Now and into the future: strengthening systems to safeguard and tackle abuse

Blogs article written on the 13 Mar 2018

At Oxfam we believe all lives are equal. We don’t just pay lip service to that notion, it’s part of our lived reality across all of our work – inside and outside the organisation. Transforming societies, systems and institutions towards equality is central to our work tackling poverty because massive imbalances in power and resources and the belief that the things that make us different from each other should somehow dictate our place in the world, are pretty much the root cause of many of the key issues that keep people entrenched in poverty. We won’t stand for these injustices and call them out when we see them.

Inside our organisation too, we won’t stand for abuses of power in the form of harassment, sexual misconduct, child abuse and other intolerable behaviour. As a rights-based organisation driven by our 5 core values of accountability, empowerment, equality, inclusiveness and sustainability, our staff, volunteers and partners know that Oxfam’s integrity resides in the behaviour of each and every one of us; wherever we are located and whatever aspect of Oxfam’s work we are engaged in. This is a grave responsibility we do not take lightly. It’s the reason we have a range of mechanisms, policies and procedures to ensure a safe, diverse and inclusive workplace for all Oxfam people and which facilitate safe environments for the organisations and communities we work with. From preventative measures building an organisational culture of accountability and equality; to grievance and complaints mechanisms ensuring safe ways to report allegations of misconduct; to a range of measures supporting victims and whistle blowers, Oxfam is dedicated to ensuring no harm is caused in undertaking our vital work.

Unfortunately, Oxfam is not immune from the possibility of its people displaying incidences of sexual misconduct or other intolerable behaviour. What’s critical is the process we take when these instances occur to remove barriers which might prevent people from safely uncovering and reporting these incidences and to swiftly and unequivocally address the issue.

A rights-based proactive approach

Oxfam takes a proactive approach to making sure it’s working environments and ways of working are safe, diverse and inclusive.  Our organisational values, culture and policy frameworks exist to make it very clear we will not tolerate any form of harassment, sexual misconduct, abuse, exploitation of vulnerability or use of power and privilege for personal gain.  At every stage in our cycle of work – from prior to a worker’s entry to the organisation to the standards governing our work with partners and communities, the rights of our workers, volunteers, partners and community members are paramount in our thinking and actions. Their rights to safe, diverse, inclusive workplaces and environments; their rights to protection; their rights to transparent and accountable processes in listening to, believing and dealing with allegations of misconduct; their rights to compassionate and best-practice approaches to victim care.  All Oxfam staff sign a code of conduct as well as an additional code covering Child Safeguarding.  This year, we are rolling out sector-leading work in the form of a strengthened Child Safeguard policy and toolkit. It will assist our country offices to train staff and partners – on everything from how to recognise abuse to how to report it.

Induction processes, e-training modules,country partner visits and training sessions, programming manuals and a variety of other communication methods seek to reinforce our values and provide opportunities for meaningful exploration of the way in which power imbalances can play out in different contexts. Our aim is to highlight Oxfam’s standards and expectations around behaviour, as well as making it clear that we encourage ‘bystander’or witness intervention and reporting when standards are being breached. Despite all this work – we can never be complacent, and we are always seeking to continually improve our processes, such as the recently instigated Mental Health First Aid officers and contact officers equipped with specialist training in supporting those who witness or are subjected intolerable behaviour.

Our rigorous recruitment and people management processes include International Police checks for criminal records and verbal reference checks with previous employers to verify the fact we are employing people with a history of values and behaviours aligned to our own.  Before undertaking field based work, Oxfam people undertake briefings which reinforce organisational values as well as legal and cultural expectations in places people are visiting. We are working globally to improve and make these processes watertight. We are also leading the sector with the rollout of a database to share intelligence among NGOs and ensure references are factual and evidence-based.. We will actively contribute to and support joint action by international NGOs, work with UN bodies, the International Civil Society Center, and other joint platforms to agree concrete proposals for how we can move forward as a sector.

Removing barriers and providing safe spaces for reporting

Oxfam’s commitments to accountability and transparency mean that we encourage the reporting of any behaviour that is not in line with our values, standards and policies. For many years we have had a number of mechanisms in place for reporting any misbehaviour or breaches of Oxfam standards. While internally, people may report through their management lines, we also have a number of ways in which anonymous reports can be made and make their way to the appropriate mechanism for investigation and action. We also have procedures in place, such as confidential whistleblowing lines, that allow complaints to come in a safe way, independent of organisational hierarchies.We also facilitate and recommend reporting recourse to authorities, donors and our peak body – the Australian Council for International Development (ACFID) where people do not wish to report to Oxfam in the first instance. Our Partner and Beneficiary complaints mechanism also allows community members as well as partner organisations to lodge complaints if they are witness to or victims of intolerable behaviour.

As stories of sector-wide behavioural issues arise, we know a key challenge to taking action on intolerable behaviour is the potential barriers people face when reporting; including power imbalances and potential reprisals. It is therefore one of our priorities to ensure we let people know how they can safely and securely alert us when they experience or witness sexual harassment or other misconduct.This includes anyone who may have been affected by the misconduct of Oxfam staff to look back at previous cases, and to re-examine whether or not they were dealt with appropriately.

Our work across the globe on Gender Justice in particular, gives us excellent insight into the fact that under-reporting of incidences of misbehaviour is probably quite high.  In many contexts where we work, violence tends to be normalised and avenues to justice are often difficult. This is why it is so important that we take every measure possible to ensure confidentiality and safety in reporting processes and work hard to remove contextual and other barriers people might face to uncovering instances of misbehaviour. We have a responsibility to empower our people to raise issues and provide safe mechanisms to be heard. We recognise reporting issues can be extremely difficult and at times, takes bravery. This means we need to, and do have, support in place for our people (and their families) such as independent counselling services. We also have a responsibility to the broader community to report issues to relevant authorities where the issue may be considered criminal activity.

A Dedicated Safeguarding Team

Oxfam Australia has a nine-strong Safeguarding Taskforce as part of a comprehensive package of protection mechanisms. The team coordinates the various touchpoints in the organisation with responsibilities for creating safe, diverse and inclusive workplaces and programming environments and ensures an approach of continuous improvement in our safeguarding work.

A Range of Strengthening Measures

Since the recent revelations of intolerable behaviour and sexual misconduct by Oxfam staff in Haiti in 2011, the organisation has been working hard to outline the measures taken over the last decade to strengthen our approach to preventing, uncovering and responding to such misconduct as well as outlining the way in which we feel we must do better to uncover and report breeches of our standards. Understandably, our supporters are asking us how this will happen and how Oxfam will work to rebuild the trust people have in us to be beyond reproach in our ethics and standards. We are currently undertaking a range of actions that have been agreed by Oxfam’s leadership, to ensure an urgent, comprehensive and accountable response across the Oxfam confederation.

Our objective is to bring about the necessary changes to our policy, practice and culture to stamp out exploitation, abuse and harassment in all parts of our confederation, protecting those we work with and ensuring justice for survivors of abuse. We are also calling on anyone who experienced, or knows of, abuse involving Oxfam staff to come forward using our confidential hotline.

Our action plan includes:

• The creation of an independent commission led by women’s rights and human rights experts who will conduct a review of Oxfam’s practices, operations and culture, including an audit of the handling of past cases.
• Oxfam has put in place stronger vetting and reference checks – we have a global database of accredited referees. We never give references for people who are known perpetrators of intolerable behaviour.
• We have doubled the number of staff working on safeguarding and tripling the budget for this work.
• Globally, as at mid-July 2018, Oxfam has trained 119 staff as new safeguarding investigators since the February launch of the Ten-Point Action Plan.
• Ten other international NGOs and partner organisations joined Oxfam-organised training courses for new investigators in six cities around the world.
• We have revamped our whistle-blowing hot-line in five languages and are proactively encouraging all staff to access it in confidence.
• We’ve engaged the global institutional donor community to better understand their expectations of disclosure of safeguarding cases.
• In Australia we’re working through the ACFID Independent Review into the Prevention of Sexual Misconduct.
• Globally, – Oxfam also has been working with the rest of the sector to overcome the barriers that have so far prevented the sharing of intelligence among NGOs and other organisations about people who have been found guilty of sexual misconduct.

Read more about our action plan.

These measures help Oxfam better protect people from abuse, sexual harassment and exploitation, and prevent it from happening in the first place. We know we cannot be complacent and know we need to continually improve our processes, and are absolutely committed to this work.

This is a critical time for Oxfam and the whole sector, to take stock of our practices and processes, and to actively listen to feedback about how we can do better. We are committed to listening, learning and responding to concerns and setting out the actions we are taking to change and improve. Transformational change in society takes time and whilst it is part of Oxfam’s commitment to work for as long as it takes on the most difficult and protracted elements of tackling poverty – we know that internal change must be rapid and uncompromising to ensure we can live up to the expectations we have of ourselves and certainly that the community in general has that Oxfam ensures zero tolerance of behaviour which causes harm. If you’d like to get in touch, please do, by email or phone – 1800 088 110.