Oxfam: A Crisis of Moral Leadership?

After revelations about sexual exploitation at Oxfam, our writers discuss charitable principles and the role of government

Scott Houghton
27th February 2018

Following the 2010 Haitian earthquake, it has emerged that aid workers at Oxfam were found to have exploited the humanitarian situation by engaging in prostitution and sexual abuse. The Secretary for International Development, Penny Mordaunt, insisted that the organisation must have moral leadership to continue receiving funds from the UK government. But what exactly is ‘moral leadership’? Surely, you’d expect charities especially those such as Oxfam, as behaving morally in  anyway.

Moral leadership as I define it in a humanitarian context is acting in an altruistic manner. Putting principles which are higher than yourself above such things as profit or celebrity and treating those whom you are going to help humanely, fairly, and with respect. Whereas, the word ‘leadership’ here denotes a specific kind of cutting-edge aspect to humanitarian aid. In effect, you conduct yourself in a manner so humanely, fairly, and respectfully that you are a leading light in this area. Where the organisation becomes an authority figure on the matter. The fact that some at Oxfam were already concerned by specific humanitarian aid workers going to work in Haiti seems to demonstrate that the organisation acted immorally. It acted negligently and put its short-term goals above those higher moral principles. Thereby, not exhibiting moral leadership.

Surely you'd expect charities to be behaving morally anyway

Ensuring continued moral leadership within aid organisations requires a combination of material support but also a continuing revaluation of an organisations values. Penny Mordaunt on The Andrew Marr Show insisted: “it doesn’t matter whether you’ve got a whistle-blowing hotline, it doesn’t matter if you’ve got good safe guarding practices in place – if the moral leadership is not their then we cannot have you as a partner.” This comes close to the mark, I think. If there is no commitment to these higher moral principles which are above the organisation, then no material help such as whistle-blowing hotlines will be able to ensure moral leadership and the ability for an organisation to act morally, into the future. In short, it needs to place its core values at the very top of its agenda in how it conducts humanitarian work.

Scott Houghton

The very definition of a charity implies the existence of some level of moral leadership. By nature, charitable organisations should be pioneers on issues of moral concern, acting as examples for the rest of us to follow. Yet, the recent actions of some within Oxfam demonstrate that we cannot automatically assume that charity equals morality.

I am furious that these people felt comfortable and secure enough in their position to take advantage of these circumstances. There was obviously no consideration for the Haitian people, devastated by a natural disaster, or for the implications upon the vital work of humanitarian aid and aid workers globally. It is a reflection of our society and an organisation that these people feel that they can carry out such abuse, without fear of reprisal. Further reports of sexual harassment at Save the Children, including the former chief executive, suggest such exploitation, abuse and harassment is not limited to one organisation.

There was obviously no consideration for the Haitian people

Of course, the actions of a few should not colour our judgement of the organisation as a whole. So many people around the world are doing fantastic work, and other people’s actions should not prevent them from doing so, but these reports have far reaching consequences. Oxfam’s chief executive has reported that the charity has lost around 7,000 regular donors since the reports of sexual exploitation in Chad and Haiti were revealed to the public. A recent Guardian/ICM poll reports that 52% of those who had already donated are now less likely to fund humanitarian causes. The disgusting actions of those who felt protected enough to sexually exploit vulnerable people in a disaster zone have potentially impacted upon other future vulnerable people. If charities do not receive donations then they cannot carry out their vital work.

...the actions of a few should not colour our judgement of the organisation as a whole

If we want to ensure the continued existence of these organisations, and their work, we must confront the culture that allowed this to happen, and ensure that changes are made. Whilst Oxfam’s announcements of internal reviews are a positive step forward, this does not negate the fact that these events happened, and that the perpetrators very nearly escaped any penalty.

It is difficult to ascertain how exactly the government should respond to this, or even if they should. There is the suggestion that charitable organisations should be further regulated. The revelations about sexual exploitation suggest that charities cannot be trusted to self-regulate. Even when regulations are in place, charities are able to avoid accountability for their actions by misleading the public, or the Charity Commission. This, however, creates a difficult situation whereby charities should be independent enough to carry out their objectives, but held accountable for wrongdoing within their organisation.

The revelations suggest that charities cannot be trusted to self-regulate

Additionally, there is the issue of the pervasiveness of such behaviour. The top echelons of Oxfam maintain being unaware of such behaviour, but allegations that they deliberately misled the Charity Commission, and therefore the public, suggest otherwise. By doing so, they have shaken the public’s trust in a long-standing organisation that claims to work for the benefit of others.

However, humanitarian causes and organisations should not be abandoned completely. Yes, the reports about Oxfam are horrifying and infuriating, but to remove support for the sector as a whole contributes towards the damage already done. The vast majority of aid workers are carrying out their role because they believe in what they do, and want to help. It is the minority that abuse their position and take advantage of situation with a pre-existing power imbalance.

We should focus on ensuring that monitoring mechanisms are effective and promote more accountable safeguarding strategies. The cancellation of funding might be effective, but will drastically reduce, or end, essential relief. Instead, those who have been convicted of wrongdoing should forfeit their salaries and be removed from their position, not transferred to another country where they can continue their exploitative practices. Charities should place moral concerns at the core of their operations, or the abuse will continue.


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