Fear & loathing in aid-land as Oxfam gets the President's Club treatment

Without fear or favour, Richard J. Hillgrove VI tips the tables up on world leaders, brands and countries who all often think they can hide behind the smoke and mirrors via their communications professionals. Bang On takes a full throttle, punk approach to dissecting and analysing modern PR and marketing. It's not for the faint hearted....

Aid organisations are on notice to clean up their houses after the earthquake that’s rocked Brand Oxfam.

The message that’s coming through loud and clear is that no organisation can feel they’re immune to the #MeToo backlash.

Got a few skeletons stashed in the cupboard? Better get them out and come clean. The damage to your brand will be as nothing compared to the disaster of a cover-up exposed.

Oxfam have been blasted with the same ferocity of seek and destroy that engulfed The President's Club. Once again, the issue is sexual impropriety, and International Development Secretary, Penny Mordaunt, has threatened to withdraw Government funding from Oxfam unless they divulge the full facts of the scandal.

Meanwhile, the Charity Commission has launched an inquiry into whether Oxfam disclosed details about the allegations at the time in 2011 and its handling of incidents since.

Oxfam head honchos are falling on their swords as a result of the 2011 incident that’s been described as “Caligula-style sex parties with Haiti locals”.

And now Minnie Driver is jumping from the sinking ship of 16 celebrity ambassadors while the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award are reviewing their association with Oxfam and M&S are “monitoring the situation very closely”.

There are calls for the Government to put a stop to its £32m funding to the charity, currently celebrating 70 years of a mission to “create lasting solutions to poverty, hunger and social injustice”.

It’s the fear of this financial loss that will have prevented Oxfam from being fully transparent in the first place. Luckily, not everyone holds with the notion that a few rotten apples should be allowed to spoil a barrel-load of good work.

William Hague, a former Foreign Secretary, is right to call for assurances that Oxfam won't lose its funding. The NGO has to know that the extraordinary bad behaviour of a few will not destroy the good work of the many.

Only with that financial assurance in place will Oxfam, and all the other NGOs with highly questionable practices in impoverished nations, feel free to truly come clean.

This firestorm engulfing Oxfam's reputation is following an identical pattern to other incidents we’ve witnessed recently, and the media is right up there in front, fanning the flames of hysteria.

The Daily Mail bordered on the ridiculous by asking if children volunteering in their UK charity shops are safe from sexual predators. Not helpful.

The fact is we’ve fostered a culture of fear and blame that’s made covering up poor behaviour the order of the day.

Let’s not forget that man at the centre of the scandal, Roland van Hauwermeiren, resigned as Haiti mission head in 2011 after admitting prostitutes had visited his villa there.

Should Oxfam have made more of a public song and dance about it? Maybe, but you can understand why they would have been fearful of undermining the mission and the good work they were doing there.

A guillotine must not be allowed to hang over Oxfam. The only way the NGO can move forward is if it doesn’t feel under financial threat. It can only be fully open and honest if it knows it won’t be hung out to dry.

One thing is very clear: this problem is not limited to Oxfam, as the media would have us believe.

Jean R. Pillard, the former Chargé d’Affaires for Haiti in London, now based in Boston, USA, is heading to Haiti next week to head up an independent inquiry of all NGOs operating in the island nation that is still recovering from the catastrophic earthquake of 2010.

Haiti's President, Jovenel Moise, has condemned the Oxfam incident as a serious violation of basic human decency and says he will not tolerate support from charities whose staff exploit communities.

“There is nothing more shameful than a sexual predator using the veil of catastrophe as a means to exploit the vulnerable in their most defenceless moments,” he said.

All charities working overseas are now under the spotlight to ensure they show moral leadership and have the systems, culture and transparency we demand in public life today.

The trouble may be that NGOs don’t have the same vetting standards as multinational corporations. The outcome of the Pillard inquiry has to see that foreign aid organisations adopt the same rigorous vetting procedures as global business. They can’t just go with the flow.

It’s worth remembering that Oxfam has a crucial role to play at home in the UK, too, filling the void left by Government as poverty and homelessness spiral. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation’s latest figures show a fifth of the UK population – that’s 14 million people – now live in poverty.

If Oxfam follows suit, who’s going to step in? The Government?

Oxfam can recover from this. The work it does is too good for it to fail, but it needs to put its house in order and do it fast.

Bang On to Richard on email richard.hillgrove@6hillgrove.com and Twitter @6hillgrove

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