An update from our CEO on progress against Oxfam’s safeguarding action plan

By Abby Maxman
Photo: Blue Blazer Photos

Oxfam America CEO Abby Maxman reports on our work to strengthen our culture, policies, and practices regarding sexual abuse and misconduct cases.

It is extremely important for me to ensure that you remain regularly updated on Oxfam’s progress in strengthening our global confederation’s organizational culture, policies, and practices regarding the handling of sexual abuse and misconduct cases.

You may remember that just over a year ago, following reports of sexual misconduct by Oxfam Great Britain staff in Haiti in 2011 and Chad in 2006, Oxfam established an independent commission to review Oxfam’s existing policies and practices, propose ways we can strengthen our working culture to prevent abuses of power, and make recommendations on sector-wide change. This was in addition to rolling out a multi-pronged plan to put substantially more resources into safeguarding and to strengthen and institutionalize a values-driven culture within Oxfam.

Today we received the final report from the Independent Commission, led by Zainab Bangura, former United Nations under-secretary general, and Katherine Sierra, former World Bank vice-president.

We welcome the report’s findings and thank the Commission for many months of hard work. In short, it was the report we asked for, with hard truths and recommendations that build on the change that is already underway and push us even further to become the Oxfam we need to be.

Since last February, Oxfam has taken the following steps:

  • We have revised our code of conduct, which has been rolled out across the confederation, including through facilitated discussions with staff to ensure they truly understand what the code of conduct means in practice.
  • We have implemented mandatory staff training in gender justice, sexual harassment, prevention of sexual exploitation and abuse, and child protection.
  • Oxfam America has hired a full-time Senior Advisor for Safeguarding to support both Oxfam and the sector as a whole. We elevated the role of and hired a VP of People, Culture and Global HR, who, along with senior leadership, is responsible for the development of a workplace culture and practice that reinforces Oxfam’s values of inclusiveness, empowerment, and accountability.
  • Oxfam America has embarked on a Gender Action Learning journey as part of a suite of efforts to become a more gender just organization. In this initiative, a critical mass of 35 staff from across the agency, including senior leadership, identify steps and work toward integrating gender justice into Oxfam America’s identity and ways of working, both internally and externally.
  • Globally, we are committed to strengthening further our response mechanisms and procedures so that we can safely respond to any safeguarding concerns from the public or from our staff and ensure safe programming for the people we serve. We’ve trained staff in safeguarding investigation and have strengthened our whistle-blowing systems—which Oxfam America has had in place since 2010—to ensure there are reporting lines in five languages to serve Oxfam staff, partners, and beneficiaries around the world.
  • We’ve stepped up our efforts to strengthen the enabling environment for our staff, our partners, and those we serve to use these resources to raise complaints and concerns, and are implementing trainings on case management that put the best interests and safety of the survivor first.
  • We developed an Oxfam-wide database to register and report on all cases so the entire confederation can be coordinated and the data can be reported twice per year.
  • We have tightened our reference checking systems, with appointed staff to formally authorize references in an effort to prevent forged, dishonest, or unreliable references.
  • Oxfam America is also taking a leadership and technical advisory role to support safeguarding throughout the sector, contributing senior leadership and technical experts to support others in the NGO sector to strengthen their own approaches to safeguarding.

In the months ahead, in addition to deepening our commitment to priorities already underway, we also will:

  • Launch a Global Integrity Fund to invest in strengthening the safeguarding capacities of local civil society organizations.
  • Increase investment in several new global, senior level positions dedicated to two separate, but interconnected areas: a Culture Lead to oversee cultural change across the confederation and a Chief Ethics Officer to oversee values and ethical standards
  • Boost safeguarding capacity and resources in the most fragile and challenging environments in which Oxfam operates.

These represent important steps in our journey. We are redoubling our efforts to model behaviors consistent with our values in all that we do, and to being an organization that is known for transparency, one that learns from our mistakes, reflects on the culture that allowed them to happen, and continuously seeks ways to strengthen our systems to support those we serve.

Earlier today, Oxfam Great Britain took another step forward, with the conclusion of the UK Charity Commission investigation into serious sexual misconduct by members of Oxfam Great Britain staff in Haiti in 2011. Oxfam Great Britain apologized for its failings, including in investigation and case management at the time, and along with the rest of the Oxfam confederation vows to learn from past mistakes. (link)

There is more to be done, and we won’t let up on this journey. But today, I also want to recognize that we are a different organization than we were a year ago, and in another year, we’ll be a different one than we are today. Still deeply rooted in our mission to end the injustice of poverty, but with even more clarity and humility about the path we must take to achieve that goal. This is the beauty of embracing change and not fighting it. Thank you again for joining us on this journey.

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