The ‘boys in shorts’ era in the aid sector has come to an end

by oxfamcanada | February 22, 2018

First published in the Toronto Star, February 20, 2018.

When I joined Oxfam Canada as its executive director in 2014, it felt like I had landed the greatest job in the country – the chance to put the rights of women and girls at the heart of humanitarian and development work around the world.

So, naturally, news that a small group of male Oxfam Great Britain staff working in Haiti as part of the 2010 earthquake response were involved in sexual exploitation and abuse hit me like a thunderbolt.

As members of the global Oxfam confederation, my organization acknowledges our shortcomings and recognizes our own failings. I know that the deep sense of sadness, anger and betrayal that my staff and I feel is shared by our volunteers, donors and supporters. It is clear that we did not do enough to protect the people we were in Haiti to help.

Now is not the time for Oxfam to run or hide from these awful stories or make excuses. It is the time to wholeheartedly commit to putting in place the people, policies and systems to ensure such events never happen again.

“It is the time to wholeheartedly commit to putting in place the people, policies and systems to ensure such events never happen again.” – Julie Delahanty

With strong policies and oversight, a dedicated safeguarding team and a confidential whistle-blowing line, Oxfam already has strong systems to protect people from abuse in humanitarian crises.

But we need to go further. As a committed feminist and fierce advocate of gender equality and human rights, I have been doing everything I can to encourage the global organization to be both reflective and bold in our action.

Oxfam has announced a comprehensive action plan to stamp out abuse and drive fundamental transformation in our organization. We will launch an independent High-Level Commission on Sexual Misconduct, Accountability and Culture Change, led by leading women’s rights experts. The commission will have the power to access records and interview staff, partners and community members, as well as guide Oxfam’s transformation.

We will double the number of people working in safeguarding over the coming weeks, and triple their budget.

To ensure that no one involved in sexual or other misconduct can move freely from Oxfam to another aid organization, we are launching a global database of staff accredited to provide references.

Finally, we commit to make the internal investigation into the Haiti case public as soon as possible.

Here in Canada, I am working with the government and other aid organizations to ensure the sector has the proper tools and policies in place to protect the people we are meant to serve.

The era of “boys in shorts” descending upon devastated communities has to come to an end. We must build local capacity and develop healthier and more inclusive ways of responding to humanitarian crises and doing our long-term development work.

Oxfam celebrates the success of the #MeToo movement in opening up the public square to the calling out of sexual harassment and misconduct. Private corporations, political parties, media agencies and government departments have all been called to account for their inadequate efforts to ensure the safety and security of women in their ranks and programs. At Oxfam, as champions of social justice, we must hold ourselves to an even higher standard.

For ourselves, Oxfam will need to do some soul-searching over the uncomfortable truth that as a big, global organization we are often the ones with power. In such circumstances, the truth to be spoken will come to us, not from us.

Yes, bad things can and do happen to good organizations. But there is a clear path ahead and it passes through Rohingya refugee camps, war-torn communities in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and South Asian villages where Oxfam partners are helping women claim their rights.

Oxfam is committed to walk that path, determined to rebuild the trust of our supporters, our partners and the people we work with, never losing sight of our mission to end global poverty by supporting women’s rights.

Julie Delahanty is the Executive Director of Oxfam Canada.

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