‘Toxic working environments’ compromising safeguarding at Oxfam, says report

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Oxfam is blighted by “systemic failures” and “toxic working environments” in which safeguarding is compromised and bullies can act with virtual impunity, a root-and-branch examination of the charity’s global practices has found.

Staff surveyed for the Oxfam-commissioned Independent Commission on Sexual Misconduct, Accountability and Culture (IC) said the organisation failed to honour its commitment to gender equality.

Research also found sexual exploitation and abuse within Oxfam “are symptoms of several power abuses, manifested in varying degrees as elitism, racism, colonial behaviour, sexism, and patriarchy, all of which have given rise to cases of toxic work environments in which safeguarding is compromised, policies and procedures cannot be implemented robustly, and accountability thus falters”.

The report cited problems across the aid sector generally, and said Oxfam had made a number of important changes to policies and procedures since 2018 when it emerged that some of its workers engaged in “sex parties” with prostitutes after the humanitarian disaster in Haiti in 2010.

It made a slew of recommendations designed to help Oxfam “undertake the critical task of culture change”.

It comes a day after a separate report by the Charity Commission said allegations that Oxfam GB staff working in disaster zones sexually abused children were not fully disclosed, while there was a “culture of poor behaviour” among some employees.

Responding to criticism of Oxfam’s safeguarding failures in the IC report, Winnie Byanyima, Oxfam International executive director, said: “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.

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

“The commission says that Oxfam has taken an important step in being publicly committed to change and transparent in its work.

“I’m heartened that it says we have the potential to become a voice of leadership in wider sector reform. But it has given a strong warning that we should not underestimate the task ahead of us – and I can assure everyone, we absolutely do not.”

The abuse of power at Oxfam was described in the report as a “systemic issue”, affecting morale, trust and accountability throughout the organisation.

It found that bullying was the most prevalent concern from staff, who shared stories of witnessing or directly experiencing peers or senior management behaving aggressively and undermining, belittling and intimidating staff.

Some complaints could be traced back to perceived bullying by line managers when addressing a mismatch in their expectations of performance or skills, or as part of performance management processes, the report said.

In a related issue, some staff spoke of a culture of silence, in which witnesses to bullying and power abuses sympathised with the affected people but could not or would not act.

The report added: “IC interviews across the world elicited examples of structural racism and elitism, with staff expressing significant concerns about national staff being paid significantly less and having fewer opportunities for professional development and other opportunities than their international (and often younger, less educated and less skilled) counterparts.”

It said the power imbalances and abuses were not unique to Oxfam, which has more than 10,000 staff and 40,000 volunteers worldwide, and operates in 90 countries.

The report contains seven recommendations to guide Oxfam in its transformation process, including to ensure access to specialised and survivor-centred support services, to establish multiple channels for reporting sexual exploitation and abuse, and to strengthen and diversify its leadership team.

The 74-page report – which drew on 660 staff interviews, plus input from survivors and local government officials across 18 countries – concluded: “The IC believes that Oxfam has the potential to transform itself into an organisation that is accountable to and protects the people that it serves.

“Oxfam has committed to change and has the potential to become a voice of leadership in wider sector transformation.”

Copyright (c) Press Association Ltd. 2019, All Rights Reserved. Picture (c) Steve Parsons / PA Wire.