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Archive for the ‘values’ Category

If you work in the aid and development sector, you’ll have done some soul searching and had a few difficult conversations with friends, donors, and colleagues* about ‘the Oxfam scandal’ this past week. Much has been written about the topic already. Here’s a (growing) compilation of 60+ posts (of varying degrees of quality).

Many in the sector are now scrambling to distance themselves from Oxfam. They want to send a message, rid themselves of stain-by-association, and avoid the fallout. Some seem to want to punish Oxfam for bringing shame upon the aid industry.

These responses, however, compound an existing problem in the sector — a focus on short-term fixes rather than long-term solutions. Actions and statements that treat Oxfam as the problem overlook the fact that it is one part of a broken system in desperate need of fixing.

I’ve worked in the sector for a long time. We all have stories about gender discrimination; sexual harassment, abuse and exploitation; racial discrimination; mistreatment; and mismanagement. We all know ‘that guy’ who got promoted, showed up at a partner or donor organization, or was put out to pasture after a massive screwup, abuse, or generally poor performance that remained an open secret.

The issues go wide and deep, and we talk about them a lot — publicly and privately. Yet the sector never seems able or willing to address them at the core. Instead, we watch the manifestations of these core issues being hushed up — and sometimes we are brave enough to report things. Why do we stay on? Because despite all the warts and all our frustrations with our organizations and our donors, we know that there are parts of this work that really matter.

The UK Charity Commission has launched an investigation into the Oxfam situation. Oxfam itself says it will set up an independent commission to review its practices and culture. It will also create “a global database of accredited referees to end the use of forged, dishonest or unreliable references by past or current Oxfam staff” and invest resources in its safeguarding processes.

These are a good steps for Oxfam. But much more is needed to address the underlying issues across the sector. One systemic fix, for example, might be a global database that is open to all agencies who are hiring, rather than limiting it to Oxfam.

But what next?

We’ll have another big scandal within a day or two, and social media will target its opinions and outrage at something new. In addition to breathing a sigh of relief, leadership across organizations and funders should grapple seriously with the question of how to overhaul the entire sector. We need profound changes that force the industry to live its professed values.

This does not mean dumping more responsibilities on safeguarding, protection, gender, participation, and human resources teams without the corresponding resources and seniority. Staff working in these areas are usually women, and they often do their jobs with little glory or fanfare. This is part of the problem. Rather than handing over clean-up to the ‘feminine’ sectors and walking away, leadership should be placing these thematic areas and functions at the heart of organizations where they have some power. And donors should be funding this in meaningful ways.

Virtually every institution in the US is going through a systematic revealing of its deepest and most entrenched issues of racism, classism, and sexism. It’s no secret that the aid and development sectors were built on colonialism. Will the ‘Oxfam scandal’ push us to finally do something to unravel and deal with that at the global level?

Can we get serious and do the deep work required to address our own institutional racism and gender discrimination and unacceptable power dynamics? Will we work actively to shift internal power structures that reward certain ages, genders, races, classes, and cultures? Will this include how we hire? How we promote? How we listen? How we market and fundraise? How we live our lives both in and outside of our workdays? Are we prepared to go further than the superficial?

Will we actually involve and engage the people we work with (our ‘beneficiaries’) as equals? Will we go beyond ‘feedback mechanisms’ to create the safe and trusted environments that are needed in order for someone to actually provide input, feedback, or report wrongdoing? Will we change our structures to become open and responsive to feedback? Will we follow up on feedback and make real changes in how we operate? In how funding is allocated?

Reforming the sector will require focused attention and conviction. We’ll have uncomfortable conversations about power, and then we’ll need to actually do something about those conversations. We’ll need to unpack the whole industry, including donors, and the dynamics inherent in funding and receiving funding. Addressing these issues in practice might mean that our program timelines are longer and our efforts cost more (update: this post gets at many of those logistics issues – recommended read!). It won’t be just another standardized code of conduct to sign or half-hearted yearly training. Openness and accountability will need to be rewarded, not punished and scandalized.

We will need to resist the urge to shout: #notallaidworkers! Now is not the time to tell ourselves that we are different than the rest of the sector or to run individual PR campaigns to fix our image. Rather, it’s time to open up and examine our institutions and organizations and the wider ecosystem and its incentives so that we can make real change happen.

We have an opportunity – #metoo, #blacklivesmatter, and other movements have prepared the way. Will we dig in and do the work in an honest way, or will we hold our breath and hope it all goes away so we can go back to business as usual?

 

*Thanks to the friends and colleagues who have had these conversations with me this week and the past two decades, and thanks also to those who reviewed and provided input on this post (Tom, Lina, Wayan and J.)!

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