London, 14 February 2018 – ICSA: The Governance Institute has today issued the following statement on the recent publicity surrounding Oxfam:
It is always disappointing when an organisation for whose work we have all had so much respect finds itself at the centre of such appalling revelations.
But it is important to remember that the behaviour of a small minority of employees, at whatever level, does not obviate the value of the work that the charity has done, and continues to do, for so many of the least fortunate in our world.
The actions of a few individuals cannot, and should not, be allowed to impact the good work of the charity.
One of the challenges for a charity is always that of balancing the need to have a governance infrastructure in place against the desire to fulfil its purpose. These are often seen as conflicting priorities, as every penny spent on management, administration or infrastructure is a penny that is not being spent on relief, and the latter is the reason why donations are made. But safeguards are necessary in order for a charity to fulfil that purpose.
In the case of Oxfam, it is being alleged that some people knew that something was wrong, that allegations of wrongdoing had been made, but that they were not prioritised or properly followed through. Reports were made to the Charity Commission, but not in sufficient detail to allow a proper assessment of the issues to be made. This strikes, unfortunately, of an all too human attempt to cover up failure. We shall no doubt see.
Oxfam should not be made a scapegoat. If recent press revelations have taught us anything, it is that the misuse of power, particularly in a sexual context, is much more prevalent than we would wish in many parts of our society. Oxfam are not alone. Lord Acton wrote that “power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” There will always be individuals who, when in a position of power, will seek personal advantage.
The question is how easy it is made for them to do so, which becomes a question of culture. Clear standards of personal behaviour have to be laid down, e.g. indulging in intimate relations with persons whom one is on location to help is an abuse of power. Safeguarding is an important facet of good governance in any organisation. However, where an individual is committed to acting inappropriately or illegally, they will. The best policies and processes are ineffective if the organisational culture is not right. And it is so easy, with the wrong kind of culture, to fall victim to the temptation to ignore an issue, to sweep it under the carpet, or to hope that it will all go away.
But people must be encouraged to speak out. Organisations should share their failings and lessons learned if the sector is to get better at tackling such behaviour.
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Notes to Editors: