Oxfam too focused on what it does, not how it does it, report warns

The independent commission set up by the development charity to improve safeguarding has published an interim report

The interim report
The interim report

Oxfam International has been too focused on what it does rather than how it does it, according to the independent commission set up by the charity to improve its safeguarding.

The Independent Commission on Safeguarding, Sexual Misconduct and Culture Change at Oxfam, which was launched after the safeguarding scandal broke last year, has today published its interim report, which recognises that Oxfam has taken positive steps to improve its safeguarding practices since the crisis began last year.

But it says much more still needs to be done and calls on the charity to listen more closely to the voices of staff members and create a single, unified safeguarding system across the whole of the global organisation.

Oxfam International welcomed the report, saying it was an important part of tackling the root causes of abuse.

The report says: "The commissioners have heard great appreciation for Oxfam’s work from the local organisations that partner with Oxfam, as well as the communities it serves.

"However, the commission has found that the organisation has prioritised what it aims to achieve over how it is done, at some cost to its staff and the communities they serve."

It says the heart of this issue was about how power was managed and trust earned and kept, and adds that the risks for staff members reporting allegations of sexual misconduct were often high.

Oxfam’s senior management needs to model Oxfam’s values, empower staff, communities and partners to act when they see sexual misconduct through stronger systems, and ensure accountability when staff challenge negative power dynamics, the report says.

It warns that the voices of staff, partners and the communities Oxfam serves are at risk of going unheard in the process of improving safeguarding, and calls for a more participatory approach.

It praises staff as "motivated and talented", and eager to contribute to improvements.

"These people are agents of change that ultimately can help realise Oxfam’s improvements," it says.

In its discussions with staff, the commission says, multiple staff members raised concerns about elitism, racism and colonial behaviour, sexism and rigid hierarchies within the organisation, and many spoke of the prevalence of bullying in their offices.

Some also told commissioners that the focus of safeguarding efforts made so far had been on protecting staff in the workplace, so many of the issues had not been discussed with the communities Oxfam served and solutions had been developed without their input.

The report says there were drastic inconsistencies in how safeguarding complaints were handled between affiliates and across countries, which caused confusion, and called for the implementation of a single, unified, confederation-wide and streamlined safeguarding system to ensure "consistent high-quality investigations and case resolution".

It also recommended Oxfam simplify its "extraordinarily complicated" global governance structure.

Winnie Byanyima, executive director of Oxfam International, said the commission had been established to ask "hard questions" and the charity would use its emerging recommendations to bolster ongoing improvements.

"It is painfully clear that Oxfam is not immune from sexual and other forms of abuse that stem from the abuse of power," she said.

"To those who have experienced such unacceptable behaviour, we are sorry, I am sorry and we will follow up on any cases passed to us by the commission as a matter of urgency."

In its quarterly progress report, published today, Oxfam said it had increased the number of staff safeguarding experts across its confederation in the past year, committed to nearly tripling the amount it spends on its gender justice programming worldwide to more than €54m (£48m) and rolled out stronger Oxfam-wide policies and practices, including improving recruitment.

Byanyima said: "I think that Oxfam must continue to be open about our own failings and determined to change our own culture and practices, and if by doing that we can help others along the way, the difficult changes we are making of ourselves will be doubly worth it."

The final report is expected to be released in May.

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