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Safeguarding is not reputation management

Bill Stone looks at Oxfam's response to allegations of staff sexual misconduct and abuse...

Charity Commission, Oxfam, safeguarding
Bill Stone

Professional Social Work - 29 August 2019

Reading the recent Charity Commission report on the Oxfam scandal a question began to form itself in my mind – what do we mean by safeguarding?

The facts about the Oxfam case, in brief, are these. In July 2011 a whistleblower raised concerns about the behaviour of workers at one of the charity’s relief programmes in Haiti. An internal investigation followed which concluded a number of Oxfam staff members had been using prostitutes and could not confirm that this did not involve minors.

Oxfam’s former country director in Haiti, Roland van Hauwermeiren, was implicated in the misconduct allegations but was allowed to resign. Whereas junior staff implicated in the scandal were sacked in disgrace. The charity dealt with matters internally and managed publicity around events in Haiti to minimise Oxfam’s culpability. It failed to disclose abuse allegations.

The full story only came to light last year after the scandal was exposed by The Times newspaper. This led to a major drive by the Charity Commission  to clean things up in charities working in overseas aid and more widely.

Different interpretations

The Charity Commission report draws heavily on an Independent Safeguarding Review of Oxfam GB. Both are highly critical of Oxfam’s safeguarding practices. But I was struck by the discrepancy between my child protection oriented understanding of safeguarding and the Charity Commission’s.

For example, the commission’s strategy on the issue defines safeguarding as “the taking of reasonable steps to ensure that beneficiaries and other persons who have contact with the charity do not, as a result, come to harm”.  

This definition is vague; it is certainly much wider than Working Together guidance relating to abuse and neglect of children and the Care Act 2014 guidance on adults at risk.

The major concerns outlined in the Oxfam report are to do with the ‘culture of poor behaviour’ that had developed unchallenged. The scandal was sparked by the use of prostitutes by Oxfam. Most of the sexual misconduct alluded to in the report relate to interactions with adults including bullying and sexual harassment of junior staff. 

This behaviour is reprehensible and shouldn’t be tolerated within or outside of any organisation. But is this safeguarding?

One of Oxfam’s responses to all this is to appoint a new ‘head of ethics’. I can see the value in that because high ethical standards are important in all organisations, particularly charities. Proper governance and oversight, together with accountability and transparency towards donors is essential. But is that safeguarding, or is it just good management?  

Getting priorities right

For me, safeguarding is about protecting children and vulnerable people from abuse and neglect in the community – and there’s plenty more of that to do before getting too preoccupied with managing organisations.  

I worry child protection – to use out-of-date language – is taking second place to risk management where risk means reputational risk for large organisations with big budgets (much of it, in Oxfam’s case, directly from government departments). The irony is that Oxfam, in playing down the crisis and using its communications team to spin its activities in the most positive light (as someone said to me “I’m in comms, that’s my job, reputational management”), simply attracted yet more criticism for ‘covering up abuses’.

It seems to me that, over the past few years, there has been a significant shift in our understanding of safeguarding.  

While sound arguments can be put forward for extending the remit of safeguarding, my worry – particularly within the context of austerity – is that resources are spread so thinly that children and vulnerable people lose out. In constantly trying to do more, we may end up doing less. 

 We need to relentlessly focus on the most serious risks to which children and vulnerable people are exposed. Governance arrangements and policies and procedures are necessary and important for organisations providing services to the public. But the frontline protection of vulnerable people within their communities is where we should be directing our attention.

This article is published by Professional Social work magazine which provides a platform for a range of perspectives across the social work sector. It does not necessarily reflect the views of the British Association of Social Workers.