Don't blame whistleblowers for aid funding cuts, says Oxfam's former head of safeguarding

Helen Evans, who worked for the charity between 2008 and 2015, says the scandal 'must be a turning point'

Helen Evans
Helen Evans

The aid sector should not blame whistleblowers if the safeguarding scandal results in cuts to funding, Helen Evans, the former head of safeguarding at Oxfam, has said.

Speaking after this week’s publication of the Charity Commission’s highly critical report of its inquiry into Oxfam’s safeguarding, Evans said those who had failed to take action to prevent abuse were responsible if donors and government reduced funding because of the scandal.

Evans began working at Oxfam in 2008 and led its safeguarding between 2012 and 2015. She came forward in February 2018 after The Times newspaper first broke news of the scandal with claims that her concerns about abuse by Oxfam employees overseas and in the UK were ignored by the charity’s leadership and the Charity Commission, and that safeguarding was underfunded by the charity.

She told Third Sector she still believed in the aid sector.

"I decry anyone who misuses this matter to call for cuts to the aid budget," she said, pointing to scandals in other areas, such as the police and parliament, that had not led to funding cuts.

But she added: "I also decry those who blame whistleblowers for cuts to funding. That responsibility lies with those who failed to take timely action to better safeguard people from abuse.

"Many of us tried over many years to get sufficient action taken without success. Sadly, it has taken public attention for the sector to be galvanised."

After the scandal broke, Oxfam withdrew from bidding for funding from the Department for International Development, which was worth £20.9m the year to 31 March 2018, its accounts show.

DfID said this week that it would decide "in due course" whether Oxfam would be able to resume bidding.

Evans said the scandal, which began with news stories about Oxfam workers in Haiti, but led to concerns being raised about staff behaviour at other charities, and the #AidToo movement it sparked "must be a turning point where hard truths are faced and genuine change effected".

She said: "When the Haiti story broke I was asked if it was a right-wing agenda to cut the aid budget. When the International Development Committee published its findings I was asked if the report lacked detail. Now I'm being asked if Oxfam is being singled out unfairly.

"It's hard confronting the heart of the matter, that organisations endeavouring to alleviate poverty and suffering can also cause harm. Confront it we must, though, to effect genuine change and better safeguard people from abuse."

Sexual exploitation and abuse were not new to the sector, she said, as shown by the 2002 west Africa scandal, where aid workers were found to have offered refugees food in return for sex.

"Aid agencies committed to change then, but as the media's interest abated so did the sector's commitments," she said.

Evans said Oxfam’s ten-point plan for change was "a good starting point" and welcomed the commitment by the charity’s new chief executive, Danny Sriskandarajah, to make cultural change in the organisation.

But she added: "Such change will take years to effect, though, and requires sector-wide commitment with strong donor accountability.

"It also requires a Charity Commission adequately resourced to deal with increased levels of reporting and a global aid ombudsman to be an independent point of appeal for survivors."

In December, the government said it was looking into the next steps for creating a global watchdog for aid bodies after a recommendation was made by the International Development Committee.

Evans said: "I remain hopeful that public trust can be restored in the aid sector. It will take time, but I firmly believe the sector and,most importantly, its beneficiaries will be better and safer for it. The price of failure is too high." 

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