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Oxfam Crisis: Literature Review Essay

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Updated: Jul 18th, 2021


Oxfam, a British non-governmental organization (NGO), aims to address the problems of poverty and injustice around the globe. Only in the United Kingdom (UK), 6.000 people work for Oxfam, while this is one of the major non-profit conglomerates with offices in more than 90 countries. Recently, Oxfam was banned from working in Haiti due to an accident that occurred between its workers and the local population. The reason for this was the scandal that broke out in February 2018, when it became clear that several employees of the organization, including the leader of the local mission, attended sex parties involving prostitutes. It turned out that women were often forced to serve the employees of the organization with threats. This happened soon after the devastating earthquake in Haiti in 2010, as a result of which up to 160 thousand people died, and more than three million were affected (Danyi 2019). The scandal led to the introduction of a temporary ban on the work of Oxfam in the country, but now this ban has become final.

The consequences of this crisis largely impacted Haiti’s population, aid workers of Oxfam, and leadership of the organization. According to the authorities of Haiti, Oxfam violated the laws of the country and the principles of human dignity and has no right to continue working there. In its turn, the charity offers an apology, although it understands its reasons. The behavior of some former Oxfam employees who worked in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake was completely unacceptable, as declared by Oxfam in its 2018 statement (Statement from the International Development Secretary on Oxfam 2018). The questions are how this situation occurred, what the underlying issues were, and how to prevent such incidents in the future operation of NGOs.

The case of the Oxfam crisis necessitates the three paramount research aims to be explored in this paper. First of all, it should be emphasized that misconduct has long been unreported by workers and their victims, while some of the latter were underage. In terms of the modern world that strives to combat violence and exploitation, the alleged behavior of Oxfam employees towards one of the most vulnerable populations is unpardonable (Inquiry report: summary findings and conclusions: Oxfam 2019). At the same time, the organization kept silent about the events that happened in Haiti, allowing the culpable persons to leave it and work for other charities. This shows that the actions of Oxfam were not transparent, and the reports to the Charity Commission were not complete. In this connection, it becomes evident that the study of the internal communication, staff selection, and training, as well as other issues to be improved to avoid such misconduct.

Public opinion is another construct that can be utilized to understand the potential improvements that can be done in the area of NGOs based on the examples from the Oxfam crisis. The unethical behaviors of its aid workers made a long-lasting impact on society by reducing the trust of people in such organizations in general. Public opinion should be restored to revive the effectiveness and the expected positive impact of charities (Keating Crack & Thrandardottir 2018). One of the ways to achieve it is to introduce regulations and public oversight, yet there is a risk of the increase in bureaucratic requirements and resource deficit. Therefore, this dissertation will investigate the links between NGOs and public opinion to reveal the ways to impact NGOs’ leadership.

The third focus of the research paper will be devoted to understanding the role of government in regulating the actions of NGOs. In particular, it is essential to analyze how procedures and policies of charities are currently regulated by the states and how they can be adjusted to ensure that the incidents like Oxfam crisis would not occur again (Khan 2018). Organizational statements, government documents, and other available reports will be examined in terms of the social responsibility concept as the strategy to benefit the world, balancing social welfare and economic growth. The government accountability should be clarified, and the systems needed to be comprehended to identify the ways to adjust them.

The following research questions will be targeted:

  • What are the underlying premises and reasons for the Oxfam crisis that led to inappropriate behaviors of its aid workers in Haiti, which should be addressed?
  • What is the role of public opinion in NGOs’ leadership improvement?
  • How can government impact policies and procedures of NGOs to resolve the case of the Oxfam crisis and prevent further incidents?

Literature Review

Oxfam was founded in 1942 as the Oxfam Committee for Famine Relief, which now has the association of 20 charitable organizations, operating worldwide, especially in underserved areas. The charity prioritizes such goals as the fight against poverty, social inequality, and tax crimes, assistance to victims of natural disasters, as well as projects in the field of education and health. Currently, the organization published 455 publications on human rights and another 577 publications on proposing good governance (Khan 2018). Working in humanitarian settings in Haiti, several workers of Oxfam allegedly conducted sexual misconduct towards the local women, some of which were presumably underage in 2010 (Bacchi 2018; Hobbs 2018). Only in 2018, this incident became publicly known, which caused dissonance in society and compromised NGOs in general.

The place of NGOs in local and international arenas is to encourage other organizations and promote accountability towards people, resources, and governments. Redeker and Martens (2018) specify that a program approach, which is now included in the charitable practice of corporate social responsibility, allows companies to concentrate the allocated resources on solving relatively complex problems concerning a significant number of people. Such an approach assumes the presence of departments or specially appointed employees who support charitable programs in the structure of enterprises and, thus, become an additional factor of control over the effective targeted spending of funds, ensuring the transparency of charitable programs being implemented (Redeker & Martens 2018). However, such work requires appropriate qualifications and professional competencies, and meaningful social investments. In this connection, specialists working in relevant government agencies and charitable organizations are expected to have substantial knowledge and skills.

The performance of NGOs is extensively monitored and controlled by various forms of international bodies. There are global governance organizations (GGOs) that encourage NGOs to participate in the affairs of the most underserved populations and devastated areas (Oxfam annual report 2017-2018 2018). Among the key entities, one may enumerate the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the United Nations (UN), and the World Bank that conducts governance over the non-profit organizations. With the emerging global ties across the countries, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) also set its requirements on aid provision in the mentioned region. In their turn, Oxfam engages in the collaboration with global entities to attract their attention to the issues that need an immediate response, such as natural disasters, poverty, et cetera.

The review of Oxfam reports as well as the documents of GGOs is characteristic of the fact that NGOs contribute to global governance accountability (Power of people against poverty: Oxfam strategic plan 2013-2018 n.d.). As an NGO, Oxfam is expected to hold GGOs accountable by applying the mechanisms of formal accreditation, civil society advisory bodies, and NGO-specific reporting (Redeker & Martens 2018). The elimination of challenges related to accountability is another role of NGOs that establish and develop the legitimacy of their initiatives. The key responsibility of Oxfam is to serve as an advocate for democracy across the globe and disseminate humanitarian values (Safeguarding in action: our 10-point action plan 2019). In some cases, non-profit organizations operate more successfully and economically than state institutions. Unlike public sector companies, they can quickly respond to the needs of society to develop and provide a wide variety of programs and services promptly in both domestic and international settings. NGOs are the main institutions of civil society, which act as the main partner of public authorities in solving problems facing society.

Reporting and assurance are the key areas that characterize the Oxfam incident, namely, the failure of management to coordinate their workers. The current evidence shows that the UK government started the efforts to clarify these issues not only at Oxfam but also at other charities (Sandvik 2019). As it can be comprehended from the speech of Penny Mordaunt during her presentation at the Safeguarding Summit, 179 organizations were requested to provide their assurance statements and reporting on sexual exploitation cases, which marks the beginning of the system renovation (Penny Mordaunt’s speech at Safeguarding Summit 2018). The responses provided by the organizations reveal that insufficient attention is paid to robust risk management, while the standards are regarded as too limited. Therefore, Mordaunt offers the implementation of new standards, including risk identification and reaction by NGOs, safeguarding practices, and the role of beneficiaries. It is also stressed that the historical reports and assessments should be taken into account, thus conducting the corresponding response if required.

NGOs contribute to the involvement of individuals in social activities, as a result of which the process of their transformation from passive objects, waiting for outside help, into active subjects of social activity is carried out. Public opinion is regarded as the paramount construct involved in the operation of NGOs, including Oxfam (Kolk 2016). The radiance of ideas and convincing actions are thought to be the key premises of their accountability and a lack of for-profit intentions. More to the point, NGOs implement international agreements to establish standards and codes: for example, the People in Aid merged with the Humanitarian Accountability Project (HAP) to create CHS Alliance (Listening to people – rebuilding trust 2019). The development of such unions is directed towards enhancing the positive impact of NGOs and ensuring legitimate control over GGOs and self-regulation mechanisms. Oxfam crisis reveals the fact that the contemporary regulations and standards fail to meet its goals and responsibilities.

The rebuilding of trust is critical for Oxfam that is now associated with violence towards vulnerable populations. The evidence demonstrates that the strategy of adding more regulations can be beneficial to provide oversight for the actions of the NGO. Keating Crack and Thrandardottir (2018) note that this solution presents many risks of bureaucratic struggles and resource utilization. While creating more requirements, they may turn out to be cost-ineffective and extremely difficult to perform. Lewis (2018) states that an informed debate on the role performed by NGOs and that their responsibilities and workplaces are vague and unclear today. It is mentioned that a lack of effective management systems is one of the premises that ultimately led to the Oxfam crisis in Haiti. Consistent with Lewis (2018), Ratcliffe (2019) also claims that misleading public opinion regarding NGOs should be enhanced as many people are likely to misinterpret their actions. No or little education is introduced in communities to allow the populations to understand what NGOs do for underserved places, which is complicated by budget and resource allocation difficulties.

Speaking of the specifics of non-profit organizations, their responsibility should be expressed primarily in the effectiveness of their work: they often use not their own, but someone’s money and resources. Therefore, the degree of their responsibility to the public and government depends on how successfully they spend the funds received (Celeste 2018; Petchesky 2016). In addition, the responsibility of Oxfam is not to undermine stakeholder confidence in the sector, yet, on the contrary, to increase it. Rawlinson and Booth (2018) stress that this is especially critical for the countries where Oxfam operates and where there is a low level of trust in this non-profit organization. To strengthen the trust, it needs to be transparent, accountable, and effective. This topic must be introduced into public space so that it can be discussed, systematically relating their social responsibility to the social challenges (Corporate responsibility n.d.). This discussion is anticipated to become much broader when the issue of the volume and degree of complexity of the reporting of NGOs to government bodies is fully resolved.

The role of the government can be discussed in terms of the concept of social responsibility that refers to the fulfillment of the social obligations prescribed by law, and the willingness to rigorously bear the corresponding mandatory expenses (Response to Charity Commission report on Oxfam 2019). At the same time, the specific concept means is a willingness to voluntarily incur non-binding social expenditures based on moral and ethical considerations, beyond the limits established by tax, labor, environmental, and other legislation. Khan (2018) assumes that the case of the Oxfam crisis was not surprising and notes that various documents provide information about the sexual exploitation of people by humanitarian workers and peacekeeping agencies. The author largely refers to sexual misconduct instances in West Africa and questions the fact that the efforts on the prevention of such issues did not lead to success. This proves the failure of NGOs to

About NGOs, governments may act as regulatory bodies that encourage or restrict particular behaviors. It is reported by the official documents that in response to the Oxfam crisis, the UK government expressed its dissatisfaction and cut funding until the organizations start practicing moral leadership (Development cooperation in crisis: Oxfam policy brief 2016). Such a decision also stimulates further actions, including the 10-point improvement plan that was created by Oxfam and involved a comprehensive set of actions. In consistence with the actions of the government, the fundraising of Oxfam decreased rapidly due to the low confidence of stakeholders in the appropriateness of resource allocation. In this case, the positive impact of the government can be made to motivate public trust. Instead of initiating punitive measures, Arie (2018) suggests considering the closer collaboration of NGOs and authorities. The UK government can assist Oxfam with identifying the social messages they propose to disseminate, supporting their development by providing funding and consultations.

The recent literature is characteristic of the increasing amount of regulations in the field of controlling NGOs, while some failures remain. In particular, the UK Charities Commission was expected to analyze the Oxfam crisis, yet it relied solely on data provided by this organization instead of conducting independent research (Sexual exploitation and abuse in the aid sector 2018). The accountability of the government cannot be regarded as strong or complete since the structures for monitoring and responding to inappropriate behaviors of NGO employees are not well-developed. Oxfam crisis vividly shows that NGOs possess great knowledge and skills on human development and support, yet their authority needs to be challenged to avoid its misapplication. As noted by Anders (2018), it is still unclear whether charities and funding bodies can practice what they preach and do they comply with their mission and goals, acting under the closest attention of the government.

Several solutions to the Oxfam crisis are offered by academic and official sources, the common feature of which is to adjust the operation of international development agencies. According to Khan (2018), charities should reconsider the functioning of their structures, thus understanding their weaknesses and addressing them. At the same time, they must determine their role in promoting the world without the place for abuse towards vulnerable populations. The safeguarding crisis is also accompanied by significant funding cuts from the government and fundraising activity, which makes it evident that the financial aspect of the given topic should be taken into account (Dudman 2018; How the world should respond to humanitarian crises 2016). Consequently, several sources report that Oxfam needs to demonstrate that it applied moral leadership principles and ensured that sexual misconduct would not occur again.

Another solution that is associated with employee training is suggested by Danyi (2019), who prioritizes staff vetting and further education on the necessity to treat the people they assist properly. A range of sources reviewed point to the need to take action for the entire charity sector, which became especially pronounced after the case of the Oxfam crisis turned out to be public. Carolei (2018) states that the employees who engaged in sexual intercourse with the women who needed help may seem the key perpetrators, yet the whole system is to blame. To make sure that people are safe and secure, the ways to train the staff and listen to the voices of victims should be found (Carolei 2018; Oxfam training 119 staff to become investigators and invests over €2m as part of a package to strengthen safeguarding worldwide 2018). The internal culture of charities needs to be more transparent, and the practices they apply need to be discussed openly to reiterate public trust. The importance of accurate and timely reporting is also identified by Danyi (2019) as the measure that can help in combating misconduct.

Reference List

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