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  • Writer's pictureEzekiel Ward

Oxfam needs bold leadership to carry on its great work

Oxfam is in the grip of a scandal involving aid workers and sexually abusive behaviour in Haiti. As more details emerge, it seems to get worse by the day.

It is not the only time international work has come with unwanted extras. In her book The War on Women, Sue Lloyd-Roberts describes the behaviour of UN peacekeepers in Sarajevo: 

M comes from Moldova and is better educated and more sophisticated than the girls the traffickers recruit from remote villages. She now realises that when her boyfriend said he had found them both jobs in Italy, he had in fact sold her to a pimp… What M said next was the most startling: 'a lot of the men were United Nations’ Peacekeepers - soldiers and policemen who had come there to help people.' "

The low levels to which these individuals and organisations have gone is shocking. Justified using a ‘boys will be boys’ attitude. Often protected by immunity in their roles as peacekeepers. Denying that women can say no. These 'prostitutes' are actually trafficking victims with no option, enslaved by thugs.

If the right steps are taken now, Oxfam can set itself up for thriving again. Performance and integrity pulling in the same direction.

When scandal hits an organisation, fear can take hold and a new ethos can quickly show itself. In regions with nothing wrong, every move (deals, transactions, contracts) will end up coming across the Chief Compliance Officer’s desk, even the small things. I know because I’ve seen it - people want to protect themselves, entirely understandably. In regions where there are deeper issues, paralysis takes over. There, the CCO needs to be proactive.

Fearful reactions to crises can be extreme. Oxfam’s approach remains to be seen in full, but we can take examples from others. After swallowing record-breaking penalties for corrupt acts, Sweden’s Telia appears to have de-risked, shedding units in high risk regions. There will have been several factors, but the corruption scandal was the starting pistol. Another example saw Toyota fail to deal properly with safety issues appearing in cars over several years (accelerator pedals, engine oil). They either fixed new models and didn’t bother telling owners of existing cars, denied the issues or simply buried their heads in the sand. The damage to Toyota’s reputation has been significant. 

Oxfam has choices to make about its culture and approach to compliance 

Both of the above examples (Telia and Toyota) are reactions driven by fear. If an organisation takes a fearful route, it can be prevented from doing fantastic work. Oxfam does so many good things in the most difficult of circumstances. There is no denying that a step change in its compliance culture would affect that. Getting it wrong can sow the seeds of problems that will hit them down the road. 

  • The reaction needs to be authentic, not blaming others or denying there is an issue. Integrity doesn’t allow room for 'spin’.

  • Overshooting on compliance costs and resources makes for a costly error and more changes later on. In a charity, that would be particularly ill-advised. Walmart famously spent well north of half a billion dollars on compliance following a bribery scandal, only later to require significant cutbacks. 

  • There can be a temptation for putting in place an overly-complex compliance regime, with too many procedures, poorly embedded. It might be a big reaction, but there would be no long term change. What one might call a ‘weak over-reaction'. 

  • Oxfam needs to keep its head clear and take basic, logical steps. Gather the facts. Identify inconsistencies or weaknesses.

  • Otherwise, they should keep attention on knowing their rights, demanding fairness in the process, being brave enough to state their opinion, going the judicial route if needed, not admitting liability too easily…balancing with the need for humility. 

If the right steps are taken now, Oxfam can set itself up for thriving again. Performance and integrity pulling in the same direction.

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