Let’s Not Learn the Wrong Lessons from Oxfam


Lessons drawn from the Oxfam safeguarding scandal have frequently been couched in moral terms – we should behave more charitably and selflessly, and give more priority to being ethical. But Oxfam’s failure not to invest more time and resources from 2012 into safeguarding was not to do with any moral or ethical deficit in its leadership. It was to do with a daunting range of competing claims on their attention, all of them morally compelling. Oxfam’s leaders were managing a whole new dimension of risk arising from a values-driven cultural and organisational upheaval resulting in the creation of Oxfam International as a better way of pursuing their mission. This context, lacking from the Charity Commission’s report, will help us to draw the right lessons, rather than unhelpful moral soundbites.

  1. There has been a high moral tone in the reactions to the report of the Charity Commission on the Oxfam scandal. I want to explore the assumptions behind these reactions[1]. My perspective is informed by having conducted an independent governance review for Oxfam GB shortly before the safeguarding scandal really took off, followed by a review of safeguarding governance which, in the words of the Charity Commission’s report, was overtaken by events in the shape of further revelations, the Charity Commission’s statutory Inquiry and independent reviews commissioned by them. The contents of my reviews remain confidential.  I am writing here to express my personal opinions only, not at the behest or on behalf of anyone in or connected with Oxfam. Nobody in or connected with Oxfam has seen this blog before publication.
  2. In her Foreword to the Report, the Chair of the Charity Commission says “Leadership of any size of charity means pursuing a charitable mission selflessly and putting that mission before anything else”. The implication in this context is that Oxfam’s leaders were guilty of putting selfish considerations ahead of their mission. She continues: “ultimately being a charity is more than just what you do, it is about the way in which you do it.” In her speeches she has elaborated that charities need to change their behaviour and attitudes to become more selfless and charitable as defined by public expectations. The Chief Executive of the Charity Commission writes that “Over a period of years, Oxfam‘s internal culture tolerated poor behaviour, and at times lost sight of the values it stands for.” The device of personalising a culture falls short of saying in terms that the Trustees and staff leaders of Oxfam tolerated poor behaviour and lost sight of their values – but only just. NCVO has said “…once again the key lesson for all of us is that, in order to “do good” and create positive change in the world, we must also “be good” and operate at the highest ethical standards.”
  3. Oxfam has repeatedly apologised for the unacceptable actions of some of its representatives in Haiti, breaching its own Code of Conduct, and for the flaws in the response and subsequent reporting by its leadership in Oxford in 2011. They have also acknowledged that the investment of resources in its specialist safeguarding unit since 2012 was inadequate: this is the time period on which I want to focus. They have accepted the findings of the Charity Commission Inquiry and are working on a major change programme. Oxfam have taken a mighty hit on behalf of all of us who were no more, and in many cases less, aware and well equipped than Oxfam in the dimension of safeguarding and aspects of HR culture. There are plenty of vital lessons for all of us from the Charity Commission Report and the parallel Oxfam Independent Commission Report. Let us make sure they are the right lessons.


The Evidence does not support sweeping generalisations about moral or ethical failures by Oxfam’s leadership


  1. It is one thing to display moral and ethical flaws. It is another thing to make difficult choices between many different requirements, all morally and ethically weighty, competing for attention and resources, in the years after 2012. The problem was not that Oxfam’s leaders were not good, ethical people, working hard for Oxfam to be good as well as do good. They were. With the awareness of hindsight they would obviously have made different choices and paid more attention to safeguarding, but that is not the same as implying they were selfish or promoting concerns other than the mission.
  2. A little context may help, which for whatever reason was not brought out in the Charity Commission Report. In this period post 2012 Oxfam was turning itself into a reformed Confederation. Instead of being a looser association of different Oxfams, controlled from the global north, resulting sometimes in six or more different Oxfams operating in the same developing country with different systems, cultures and priorities, a truly enormous effort was made to create a powerful Oxfam International. This would be based eventually in the global South, and led by the iconic Winnie Biniyama from Uganda. It would be a unified operation managing all Oxfam’s programmes while one (not up to six or more) Northern member provided the logistical and organisational back-up in each country. Regional structures were removed and replaced with other arrangements, and responsibility for other Confederation-wide functions (such as HR, security, and safeguarding) would in time be transferred to Oxfam International. That is a highly oversimplified account of a mind-blowingly complex set of negotiations and an implementation process devouring much leadership attention during these years.
  3. The aim – fundamentally ethical – was precisely to attend not just to the “worthy” cause of poverty reduction and human rights but to the way in which the cause should be pursued. The driver was a desire to achieve an organisation that more truly reflected Oxfam’s values about empowerment and putting the needs of the world’s poor above the sectional or selfish interests of different Oxfams from developed countries.  It was also to eliminate waste of charitable resources and incoherence, empower an international staff closer to the people in developing countries themselves, working in a united way to a strategy agreed by all Oxfam’s constituent parts, achieving greater impact. It was a major sharing of power – not easy for any organisation like Oxfam GB and the other powerful Oxfam Affiliates to contemplate.
  4. None played a more critical leadership role in this huge cultural and logistical upheaval than Oxfam GB, whose unrestricted funds were stretched to the limit by the demands of financing this period of transformation and enabling Oxfam International to achieve the Confederation’s vision in practice. It involved many painful staff cuts in the Oxfam GB staff establishment across the globe. In my view it was risky, courageous, necessary, expensive, and the complete opposite of selfish or unethical or not being good. It was precisely about putting mission ahead of everything else. It is still work in progress, and further radical reform would be needed to achieve the level of power-sharing and democratisation of the organisation with which I am connected, ActionAid. But still, the transformation has been a huge achievement – on top of the work Oxfam does every day anyway!
  5. Now consider the implications for the leadership of Oxfam GB – senior staff and Trustees, particularly when it comes to handling risks of different kinds. What were the priorities for attention? There were enormous risks in the radical alteration of different streams of accountability, responsibility and money flowing through Oxfam’s complex structures. How could risks be handled when up to six Affiliates in a country handed employer, financial and HR functions over to one plus Oxfam International, in one country after another where Oxfam worked? When would it be safe enough for different functions previously carried out by Oxfam GB to be transferred to Oxfam International? On exactly what basis and timescale? How would the envisaged assignment of management authority to Oxfam International sit alongside the continuing responsibility of Oxfam GB to be employers of the staff in many countries and provide key infrastructure , services and money – and where would that leave the fiduciary and legal responsibilities of the GB Trustees? And how could they ensure the whole change was actually working well for beneficiaries, despite the upheaval? When it came to risk management and organisational improvement, this was the number one concern of the GB Trustees and key staff leaders for years. If you give away and share power, for value-based and ethical reasons, what happens to your responsibilities – to millions of beneficiaries, to donors, to regulators, to the law? This was an entire layer of risk management on top of the “normal” egregious demands on any global institution working in the most difficult environments. No wonder the Commission’s Report shows the relevant Board Committee struggling with massive agendas.


Do not judge a charity or its leaders overall by looking at one dimension of its practice in isolation


  1. Oxfam have not used the facts about their international transformation as an excuse for shameful behaviour by its representatives in Haiti in 2011 in contravention of their own Code of Conduct, or for subsequent misjudgements, inadequate disclosures, or for insufficient attention to specific safeguarding allegations and to safeguarding as an issue. Nor do I. My argument is that such failings in 2012 onwards do not stem from being unethical, or from a “failure of moral leadership” (thank you, Penny Mordaunt), or from being merely “well intentioned” (in Baroness Stowell’s condescending phrase). The Trustees were identifying and struggling with risk assessment and management in multiple dimensions – and I believe that anybody close to them will tell you that they did so, in general, with a high degree of conscientiousness and capability, on many occasions putting sustained pressure on staff and insisting on more attention to risks they felt might be being neglected.
  2. Let us remember that they had to attend to risks of aid diversion, eg to terrorists, on which the former Chair of the Charity Commission made a number of dramatic statements to the media. They had to attend to fraud and other forms of corruption. They had to attend to auditing complex, and changing, financial flows. They had to attend to the security of Oxfam’s staff, partners and representatives working in war zones. They had to attend to the fundraising scandal and effect permanent improvements in the management of outsourced marketing. They had to attend to data protection. They had to attend to obtaining proper value for money from Oxfam’s programmes and to adherence to Oxfam’s operating manuals. They had to attend to assessing the impact of many different programmes round the globe. The Commission’s report considers safeguarding in isolation, but Oxfam’s Trustees and senior staff could not.
  3. Against this background, Oxfam was one of the first INGOs to set up a separate safeguarding unit. As is acknowledged in the Report, it was regarded as an example of best practice in some respects by its peers and an independent academic review. Yes, it was under-resourced, but I dare say every single unit in Oxfam GB and Oxfam International felt, and in many cases were, under-resourced. Safeguarding had to make its pitch against the claims of all the other aspects of ethical risk management and organisational hygiene mentioned above, and all the other claims on Oxfam GB’s unrestricted funds. If the Charity Commission Chief Executive concludes that “Oxfam’s culture tolerated poor behaviour” it must also be said in fairness that “Oxfam’s culture” in other dimensions tightened the screw on poor behaviour and risks and managed a massive additional layer of risk involved in the creation of Oxfam International. Note that Oxfam GB won the Charities Against Fraud Award in 2018 – the judges’ comments suggest that “Oxfam’s culture” has had its successes as well as failures.



  1. The reported inadequacies of safeguarding resourcing and management should not be minimised, but understood in this wider context. Beware of sweeping generalised conclusions about Oxfam as a whole operation or its Trustees and other leaders, or even its “culture”, as if it were a monolith.
  2. Looking at the whole picture, as Oxfam’s leadership must do, would it have obviously been a good ethical move to withdraw some of the funding from the fledgling Oxfam International, weakening and delaying its proper fruition, in order to swell the funding on safeguarding more quickly? Would it have been obviously a good ethical move if the funding and staffing behind the award-winning anti-fraud operation had been diverted to safeguarding instead?  Would it have been obviously more ethical to withdraw funding from Oxfam’s ground breaking research and awareness-raising work on worsening global inequality or the agony of the Yemen? With hindsight, Mark Goldring has acknowledged that more priority should have been given to safeguarding sooner, but if you make a choice that you regret afterwards it is not because you are selfish, ethically defective or inattentive to being good, it is because you are having to make tricky judgement calls among competing priorities, all of which are morally compelling.


Confront the necessity for spending on staff and administration, which may not be what “the public” , or many donors, want


  1. I feel sure there was unease in Oxfam, as in many other charities, about the rising tide of resources required to satisfy rising regulatory standards and strengthen the organisation and its administration, as opposed to direct spending on charitable activities. This unease was greatly increased in Oxfam’s case at that time because of the volume of money going into the creation of Oxfam International.
  2. The Charity Commission Report is admirably robust that adequate investment in safeguarding must not be regarded as a desirable add on but as a fundamental requirement of being a good charity. But the Charity Commission is not always so robust or explicit. For it is a pervasive public myth that big charities like Oxfam have excessive overheads and spend lots of unnecessary money on administration (and of course staff salaries) instead of getting it through to people in need on the front line. These myths appear clearly in the Commission’s own research. Yet the Commission’s Chair says that it is not the Commission’s job to try to influence the “so-called myths” of the public, but rather to tell charities what the public expects. Can this still be a tenable position?


Is it about being more charitable and “good”, or more feminist?


  1. A major component of the cultural change that is required in charities and other sectors is to do with patriarchy. The incoming Secretary General of Oxfam GB, Danny Sriskandaraja, has rightly said that “we need to make a concerted explicit effort to deconstruct the power inequities that are all too easily built into and perpetuated by, institutions like ours”. All across society we have become much more aware of what happens when unequal power situations are linked to sexual appetite or cruelty. This is particularly true of the power many men still exercise over women and the sense of entitlement and objectification that derives from patriarchy. We now have to act on that awareness effectively. This is not about being more selfless, but more feminist. That is one of the reasons why ActionAid incorporated into its current international strategy an explicit commitment to feminist leadership principles, now being rolled out across the whole Federation. Vague injunctions to behave better and be selfless and charitable, don’t measure up to the challenges of patriarchy and its toxic cultural norms.


Acknowledge the inter-dependence of culture, Codes, policies and processes


  1. There is also a tendency to take the line that “policies and processes are of course important BUT….” And what follows is that it is above all leadership, “culture”, attitudes and behaviour that must change. Yes and no. It’s a false polarity. Leadership is certainly key. But we are not suddenly, or even eventually, going to make the people who involve themselves in charities more moral by telling them to be more moral. We shall all continue to have feet of clay. There will always be difficult competition for attention between compelling moral and ethical demands, of which safeguarding is one. But awareness can change, as it has about safeguarding and about women’s experience of sexual harassment, for instance, and then we need to take this on board not with moral rhetoric but effective action. And we cannot do that without the right processes, codes and policies.
  2. We need processes like AwayDays and Board self-reviews, which create opportunities to revisit our mission and refresh our values, think hard about how we can realise them better, and what kind of leaders we aspire to be. It may also be the deliberate process of creating safe spaces for women that enables them to articulate their perspectives and demands and be part of decision-making. We need regular strategic reviews that map the practical pathways to cultural change along with all other aspects of mission, making sure we are if possible ahead of, rather than behind, changing societal norms. We need Codes and policies, based on inclusive consultation and cold eyed analysis, to tell us what is expected, and outlawed, for every representative of our charity.
  3. After all it is not so simple to define “being good and behaving well”. Does it mean, for instance, we should never have a sexual relationship with any more junior staff member of our charity? What disclosures about our private lives should be made to whom? Does it mean banning sex with prostitutes for all representatives of the charity, in and out of work? How do we know when sexual harassment is different from a sexist compliment or a clumsy sexual advance? We need carefully considered Codes to clarify these and many other issues. We need training and refresher courses to embed these Codes so they are not neglected. We need an HR system that makes clear that recruitment, task setting, performance management, appraisal, promotional prospects, all integrate the requirements of our Code of conduct and values – your advancement will crucially depend on whether you embody and support them.
  4. In bigger charities, we need tough, adequately resourced internal audit and safeguarding functions with robust independence from line management and dotted lines through direct to the Board. In that sense, it is policies, Codes, processes, and formal accountabilities that embed our values, make them real in practice and, over time, change our culture in those areas where it needs to change, and strengthen it in those areas where it is already supporting our mission (because culture in many big organisations is not monolithic, all good or all bad). We need leaders who back these processes and Codes to the hilt, whatever the many other ethical demands on their attention. And it all costs time and money.


Don’t imply it is easy if only you were more ethical


  1. Some of this is really difficult. This is partly because, if safeguarding is the preoccupation today in the wake of particular scandals, tomorrow it can be terrorism again, or fundraising again, or fraud, or corruption, or aid diversion, or poor value for money, or massive data breaches, or poor impact – all important moral concerns. So we have to maintain a balanced overview, trying to ration and regulate our attention so as not to lose sight of any of the many relevant risks to our mission and values. We have to make the best choices we can, knowing that we will sometimes, with hindsight, turn out to be wrong.
  2. It is also difficult because the granular detail of turning high principles into consistent practice is difficult and, sometimes, perceived as bureaucratic and boring. In some popular circles it is decried as “political correctness”. Of course, in all kinds of charities and other organisations passionate, “can-do” people trying to change the world, heal the sick, support a struggling family, win a campaign, are impatient with what they may perceive to be centralised bureaucratic demands such as standardised record-keeping, audit trails or multiple questionnaires and a snowstorm of lengthy policies coming down from the centre. Cultural tensions of this kind will never be eliminated; they have to be worked at perpetually.
  3. So it will never be easy, and reducing the issues to simplistic moral precepts really does not help. Let’s learn the right lessons, as Oxfam surely is now doing and will continue to do.

[1] I am also Vice Chair of ActionAid, have been Chair or Vice Chair of six UK charities, and Chief Executive of others, and remain a Trustee of Directory of Social Change and two other charities. I was a Board Member of the Charity Commission, 2006-2010. I write here in in individual and personal capacity only.


One thought on “Let’s Not Learn the Wrong Lessons from Oxfam

  1. Pingback: Rough Justice: the Charity Commission and Oxfam GB (Summary Version) | andrewpurkis

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