but I hope this provides a wake-up call. Something went badly wrong and it’s going to require a lot of sorting out to rebuild trust. That begins with some much-needed humility – not just overseas, but here too, as many of us, including the government, ponder what to do next.
Craig Dearden-Phillips is managing director of Stepping Out and convenor of Social Club, a network for third sector chief executives