Huge scandal regarding Oxfam’s sexual conduct has recently been the talk of the media, which has hugely damaged the image of the global charity. Katie discusses the potential consequence of these revelations on the aid sector.

Are recent allegations of sexual misconduct the beginning of the end for the aid sector?

picture from The TLS

In recent weeks the now highly published worldwide sexual misconduct scandal has infiltrated the aid sector. No longer is the public only hearing about how their government representatives, favourite film stars or powerful sports coaches have been perpetrators of some of the most violent sex crimes: our newspapers and televisions are now filled with reports of aid workers abusing their positions and exploiting the people they are supposed to be helping. The most high-profile of these accusations are those made against Oxfam, from allegations against international aid workers for hiring prostitutes to allegations of sexual harassment against both aid workers and charity shop workers. According to Oxfam GB’s chief executive Mark Goldring, in the last ten days twenty-six reports of sexual assault and harassment have been made, with sixteen of them reportedly against members of Oxfam’s international programme.

Glaring indiscretions and gross indecency by people working in the name of a well-respected and government supported charity such as Oxfam have sent shockwaves through the British public. It has resulted in many people raising the questions of whether we should ‘put our money where our mouths are’ and refrain from donating to Oxfam, or even more drastically whether this is the beginning of the end for global charities? In the last 11 days around 7,000 people have reportedly cancelled direct debits to Oxfam showing that for some members of the public the accusations against Oxfam workers and management, for their previous suppression and mishandling of allegations, have been too much for them to reconcile continuing donating to the charity. The motivations behind these 7,000 people rescinding promised money are clearly admirable and it is true that an effective way of forcing an organisation to improve their practise is by placing financial pressure on them. However, in this case, when the recipients of Oxfam’s ‘service’ are some of the most vulnerable men, women and children in the world withdrawing donations may cause more harm than good.

Whilst we must always remain aware of the terrible accusations against the charity, Oxfam is still doing some of the most commendable work of any leading aid organisation. They are currently operating four crisis appeals for the crises in Bangladesh, Syria, the Yemen and the Democratic Republic of Congo and for decades they have been working towards global empowerment of women and guaranteeing fair rights for workers. With this is mind and given that of every £1 donated to Oxfam 79p goes directly towards development and emergency work it cannot be denied that, at least in part, those who will suffer from reduced donations will be the people that Oxfam’s work aims to help.

Answering the question of whether this is a turning point for the charity sector is more difficult. There is definitely merit in the argument that for the last few years more people have been questioning the role of global charities as society has become increasingly aware of how the at times ‘white saviour’ nature of their agendas could be damaging to overall global development. This could mean that in the next few decades international charities such as Oxfam, Médecins Sans Frontières and UNICEF will become obsolete and make way for smaller, more ‘grass-roots’-based organisations. However, despite aid scepticism within certain sectors of the population, the majority of people’s opinions were not, until the last few weeks, against the mainstream charities. Following recent allegations of sexual misconduct this tide may change as people may begin to not only question the more subtle impacts of a western dominated aid sector but are now faced with the undeniable truths of, in places, a poorly controlled and morally corrupt industry.

The reality of the impact that recent allegations will have on both the power and popularity of the aid sector will only become clear as time wears on. However, the reports have undoubtedly led to a significant proportion of the country questioning their long-held faith in its integrity. If this is to be a watershed moment then the slow demise of the sector will, at least in the short term, have negative implications for the receivers of aid as millions of people’s lives and livelihoods depend on the work of international charities. In the long term this may be a revolutionary moment in which charities, and in fact all major organisations, are forced to either clean up their practise or face disintegration. No matter what the long-term consequences are, Vicky Browning, CEO of the Association of Chief Executives of Voluntary Organisations, is most certainly right in saying ‘After Oxfam, charities are no longer untouchable’.

By Katie Wharton