Beware of kneejerk reaction to Oxfam scandal

Hatians wait in line for food after the 2010 earthquake. Such vulnerable people in disaster areas need support, say our letter writers. Photograph: Ramon Espinosa/AP

As someone who has directed humanitarian operations in various parts of the world with the UN, international Red Cross and NGOs, I am very concerned by the draconian response to the Oxfam situation (Critics ‘gunning for Oxfam’ over Haiti, 17 February). Of course, the allegations are serious, and Oxfam and others have failed in staff recruitment, monitoring and reporting. But in any operation abroad most of the staff are nationals, managed by relatively few internationals. From within and outside the country, nearly 100% of the staff will be honest, responsible, dedicated people providing highly effective services to those most in need. Often they will risk their lives doing so.

Only a very few will be a problem, yet our response is to slash funding, and punish all. By so doing, essential relief will be reduced or cancelled, and tens of thousands in the most difficult parts of the world will suffer extensively. Many will die.

Our response is even worse than the allegations made. “An eye for an eye, and the whole world goes blind,” said Gandhi.

Instead of punishing the most vulnerable, there should be a system whereby, when allegations are made against any British charity, an inspector is appointed by DfID. This person would be attached to the organisation in question for a couple of months to inspect systems and encourage their change when necessary. In the meantime, the operation remains functional.
Michael Stone
Moretonhampstead, Devonshire

• In 1996 a group of British humanitarian and development organisations, including Oxfam and DfID (then the ODA headed by Lynda Chalker), started People In Aid. The group advocated adoption of an employment code that represented, Chalker said, a serious commitment to the quality of British aid and the good management of workers who deliver it in difficult and dangerous circumstances.

By 2000 People In Aid had recommended policies including child protection and whistleblowing. Compliance with its code was the subject of external audit and reporting. In 2015 People In Aid merged with the Core Humanitarian Standards (CHS) Alliance in Geneva where other donors support its work.

Thus, it has been open to successive governments and regulators, as well as agencies themselves, to benchmark, monitor and investigate employment practice in the aid sector for some years. If they did, why were senior officials apparently unaware of allegations now making news? If they did not, how seriously can we take proposals for new initiatives?

Quality and good management need long-term attention and adequate resources. Without these, as in other sectors, vulnerable people and innocent workers will bear the cost.
Sara Davidson
(Former CEO, People In Aid)
Didcot, Oxfordshire

• Oxfam’s CEO, Mark Goldring, may be right (‘Anything we say is manipulated’, 17 February). Is someone going after Oxfam – or is it just media love of self-righteous horror? It is now clear, and unsurprising, that there are sexual predators in many organisations, including the BBC, the churches and parliament. Yet no one is threatening their existence on this account. And surely these organisations are easier to manage and monitor than international aid teams in disaster areas around the world?

Monitoring mechanisms in every organisation could be, should be, and now are being, improved. But it is worth recognising that accountability has a price. Social workers, for example, now have to spend more time creating a “paper trail” of what they have done than helping clients. Is this what those who are helped by the NGOs, in Haiti and around the world, would want – so we can feel better?

Professor Dyan Mazurana, whose research team has studied this problem in some depth, said: “Oxfam is best practice. It is widely viewed by other international NGOs as having the best safeguarding unit and the best safeguarding policies and practices in place.” I am doubling my donation this year.
Hugh Burkhardt

• It is easy to be appalled by the revelations about aid workers engaging the services of prostitutes in Haiti and the subsequent apparent cover-up, but we should think more carefully about the systemic aspects of how humanitarian aid is delivered and how this may be allowing, or even encouraging, such things to happen.

The neoliberal paradigm that dominates current political and economic life has meant that aid (both humanitarian and development) has increasingly been privatised, shifting away from delivery by governments to delivery by non-governmental organisations as implementing partners.

Agencies such as Oxfam therefore find themselves operating in a highly competitive environment, where they are bidding for aid contracts in order to sustain their existence. Bad publicity, such as would be engendered by revelations about sexual exploitation, is therefore to be avoided at all costs.

But have we not been here before, recently? We have after all just seen Carillion forced to continue bidding to be awarded government contracts so that it could survive (or not).

Privatisation of public services has been promoted as necessary because of the dynamism and efficiency of the private sector (including both corporate and aid charity actors), but it has unintended consequences. When survival is at stake, openness and honesty are early casualties.
Bryan Hopkins

• As a worker in the safeguarding field I am distressed but not surprised by the Oxfam scandal. We are bombarded by the story of a small group of aid workers masquerading as goodies but behaving like baddies, and the people in the know behaving as bystanders and doing nothing. Well, welcome to “planet human”.

Such abuse is tragically endemic in institutions functioning in areas of power imbalance. Shakespeare clocked it in Measure for Measure with the fall of the righteous Angelo from virtue to vice once given absolute power. It’s probably been going on since time began.

We are right to be incensed by the exploitation of the vulnerable, wherever it happens. In this moral panic, however, our outrage may be exacerbated by the feeling that we have also been mistreated or duped, by being encouraged to give donations in good faith, to fund unacceptable deeds. This understandable reaction is, I fear, at risk of being manipulated by some people in power who have an agenda to cut foreign aid.

We need to be pushing for more robust and accountable safeguarding strategies to be implemented in all organisations and for there to be an ethos where people who know about wrongdoing feel empowered to tell. There are still plenty of “goodies” in the aid world and I, for one, greatly admire the work of Oxfam and will not be cancelling my standing order.
Shirley Rose
(Safeguarding trainer), London

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