An update on Oxfam’s safeguarding journey

By Abby Maxman
Photo: Blue Blazer Photos

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

This past year, I’ve kept you informed of the progress the Oxfam confederation has made in strengthening our organizational culture, policies, and practices regarding the handling of sexual abuse and misconduct cases. This followed reports, in February, of sexual misconduct by Oxfam Great Britain staff in Haiti in 2011 and Chad in 2006.

The actions of those staff members violated our values and the trust placed in us by the communities we serve. We have committed to learning from our mistakes, reflecting on the culture that allowed them to happen, and putting stronger systems in place.

As part of that reflection on our culture, in March, the Oxfam confederation established an international 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. The initial findings of that commission were published today in their Interim Report.

The Oxfam confederation welcomes the Independent Commission’s perspective and preliminary recommendations, and agrees that in prioritizing what we deliver for the world's poorest people, more attention needs to be paid to how we do it. This report is an incredibly important part of our improvement process—taking a hard look at how we operate as a global organization of more than 10,000 staff to determine where standards haven’t been high enough and where our culture must change. 

It’s important to remember that the Independent Commission Interim Report is not the start of a process, but rather is an integral step in our strategy for change. We asked the IC for feedback on our weaknesses and to hold us to the highest standards. The Interim Report is instrumental to making changes to ensure that our workplace is safe for all and that our culture is empowering.

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 also brought on board a full-time Senior Advisor for Safeguarding 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. This initiative involves a critical mass of 35 staff from across the agency, including senior leadership, who will identify steps and work towards integrating gender justice into Oxfam America’s identity and ways of working, both internally and externally.
  • Globally, we are committed to strengthening our response mechanisms and procedures so that we can safely respond to any safeguarding concerns from the public or from our staff. We’ve trained safeguarding investigators 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 around the world.
  • We’ve also stepped up our commitment to encourage staff, our partners and those we serve to use these resources to raise complaints and concerns, and are training management on how to manage cases while putting 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 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. For example:

  • Oxfam America is a proud member of the Interaction alliance of NGO’s in the US and in October, we facilitated a session on survivor-centered approaches to safeguarding for CEO’s and senior leaders of over 30 NGO’s as part of InterAction’s NGO Leadership Retreat on Protection from Sexual Exploitation and Abuse.
  • Oxfam America, in partnership with the Rockefeller Foundation, organized a workshop in New York City for foundations, philanthropy organizations, NGO’s, UN agencies, and academics to discuss how to integrate safeguarding into monitoring and evaluation. The resulting report covered data protection and privacy, a closer examination of the types of evaluation that should be conducted to protect and safeguard the interests of vulnerable people, and recommendations for building the capacity, knowledge and expertise of teams.

There is more to be done. There always will be. But as someone who has been championing the prevention of sexual abuse and exploitation throughout my 25 plus year career as a humanitarian, I’m so pleased to see the steps that have been taken so far and looking forward to what lies ahead for Oxfam.

This has been a formative year for awareness and action to combat sexual misconduct and abuse in many industries around the world. And cultural change takes time, but I’m incredibly proud of Oxfam’s willingness to take a hard look at ourselves and our sector and to take the necessary steps to create the lasting change our beneficiaries, supporters and staff deserve. Thank you for joining us along this journey. 

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