Mark Flannagan: Stop blaming others - the Oxfam crisis is our problem

The sector has once again been found wanting when it comes to criticism, writes our guest columnist

Mark Flannagan
Mark Flannagan

It is possible to believe both that Oxfam has mishandled its sexual misconduct scandal, but also that it is still a huge force for good in the world. What is not acceptable is trying to blame others for highlighting the scandal.

It was alarming, therefore, to see Mark Goldring’s Guardian interview, in which he said that criticism of the scandal was out of proportion. This came after Matthew Sherrington, Oxfam’s director of communications, tweeted that The Times didn’t put the whole story out at once, but instead produced a series of articles in order to sell newspapers. I see both of these as evidence that, no matter how hard Oxfam protests it is serious, nor how many adverts of apology it prints in newspapers, it is seeking to qualify the issue whenever it can and manage it with more spin that it ought to.

Outside of Oxfam’s response I am also appalled that one of the first instincts of some in the sector has been to imply that there was a conspiracy to undermine aid agencies. This is a pattern of behaviour we saw with the past fundraising scandals. The default position of some still appears to be that charities can do no wrong or, if they do, they should somehow be given more leeway because of their good work. Overall, they take comfort in the idea that there must be an agenda against charities if people dare to draw the conclusion that the sector needs to change and be more accountable.

Let us remember, the bottom line with Oxfam is that there was sexual misconduct, and this was dealt with by firing some people but allowing others resign with dignity in order to protect Oxfam’s reputation. These people were then free to move to jobs elsewhere in the aid world. There is no "but" attached to this story. If Oxfam is serious about identifying what went wrong and fixing it, then it cannot indulge in any words or behaviour that suggests it thinks there is another side to the story – one in which it is the victim.

I am deeply worried that, once again, the sector has been found wanting when it comes to criticism. It was fundraising behaviour last time. This time it has been Oxfam’s handling of sexual misconduct. Who knows what the next "crisis" will be? It doesn’t matter. We need to learn a bit more humility. This is a sector that is supposed to be in touch with "ordinary" people, yet it doesn’t understand that people want genuine atonement, without qualification. The sector spends too much time explaining and telling people how wrong they are. In so doing, it is demonstrating that it is out of touch with what the everyday population needs from it.

To be clear, I and tens of thousands of others love the UK’s charity sector and we are proud to be associated with it. Sadly, many of us feel let down by some unnecessary cries of "not fair" in recent days.

Mark Flannagan (@MarkFlann) is a former charity chief executive who now works in the NHS

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