Oxfam prioritised its goals over its values, independent review finds

The Independent Commission on Sexual Misconduct, Accountability and Culture Change finds ineffective reporting mechanisms and accountability gaps

The report
The report

Oxfam International prioritised the goals of its programmes over its core values and the principle of "do no harm" with communities, partners and staff, an independent review has concluded.

The Independent Commission on Sexual Misconduct, Accountability and Culture Change, which was set up by Oxfam after the safeguarding scandal broke in February 2018, has published its final report today.

The commission carried out an organisation-wide review of Oxfam’s culture, accountability and safeguarding practices, which included interviews with more than 500 current and former Oxfam staff, interviews with key informants, in-depth community safeguarding research in three countries in which Oxfam operates in Africa and Asia, and views from a 10-person survivor reference group.  

The commission’s interim findings, published in January, were that Oxfam had been too focused on what it did rather than how it did it.

The final report, published today, says Oxfam’s operations have "suffered from a lack of robust, confederation-wide safeguarding and related policies and procedures".

The commission found "ineffective reporting mechanisms, safeguarding process failures and accountability gaps", according to the report.

It says that, although many Oxfam operations operate in healthy working environments, "staff across multiple-country programmes struggle because they operate in toxic or unsupportive environments".

It adds that Oxfam’s environment and processes for preventing and responding to harassment and bullying across the confederation were "deficient" and that the wellbeing of staff required "immediate attention".

The report contains seven recommendations to help Oxfam change its culture, including overhauling its safeguarding system to tackle and respond to sexual and other forms of misconduct at every level, which the commission says is under way but requires more investment.

"Oxfam must also show that there are real and visible consequences for acts of misconduct for anyone operating under its brand," the report says.

Other recommendations include supporting survivors of sexual abuse to rebuild their lives, putting in place reporting systems to ensure programme participants have access to safe and responsive complaint mechanisms, and taking "aggressive steps" to implement its organisational values in all areas of its work.

"All staff must be held accountable for realising its values and the code of conduct must be truly understood and embraced by all staff, partners and the communities in which Oxfam works," it says.

The report adds that Oxfam must work with other organisations in the aid sector to bring systemic change to safeguarding practices.

"Even if Oxfam undertakes important reforms to its safeguarding approach, these efforts will have limited impact if Oxfam and its peers do not have an enabling environment to support reform," it says.

But the commission also says that Oxfam has "tremendous will, energy and commitment to reform".

The report says: "Since February 2018, the organisation has taken important steps, including but not limited to new, confederation-wide prevention of sexual misconduct and child protection policies, a standard operating procedure for reporting misconduct and an executive board agreement to resource the development of a single, Oxfam-wide safeguarding network."

Winnie Byanyima, executive director of Oxfam International, said the organisation accepted the report's findings.

"Tragically we have not done enough in the past to ensure that the communities we work with are protected and able to live their lives with dignity," she said.

"The independent commission has urged our sector to redouble its commitment in this area, and we are ready to play our part."

Speaking about the report’s finding that some workplaces were "toxic", she said: "As an African woman, I encounter both sexism and racism in many places I go.

"I am pained and angered that some colleagues have done so within our organisation. We are forcefully challenging such unacceptable behaviours. I am determined to ensure that Oxfam’s internal culture lives up to the values we espouse in our work around the world."

Byanyima apologised again for the organisation’s failures. "I want to humbly apologise to all of the staff and community members who have been harmed by Oxfam, its people; its leaders; its culture," she said.

"We are moving quickly in changing our workplace culture and will continue to implement all the recommendations of the commission."

The publication of the report comes a day after the Charity Commission published its report of its investigation into Oxfam GB, which found there had been mismanagement and "a culture of tolerating poor behaviour at the charity".

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