The last few months have been a season of myth-busting around NGOs like Oxfam and Save the Children—myths like ‘bad things don’t happen in organizations with good intentions,’ and ‘charities have better management than other types of organization because their staff are so committed.’
Myth-busting is inherently painful, particularly if you believe that your own myths are true. The chair of Save the Children International has resigned and the agency is currently the subject of a formal inquiry by the Charity Commission. At Oxfam GB over 100 jobs have been lost, donations are down and program cuts are inevitable according to a leaked internal document, while the Haitian government has withdrawn Oxfam-GB’s “right to operate” “for serious violation of the principle of the dignity of human beings”—the very principle on which Oxfam was founded 75 years ago.
It’s difficult to imagine a deeper wound than this, but myth-busting can also be liberating if it creates more opportunities for reflection and transformation: only when myths are revealed as myths can there be a clear-eyed conversation about the best ways forward.
That’s what I hope will happen with international charities. In fact it’s already happening as these agencies rush to improve their protection systems and educate their staff about bullying, sexual harassment and the need to nurture a culture of honesty and respect both inside the organization and outside. The question is, could it also happen with other, larger myths that I think are holding the sector back?
I see these other myths as a set of inter-locking ‘Russian dolls’ each emerging from the next. The first contains a set of once-popular assumptions about the supposed strength of NGO management systems, governance, accountability and communications, all of which have been tested and (to some extent) found wanting in the current crisis over the handling of alleged sexual harassment and abuse.
Oxfam GB’s communications about events in Haiti initially struggled to keep up with a fast-paced story, culminating in a sleep-deprived interview with the Guardian in which chief executive Mark Goldring appeared to minimize the seriousness of what had happened—“what did we do?” he said, “We murdered babies in their cots?” PR Week, the flagship publication of the public relations industry, called this response “a paragon of PR cack-handedness” and featured the charity as it’s “flop of the month—the Oxfam guide to crisis mismanagement.” To be fair, however, Oxfam has since responded pretty well, and Goldring (who was not in charge when events in Haiti unfolded) has announced his intention to step down from his position at the end of 2018.
In Save the Children’s case, information about the handling of sexual harassment allegations has emerged in dribs and drabs rather than being released in total and up front. It was only after the BBC revealed the details of a leaked internal report on the handling of these allegations that SCF-UK shared it with the public, “ to ensure there is a full picture of the situation at the time and the actions taken since” as a press statement issued by the charity on March 7 2018 put it.
After Save the Children International’s chairman, Sir Alan Parker, gave oral evidence to the Parliamentary Committee on International Development’s Inquiry on Sexual Harassment and Abuse in the Aid Sector on May 22, he still wrote a supplementary letter to MPs to provide more details on exactly what had happened in answer to their questions. That’s the problem with this kind of drip-feed information strategy: even when you’re innocent it can make you look guilty.
Lurking in the background is another, deeper myth that could be seen to act as a rationale for missteps like these: that the ‘ends justify the means.’
In the case of both Oxfam GB and SCF-UK, some information in the agencies’ own internal reports was not made public at the time of the investigations in order to protect the reputation of the organizations, their funding, and their ability to carry out their work—a justifiable decision but one that was to backfire badly. Oxfam only released its 2011 report on Haiti on February 19 2018, eight years after the events in question and ten days after the Times published an expose of these events.
As an Oxfam press release put it at the time, “We are making this exceptional publication because we want to be as transparent as possible about the decisions we made during this particular investigation and in recognition of the breach of trust that has been caused,” a sentiment echoed by Goldring in his interview with the Guardian: “I believe it was done in good faith to try to balance being transparent and protecting Oxfam’s work,” he said. But the fact that Oxfam had not told the full truth about what had happened stoked up the negative press coverage and produced a furor that created exactly the damage that Oxfam wanted to avoid.
At Save the Children-UK, a confidential, internal report from 2015 into the handling of allegations of sexual harassment against two senior staff members concluded that “There existed a management culture that did not sufficiently adhere to established and published policies and procedures” as an SCF-UK press statement from March 2018 put it. Exactly why the agency fell short in this respect is a matter of conjecture, but a number of insiders including Jonathan Glennie (who was SCF-UK’s Policy Director at the time the allegations were made) have speculated that the agency had developed a culture of “macho behavior,” as Glennie describes it, that successfully drove the agency’s growth and influence but may unwittingly have eroded its commitment to care for some of its staff. For its part SCF-UK insists that it “has always sought to protect all employees from inappropriate comments and behavior,” as a press release put it on February 20.
One of the men involved in these allegations—Brendan Cox—“was suspended and a disciplinary process commenced. The panel included independent trustees and a QC, and the process was administered by a London law firm. Mr Cox resigned before it could be completed” as another SCF-UK press release put it on February 18. Cox signed off with an email to colleagues that was later shared with the humanitarian website IRIN News: “apologies to all of you for any times I’ve been unreasonable, overbearing or relentless,” it read, “it was always with the best of intentions.”
‘We may have messed things up or got things wrong,’ seems to be the message, ‘but if we did it was only to protect the organization and advance its work.’ Again, Cox seemed to be deploying an ‘end justifies the means’ argument. Yet Save the Children’s founder Eglantyne Jebb reached the opposite conclusion as far back as the 1920s: “so long as we are piling up injustices with our left hand,” she wrote, “we cannot establish justice with our right.”
In cases like these the means-end myth may be rooted in noble intentions, but it is risky, and can eventually lead to a full-blown scandal. As Glennie put it in one of two articles for Transformation, “the how matters just as much as the what” in determining any charity’s actions and activities. And the only way to avoid the kind of damage suffered by both SCF-UK and Oxfam GB is to do the right things in the right ways in the first place—to be ethical in both ends and means with no exceptions.
What is it that gets in the way of implementing this level of ethical integration? I’d suggest the third of my ‘Russian dolls’—the myth of indispensability that can turn international NGOs into hamsters on a wheel of endless growth and competition, constantly tempting them to prioritize their own organizational self-interests.
Without us, says this myth, millions of people will die, or never go to school or be able to grow their own food, so please give us your money since that’s what will make the difference. It’s not surprising that this myth lies at the heart of charity fundraising, but it’s also the ultimate insulation against pressures to reform, since none of us wants to be responsible for the unnecessary death or suffering of another human being. The problem is, in most cases it isn’t true.
In contrast to the images of passivity and dependence that are retailed by much charity advertising, most people don’t need an industry of outside intermediaries to ‘help’ them realize their dreams—they just need to be to be trusted, listened to and supported to take charge of their own destinies in ways that place their agency at the center of the action, surrounded by the contacts and resources they need to make things happen both individually and collectively.
Of course, everyone needs some help to do this properly. In emergencies they might need more than usual and in war zones even more—when people are starving they need food and water, not political correctness—and there are circumstances in which non-local groups can be especially effective because they can offer more connections and protection.
But as a general principle it’s hard to argue that bureaucracies funded and governed from thousands of miles away are better-placed to provide support than local institutions embedded in their own communities and subject to indigenous pressures to improve over time. And if Oxfam and Save the Children haven’t been supporting those institutions to grow and develop over the last 75 years then what have they been doing? This is different from launching local franchises of global brands which is already common practice.
As I’ve said many times before, there are lots of valuable roles to play for international NGOs in this scenario which are actually healthier and more effective in promoting their long term goals. The problem is that they won’t bring in the money required to maintain these agencies in their current size and shape. That’s the nettle that eventually has to be grasped, but once it is there will be less pressure to surrender to the means/ends myth, the ethical confusion it can create, and the management failings that may result.
In other areas of life like our families, communities and social movements this wouldn’t be a problem, since the imperative to step aside is obvious: at some point, those who are older, or who have more power and opportunity, must move into the background so that others can develop independently and flourish, with all the risks and excitements this entails. “The golden rule is to help those we love to escape from us” as the Austrian theologian Friedrich von Hügel once wrote to his niece.
But at the moment, asking organisations like Oxfam and Save the Children to envisage a world outside the foreign aid industry is like asking a fish to imagine a world without the water in which it swims: to 95 per cent of charity CEOs and board members it’s simply inconceivable. Nevertheless, planning for such a future is the first step towards the transformations required for NGOs to flourish in world without the asymmetries and contradictions that bedevil the current system—and which lie buried deep in the heart of that nest of Russian dolls.