Oxfam case 'reflects badly on the Charity Commission too', says #AidToo activist

Shaista Aziz, co-founder of the feminist advocacy group NGO Safe Space, says the regulator needs to ask itself why the scandal took so long to investigate

Shaista Aziz
Shaista Aziz

The handling of the Oxfam safeguarding scandal should be treated as much as a reflection on the Charity Commission as on the actions of the charity, according to Shaista Aziz, co-founder of NGO Safe Space.

The long-anticipated report on sexual misconduct and the subsequent actions of the international aid charity this week said that Oxfam had "a culture of tolerating poor behaviour", and the regulator issued it with an official warning.

But Aziz told Third Sector that the process and actions of the sector regulator should also be considered as part of a wider problem with tackling cultures of abuse.

"This is not just about Oxfam; it’s also about the commission," said Aziz, who co-founded NGO Safe Space last year as a platform for intersectional feminists in response to the #AidToo movement.

"I believe these findings came about only because of sustained pressure from outside whistleblowers and campaigners, and because of the credibility of those whistleblowers and advocacy workers.

"The commission should be asking itself why it took so long to investigate, and lessons need to be learned quickly, because of ongoing investigations of Save the Children. Otherwise, how long will it take for that report to come out?"

The regulator opened an investigation into Oxfam’s governance – including leadership and the culture around safeguarding matters – and its management, policies and practices in February 2018.

The findings were initially due to be released at the beginning of the year, reports said, but were not published until this week.

The regulator has issued the charity with an official warning, with a deadline of 30 June to submit an action plan for achieving the recommendations required by the commission.

But Aziz warned that broader action would be needed to drive long-term change within the sector.

"We welcome the report and the strength of it, but there have been many reports over many decades focusing on abuses in this sector, and nothing really has happened," she said.

"There has to be a far more robust way of dealing with these abuses and allegations, and that should be an emphasis moving forwards."

Proposals for addressing the issues from the commission and the Department for International Development have so far included the launch of a confidential whistleblowing hotline, assembling a team of safeguarding experts to investigate whether money is being spent well in foreign countries, and the appointment of an international ombudsman for the aid sector.

However, Aziz stressed that without first addressing broader toxic cultures within the sector this would form just another part of a failing system.

"You can deploy safeguarding experts around the world, but if they don’t have any clout or power and are part of a broken system, how can you be expected to move things forward?" she said.

"The sector is beginning to understand these issues are going nowhere, and the more victims and survivors who see coverage the more they will feel emboldened to come forward and speak – but they can’t be let down again.

"People have been let down multiple times and over multiple decades in this sector, and that has to change."

Asked to respond to the points raised by Aziz, a spokeswoman for the Charity Commission said the Oxfam investigation took time because it was of "unprecedented scale", involving more than 7,000 documents and dozens of interviews.

"It would have done the public, the whistleblowers and all those who raised concerns a disservice if we did not give this the time it deserved by undertaking a thorough investigation," she said.

"We will hold Oxfam GB to account for delivering on the changes it needs to make to its organisation, and we will continue to work across the sector to ensure lessons are learnt from this inquiry."

She added: "We agree that the findings of our statutory inquiry into Oxfam GB has implications for the whole charity sector and, indeed, for the aid industry more widely.

"Being a charity is about more than just what you do; it is also about how you do it. As regulator, we are committed to helping charities deliver on this essential responsibility.

"No charity is too small to bear its own share of responsibility for upholding the wider good name of charity by ensuring its culture enacts robust safeguarding measures and that people are taken seriously when they speak up about bad practice."

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