Untold damage has been done to the reputation of the aid industry over the past week, with Oxfam struggling to weather the storm over allegations its staff working in Haiti and other countries paid vulnerable people for sex.
The fallout from the scandal, which has already prompted the resignation of one of the charity’s most senior executives, has also started to take its toll on the sector’s finances. Last weekend alone, more than 1,000 people cancelled their direct debits to Oxfam.
Since the claims emerged, former and current aid workers have come forward to claim that similar behaviour is widespread across the aid industry, describing such exploitation as a “systemic problem”. The Oxfam affair, they say, should be the sector’s “#MeToo moment”.
Imogen Wall, who previously worked for the UN, claimed that inappropriate sexual behaviour among aid workers happens “over and over” on “every mission” and in “every agency”.
She said a failure to respond properly to whistleblowers meant staff were afraid to speak out or saw complaints brushed under the carpet. At the same time, a culture of short-term contracts gave little incentive for charities to launch investigations into perpetrators who were free to work elsewhere.
The gathering storm has prompted demands for change, with Save the Children CEO Kevin Watkins listing a series of proposals for reform of the industry on the charity’s website.
Among these are the introduction of “mandatory humanitarian passports” to ensure that workers can only travel to a conflict or disaster area if they carry the necessary accreditations, as well as placing a legal obligation on charities to report any staff dismissals.
For Richard Dowden, the director of the Royal African Society, who has been travelling to the continent for decades, part of the problem is that the aid industry has become too bloated.
“Aid workers 30 years ago lived pretty poorly,” he said. “A lot of them didn’t have a car, they would just go to a place and work. Now, they’ve all got 4x4s and have away-days at hotels. You see rows and rows of cars with names like ‘Oxfam’ and ‘Christian Aid’ on.”
Dowden said he knows of one UN aid worker living in Mozambique who enjoys a lifestyle they “couldn’t possibly have” back in the UK. “Two cars, servants, and earning £200,000 a year tax-free – as an aid worker.”
Arguing for a back-to-basics approach, he said aid agencies such as Oxfam could be invaluable in the weeks after a crisis such as a natural disaster, but should leave people to manage their own development projects rather than staying for the long term. “There is some expertise that can be brought in, but they have to hand over as soon as they can,” he said. “They should be working for their own abolition.”
The Oxfam scandal has led to suggestions the government should drop its long-standing commitment to meeting the UN’s target of putting 0.7 per cent of annual national income towards foreign aid. Sir Stephen Bubb was chief executive of the Association of Chief Executives of Voluntary Organisations (Acevo), which represents charity leaders, for more than 15 years. He said the Oxfam scandal was the latest in a line of controversies which had shaken confidence in the sector, highlighting the collapse of Kids Company in 2015 and rows over pay.
But he warned a sudden rush to cut charities’ funding in the wake of the problems would almost certainly backfire.
“Paradoxically, many of the people who will be attacking Oxfam and other charities are probably exactly the same people who say charities spend too much on administration and every penny should go to the front line. This demonstrates the folly of that approach,”
He added that many charities around the country – not just those in international aid – had “probably not” put in place the staff safeguarding and whistleblowing policies that were needed to prevent such behaviour. Sir Stephen also raised concerns about the state of the Charity Commission, the body responsible for policing around 160,000 charities, which has had its budget roughly halved in real terms since 2008 and now frozen until 2020.
Jane Salmonson, chief executive of Scotland’s International Development Alliance, said charities were already responding to the Oxfam scandal by examining the possibility of an international system for staff references, making it easier to vet overseas workers.
“What I would like to be able to do is go back to the giving public and say, ‘The work that goes on in these settings overseas is 99.9 per cent brilliant and you should be proud of us’,” she said. “A bit further down the line, when we can actually show the concrete steps that have been taken... then that is the moment to go out to the public and say, ‘We haven’t just talked about it, we’ve done it’.”
Until then, the life of the average charity street fund-raiser is likely to be a little harder.