The Oxfam scandal: Let’s have an honest conversation about accountability

Angela Crack

University of Portsmouth

*All views and statements represent those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Accountable Now.


The slew of bad publicity that has affected the sector in the wake of the Oxfam scandal shows little sign of abating. The Times recently ran a story making fresh allegations about staff misconduct in Haiti – the latest in a series of front pages about Oxfam’s historical failures to address sexual harassment and exploitation. Disturbing accounts have emerged of sexual violence in other organisations too, prompting DFID to announce several measures to improve safeguarding standards.


Early signs of the effect that the revelations have had on public perceptions of NGOs are worrying. The 2017 Edelman Trust Barometer report revealed that the trust of the public in NGOs had plummeted even before the scandal broke. Following the Oxfam exposé, survey evidence suggests that levels of confidence in aid and development charities have further declined. Fears about the impact on fundraising have been stoked by the amount raised during Sports Relief’s broadcast – the lowest in a decade.


Conferences are being hurriedly organised to discuss where the sector goes from here (including one due to be held at my own University, where Accountable Now will be a roundtable participant). There have been calls for more oversight and tighter regulation of NGOs. Steps in this direction are certainly appropriate. It is a sobering thought that only 38% of humanitarian aid workers report receiving training on sexual violence. Nonetheless, there is a danger of creating more regulations as a ‘quick fix’ solution to appease donors. Sexual exploitation and abuse does not happen because of lack of regulations – indeed, plenty already exist. We should be asking instead why there is low awareness of these regulations, and why they have little impact on practices on the ground.


I suggest that the main reason is the potential for abuse in unequal power relationships in a patriarchal society, between men and women and adults and children. It would be naïve in the extreme to think that the NGO sector is any different to the Catholic church, Westminster, higher education, the BBC, Hollywood, or any other institutions that have been exposed for complicity in abuse. There are unique risk factors associated with the insecure environment of humanitarian work. However, all our institutions inevitably reflect the society in which we live, where sexual harassment and abuse is normalised, rationalised and condoned.


We should also not ignore the deep-rooted reasons for the vulnerabilities experienced by women and girls of colour. These are particularly apparent in post-colonial environments where exploitation has historically been justified under the guise of ‘helping the natives’. We can see vestiges of this mentality when perpetrators rationalise paying for sex as a harmless act that contributes to the income of the ‘beneficiary’. Likewise, co-workers may justify turning a blind eye to such exploitation by telling themselves that they are part of an organisation that provides a ‘greater good’.


I suggest that another problem with delivering downward accountability is the way that aid is administered. Donors have created a funding system that provides few incentives for honest disclosure of the complexities of humanitarian and development work. This is epitomised by the tyranny of the logframe. The neat depiction of planned and measurable outcomes in the logframe is often a far departure from the unpredictable and messy realities on the ground. There is a wealth of evidence to show that the logframe is essentially a fiction that suits the administrative needs of the donor. Northern and Southern partners are compelled to collude in producing disingenuous reports that satisfy the donors’ expectations of project management. It undermines local knowledge and ownership of projects, and locks NGOs into an endless reporting cycle. Of course, donors should rightly expect information on how their money has been spent and with what effects. It’s the format and frequency of reporting requirements that are problematic. This was particularly evident to me when I recently interviewed an exhausted M&E officer in Malawi, who was touring the country to visit dozens of projects to report back on how many women had been ‘empowered’ that quarter. The report is an absurd simplification of reality, but it has to be provided in the format demanded by the donor.


My research has led me to question whether donors have created the impression that they are only willing to fund NGOs that can provide blemish-free accounts of their achievements. These unrealistic expectations are based on a misunderstanding of the meaning of accountability. An accountable organisation is not one that never makes a mistake. An accountable organisation is not one that has never taken a decision that has appalling consequences for ‘beneficiaries’. Nor is it an organisation that has never employed a sexual predator. All of these things can happen in the real world, no matter how much one might try to minimise the risks. An accountable organisation is one that is transparent, that seeks to rectify its mistakes, and that puts measures in place to learn from its failings. However, the pressure to provide stories of success undermines efforts to enhance NGO accountability. Organisations may be scared of the consequences of angering their donor if they admit to their failings. In the words of one NGO executive that I interviewed: ‘the risks around transparency undermines a lot of learning across the sector.’


Blame for poor accountability ultimately rests with NGOs. They have profound responsibilities to their beneficiaries and other stakeholders. Organisations that choose to safeguard their income streams rather than their ‘beneficiaries’ should be thoroughly condemned. But let’s also turn our attention to the broader factors that enable sexual exploitation and abuse. Aid is contaminated by an ‘audit culture’ that doesn’t encourage honest conversation about the realities on the ground. Hopefully, the Oxfam scandal opens up an opportunity for donors and NGOs to be brave enough to talk about that.

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