The Oxfam crisis in Haiti has shown that international development charities must not fall into the trap of thinking that this issue can be addressed, and their reputations protected, by demonstrating that this was the result of failed procedures and isolated examples of historical poor practice that have now been resolved.
Yes, aid organisations operate in intense and extremely challenging contexts. And, yes, the vast majority of their work delivers vital support to vulnerable communities. But unless the sector quickly grasps the extent of the reputational impact of this issue and gets to grips with the realities of the environment it is now operating in, this issue could lead to damage that will take years to repair.
As tends to be the case, it’s the supposed cover-up in Haiti that has done the damage. But further than that, the key question here is really about transparency and accountability, and the new rules by which international aid organisations – and indeed charities more broadly – must now play.
In today’s world, characterised by fatigue among donor populations, mass-market social media and distrust in elites and any organisation perceived as remotely connected to "the establishment", organisations such as Oxfam can not assume public support or a benign acceptance that their work is good. The onus has fundamentally shifted onto charities to actively demonstrate and relentlessly communicate that what they do leads to positive results, that they operate by the highest standards, that their operations are cost-effective and how, in stark terms, their work provides the biggest bang for the public buck.
Widening internal reviews, new whistleblowing hotlines and better staff inductions all have their role to play in preventing further such incidents. But they won’t tackle the perception problem or repair the reputational damage. The sector needs to urgently convince the public of the seriousness with which it is taking this issue and to get out ahead of it. Reacting to news reports to explain that there are only a small number of these incidents or that information was communicated at the time will not be sufficient to demonstrate that the sector understands the importance of this issue.
Only concerted, sector-wide action – whether a new sector-wide enquiry with a clear commitment to a new code of conduct or a pan-sector initiative to enact far-reaching reform of how international aid charities address any allegations of misconduct against their staff – can begin to demonstrate that, first, this issue has been taken seriously and isn’t viewed simply as something that happens in such challenging environments and, second, that the international development sector continues to deliver vital support and services and fully deserves the ongoing support of donor populations.
Nick Colwill is associate director at Aequitas Consulting