'Culture of tolerating poor behaviour' at Oxfam GB, regulator concludes

The Charity Commission says the charity broke promises to improve safeguarding and failed to thoroughly investigate allegations of child sexual abuse

The Charity Commission’s report of its investigation into Oxfam GB has concluded there was mismanagement and "a culture of tolerating poor behaviour at the charity", and has issued the charity with an official warning.

The unprecedented 150-page report, published today, says the charity broke promises to improve safeguarding and failed to thoroughly investigate allegations of child sexual abuse in a way that amounted to mismanagement.

It warns that "no charity is more important than the people it serves and the mission it pursues", and criticises Oxfam for being "influenced by a desire to protect Oxfam GB’s reputation and to protect donor and stakeholder relationships".

The commission also used its powers to direct the charity to carry out an action plan to improve safeguarding provisions, but has not disqualified any current or former trustees as a result of the investigation.

The commission opened a statutory inquiry into the charity in February 2018, after an article published in The Times newspaper revealed that three employees, including the charity’s Haiti country director, resigned and four were sacked in 2011 for gross misconduct over allegations of sexual exploitation, bullying and intimidation.

Among the allegations, there were accusations that Oxfam employees had employed local women who had been affected by the 2010 earthquake as sex workers.

Oxfam had reported the allegations to the Charity Commission at the time, but had failed to make clear the extent of the sexual misconduct and said it did not involve beneficiaries. But the report makes it clear the commission believes the women should have been considered as beneficiaries.

The commission’s inquiry report is divided into to two parts, the first exploring events in Haiti in 2011 and the second looking at Oxfam’s wider approach to safeguarding, both historically and up to the present day.

The report says that the incidents in 2011 in Haiti "were not one-off isolated incidents" and Oxfam missed opportunities to tackle "early warnings" and "underlying behavioural issues" among staff as far back as June 2010.

Once concerns were raised in 2011, the commission says, there were "worrying reports" about the behaviour of some Oxfam investigators towards witnesses, poor record-keeping and leaked information that led to the intimidation of witnesses. The internal investigation also failed to follow up whether the women involved were minors, but concluded the possibility could not be ruled out, the commission report says.

It adds that senior staff were treated more leniently than more junior employees and Oxfam "supported and facilitated" the country director's resignation as an option "that would not put Oxfam GB’s reputation at risk".

Although the report says there was "no record of a cover up", it adds that the charity should have been fuller and franker in its reports to donors and the commission.

Oxfam is also criticised for failing to adequately follow up on further serious allegations of sexual abuse, also made in 2011. An email to the then-chief executive Barbara Stocking and the Oxfam press team, claiming to be from a 13-year-old girl in Haiti, alleged that she and a 12-year-old friend had been "beaten and used" and had had sex with men who worked for Oxfam.  

At the time "it was suspected, but not proven" that the emails were not genuine, but the commission said that, given the seriousness of the allegations, the charity "should have tried harder and taken more steps" to investigate, the report says.

The second part of the report says that safeguarding was not ignored by Oxfam’s trustees after the Haiti and more recent safeguarding concerns, but they did not allocate enough resources to respond to it adequately, a move that the report says put pressure on the safeguarding team and let victims and whistleblowers down.

"As late as 2017, promises that resources for safeguarding would be increased were not delivered," the report says, concluding that this constituted mismanagement of the charity.

The report acknowledges that Oxfam has made "significant" improvements to its safeguarding since the inquiry opened.

But it adds that "significant further cultural and systemic change is required to address fully the failings and weaknesses identified by the inquiry".

Under the terms of the statutory direction issued as part of the inquiry, the charity must submit by 30 June an action plan to explain its continued measures to improve safeguarding.

The report says: "Charities now need to ensure they learn the lessons of these findings. Keeping people safe is an integral part of its front-line operations. It is not an added extra."

The commission’s chief exective, Helen Stephenson, said in a statement: "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."

She said the charity’s leadership might have been well intentioned, but those intentions had "limited value" when not matched with the resources, robust systems and a culture that prioritised keeping people safe.

She said this was not the end of the process of change at Oxfam and its current leadership "has hard work ahead of it".

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