So far, the #MeToo movement has encompassed so many worlds—sports, police, military, political, Hollywood, religious, theatre, opera, university, symphony, art, popular music, business, technology, media and publishing.
And now it has also come to my world, the international relief and development sector.
The story broke last month. It involved sexual misconduct by Oxfam UK staff in Haiti seven years ago.
In response, Oxfam UK issued profound apologies, and a senior executive resigned. The organization promised the government, its supporters and others that it will do better in the future.
That wasn’t enough for about 7,000 people in that country, however, who cancelled their regular donations.
Two of the organization’s ambassadors, Minnie Driver and South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu, also quit.
Tutu’s resignation was seen as some as a bit rich, given his church’s record when it comes to sexual abuse.
And his timing was bad; about the same time the Oxfam scandal was breaking, it was revealed the Church of England is facing over 3,000 sexual abuse claims against clergy and others in its parishes.
The Oxfam scandal also produced calls in Great Britain for the government to reduce the level of money it devotes to foreign aid. It currently gives 0.7% of gross national income, making it one of the most generous countries in the world.
Prime Minister Teresa May refused. She told the British House of Commons that although the development sector needs to get its house in order, it’s “absolutely crucial that we continue our support through aid for those who are most vulnerable.”
She added, “they [people in the developing world] also deserve to be treated by the same high standards that we would expect to be treated ourselves.”
Which is exactly how those of us who work in the relief and development sector in Canada also feel.
For us, the scandal is absolutely heartbreaking.
Working with some of the world’s poorest and most vulnerable citizens, our sector is supposed to be better than that—much better.
We owe it to the people we serve, and to our donors, to operate by the highest ethical and moral standards.
And we do. That doesn’t mean we can rest easy, though. The scandal prompted many aid organizations in Canada to reexamine their policies around misconduct and abuse.
Are they sufficient? Should they be strengthened? And how do we make sure they are communicated throughout our entire organizations, and to our partners on the ground?
There are at least two reasons why we want to make sure these policies are strong, and scrupulously adhered to.
First, to protect the people we serve from any and all harm. Second, to preserve the trust donors place in us to do the right thing with the money they give us, and for the people we serve on their behalf.
That trust is one of our most valuable possessions. It is also a frangible thing. We work hard to earn reputations for efficiency, effectiveness, transparency and ethical conduct.
But it can be lost quickly through poor or bad decisions on the part of staff or management.
And once lost, it is very hard to get back.
That’s the case in Great Britain, where a recent poll found declining support for charitable giving in that country in the wake of the scandal.
More than a third of those polled said they were less likely to donate to aid groups because of what happened at Oxfam.
I don’t expect the same thing to happen in Canada.
So far, nobody has called my organization to cancel their giving. And the Canadian government has reiterated its support for Oxfam Canada and Quebec, and the wider aid sector.
As bad as it hurts, the scandal will be a significant turning point for all aid groups, including Oxfam.
In an op-ed in the Toronto Star, Oxfam Canada Executive Director Julie Delahanty wrote that this “is not the time for Oxfam to run or hide from these awful stories or make excuses.”
Instead, she stated, “it is the time to wholeheartedly commit to putting in place the people, policies and systems to ensure such events never happen again.”
What happened in Haiti in 2011 was deplorable. What happens next will set the bar even higher for the entire aid sector.
From the March 3, 2018 Winnipeg Free Press.