Oxfam was more concerned with protecting its brand and expanding its market penetration than safeguarding, the charity’s former global safeguarding coordinator has told MPs.
In written evidence submitted to the International Development Select Committee’s inquiry into sexual exploitation and abuse in the aid sector, William Anderson, who oversaw safeguarding at the charity for seven months in 2011, said Oxfam’s rush to increase its market share could have contributed to the likelihood of beneficiaries being abused.
Anderson was the first person to be appointed in such a role at Oxfam, and was employed in February 2011 on a part-time basis – which, he said in his evidence, was totally inadequate to deal with the scale of the safeguarding issues facing the charity.
His position seemed to be a token, box-ticking exercise, he wrote. At no point in his time there "did a senior manager express any interest in safeguarding", he added, and he was never able to meet with the leadership team".
When he produced a report of his investigation into a safeguarding investigation into a staff member based in Wales, Anderson was told it was not his role to comment on or to be even implicitly critical of Oxfam as an organisation, his statement said.
"The primary concern that Oxfam management had about risk was not risk to vulnerable recipients – rather it was about any risk to its own reputation," he said.
Anderson added that Oxfam’s powerful corporate image of itself as an organisation that was moral and professional meant it believed it did not need to worry about safeguarding issues, and this led to an "institutional blindness" to the fact that it was the sort of organisation that was likely to be at risk.
Instead, he said, Oxfam was more concerned with expanding its services, which he heard referred to as "increasing market share", and managing "reputational risk".
The charity has hit the headlines in recent weeks over its handling of sexual misconduct in Haiti in the wake of the 2010 earthquake. It emerged that, after an investigation in 2011, seven Oxfam employees in Haiti had been quietly sacked or allowed to resign.
Anderson said in his evidence that he was not involved in the Haiti investigation.
In a bid by the charity to maintain its brand and market share, Anderson said, there had been an "unholy rush" to get Oxfam into Haiti after the earthquake, without consideration for whether it had the capacity or capability to run a programme there.
"I have little doubt that in Oxfam’s haste to ‘increase its market share’, it also increased the probability of vulnerable recipients being exposed to abuse by staff who were ill-prepared, poorly vetted and badly managed," he said.
He added that Oxfam’s prioritising of reputation risk meant that when safeguarding issues did arise in Haiti "institutional blindness and organisational self-interest would kick in, leading to a resolution that would be both discreet and militate against Oxfam ever needing to learn from the episode".
In his evidence, Anderson said the fact that his manager, the head of counter-fraud Eddie Mckenzie-Green, was invited to resign with a golden handshake of £29,000 despite having been investigated for a year and eventually prosecuted for defrauding Oxfam of almost £70,000 was "disturbingly similar to the way that the Haitian head of service was afforded a ‘dignified exit’".
Anderson said: "This truly does seem to reflect the emphasis that Oxfam places on reputational risk, where it would far rather pay out large sums of money instead of risk its reputation being impugned."
A spokeswoman for Oxfam said: "With hindsight, we realise that in 2011 our safeguarding was not strong enough and we have apologised for that. Since 2011, we have acted to improve our policy and practice, including setting up a confidential whistleblowing hotline and creating a dedicated safeguarding team."
She said Oxfam had also introduced new standards for staff references and appointed an independent commission to review its culture and practices.