At the Trialogue Business in Society Conference 2019, Oxfam South Africa’s (OZA) Louisa Zondo addressed how the organisation has dealt with the sexual atrocities that their British affiliate, Oxfam Great Britain (OGB), was involved in in Haiti at the wake of the earthquake that ravaged that country in 2010. OZA’s vision as described by Zondo is “one where people are self-organising, creating a just, democratic and sustainable world, where power and resources are shared, everyone lives in dignity and inequality and poverty are no more.”
“What then happens when an organisation with such a noble vision of the world, and which amasses huge amounts of resources from across the globe to carry this vision out, falls into crisis?,” she asked, speaking specifically to the theme of managing risks and reputation in development. Zondo said that organisations that are set up to rescue the most vulnerable often operate with a level of impunity in situations where those they serve are willing to exchange their dignity for scraps of provisions and are dealing with devastation. While the Haitian situation was referred to as acts of prostitution and child prostitution, Zondo believes that “this characterisation misses the context of gross betrayal of trust, abuse of power and influence which is exercised with great impunity.”
In response to the scandal, OGB at the time conducted disciplinary hearings and re-evaluated its safeguarding policies. However, in 2017 the accusations resurfaced and the organisation along with its global affiliates experienced a deep crisis when the reports were published. The reports also revealed violations in other countries; Chad being one of them and under the same Oxfam country director involved in Haiti. There were also whispers about the internal culture in the organisation regarding sexual misconduct coming to the surface. “So bad was the crisis that about seven donors to OGB withdrew their support. The organisation was facing a £34 million withdrawal of funding, Oxfam was experiencing [operational] cuts of £16 million to reduce their expenses,” explained Zondo.
A transformational journey to address power dynamics
The organisation did not hide behind a PR campaign, according to Zondo. “This time there was no pretending that the good done in the world should be seen ahead of the true colours of the crisis the organisation was causing in people’s lives. In response, a system-wide transformational journey began,” said Zondo. Oxfam aimed to create a safeguarding culture and architecture that went beyond dealing with sexual misconduct and harassment, but one that responded with standards for prevention and response, which went “to the depth of understanding and addressing the skewed power dynamics that cause these pathologies.” Zondo emphasised that OZA applied a feminist lens to lead the global wide transformational effort.
The outcomes and lessons of the journey, according to Zondo, were tiered. There was a shift and realisation that self-examination was the starting point. An independent commission was appointed to examine sexual misconduct, accountability and a change in culture. The commission’s mission was to investigate the extent to which the problem was pervasive and to recommend processes of change. The crisis was a development sector wide wake-up call. “It served as a catalyst for our own transformation, and that of the sector, because everyone knows that these things are not once-off, sporadic incidents that happens to a poor Oxfam – they are systemic and widespread,” said Zondo.
“Oxfam is now on a journey to be an organisation with a soul. Aspects of this include targeted safeguarding for all staff in all countries where Oxfam is involved in running programmes. The appointment of additional gender advisors and human resources, humanitarian aid workers and a training programme for all staff are also features. Lastly, there are guidance and support for safer recruitment processes. This is to ensure that Oxfam values are lived out through the entire recruitment process.” added Zondo.
Partnership model strengthens safeguarding processes
The organisation has embraced a partnership model and an assessment tool which supports partners to assess and improve their own safeguarding processes and practices. Policies and practices were strengthened to include standard operating procedures for reporting misconduct internally and to law enforcement and donors. Procedures were also put in place to prevent sexual exploitation and to firm up child protection.
“Oxfam South Africa does not only look at the volatility and ambiguity but recognises that there is a collective hostility in the world, which is primarily towards women and children,” underscored Zondo. This recognition was why the organisation chose a feminist lens to view the crisis, as well as to consider the untransformed systems, including economic injustice, in which it manages to thrive in South Africa and the world. “As we do this work, we realise that systems, policies and mechanisms are not the panacea to enabling our organisations to live up to their visions. What we do need is the creation of the ethical culture and to consistently focus on the environment that supports the development of alignment to what gives effect to that vision. That cannot be done without focusing on people and taking them on an internal journey of transformation – for those coming in to do the work to come into an organisation to bring their transformed selves and be effective.” That is why, Zondo says, OZA focuses on enhancing the self-organising power of people through a collaborative process.
IMAGE: Louisa Zondo, Oxfam South Africa
Article written by Khumo Ntoane
Photo taken by Cobus Oosthuizen