It’s time to take our charities to the cleaners

An Oxfam outlet in Düsseldorf, Germany. Photo Kürschner/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain

By Michael Edwards | Posted Feb 28, 2018

There was always going to be reckoning. Over the last 30 years charities have become bigger and bolder, richer and more competitive, outside of any honest and open conversation about their role in society, the values they represent, and the standards to which they should be held accountable. The current reckoning just happened to arrive in a certain place and time, focused on Oxfam and Save the Children around issues of sexual harassment and abuse—bad news for them of course but a welcome opportunity to re-examine what the whole sector is about.

A consistent theme in the crisis that’s unfolding is that there’s something not quite right about charities today, though exactly what’s wrong is expressed in many different ways. For some the crisis questions the whole culture of modern charity and the legitimacy of foreign aid: the sector has become bloated, they say, too big for its boots, and incapable of regulating itself. What happened at Oxfam and SCF was just the tip of the iceberg, so we should stop giving to these charities until they can earn our trust.

Others believe that the crisis has been dramatically exaggerated for political effect as part of a right-wing plot to undermine certain groups and causes that conservatives oppose. The revelations of sexual harassment and abuse are confined to a small number of cases, they say, though they still need to be urgently addressed. However, these cases raise no broader matters of concern about the charities involved or the sector as a whole. To protect their work and give them the resources they need to strengthen their management and accountability going forward we should actually increase our giving.

To me the most interesting reactions lie somewhere between these two positions, avoiding both under- and over-reaction and drawing out the wider implications of what we’re learning. It’s those lessons that are crucial if we want to use this crisis as an opportunity to strengthen the sector in the future. Take this piece in the Washington Post by Jovenel Moïse, for example, the President of Haiti. Moïse says this:

“Let’s take this ‘Oxfam moment,’ this ugly moment of reckoning, to reflect on the bigger picture. The general paradigm of aid and power…is not a balanced one…Something clearly needs to change…as our country becomes meaningfully developed and our economy becomes strengthened, more of our communities will be lifted from poverty—which means fewer individuals at risk, such as the women who were preyed upon by the Oxfam staff. While we pursue accountability for what occurred in 2011 we must simultaneously pursue long-term, clear-eyed solutions to the root causes. It’s not enough to punish one or two individuals, or to shame an organization. We have an entire cycle to break in order for the vulnerable to become the empowered.”

Alongside other writers in this middle ground, Moïse is saying that harassment, abuse and exploitation don’t happen in a vacuum; they arise in situations of power inequality and weak accountability—conditions which characterize relationships between rich and poor countries in the foreign aid system, or those between powerful agencies like Oxfam and the communities they serve (wherever they’re located), or between senior male and junior female staff in the case of Save the Children. A failure to confront these inequalities will leave the door open to abuse and exploitation somewhere else or in some other form.

So tighter monitoring of charity personnel won’t be enough; a cultural and structural transformation is essential. Since the scandals broke, it’s this recognition that has flowed through calls to combat the “white savior complex,” recover charity’s “moral core,” make the actions of charities consistent with their words, and uphold the highest ethical standards as the signature of the sector.

But even in this middle ground there’s no agreement on what it would really mean to do these things. Should charities abandon politics and advocacy in order to concentrate on providing services to those in need, or should they become more explicitly political actors because poverty and injustice are always political issues? Should they be larger or smaller, follow business practices or avoid them, pay higher salaries to ‘attract the best’ or lower ones to attract the most committed? There’s no agreement among the public on the answers to these questions. There never has been, because they reflect much deeper differences in politics and culture around the meaning and proper role of charity.

That means it’s impossible to develop a code of conduct or a system of accountability around the goals and core activities of charities—they’re just too diverse, but that actually returns the question of ethics to center stage. If we can’t legislate that all charities should do this and not that in terms of their programmatic focus and styles of working, can’t we all agree that whatever they do should be carried out according to a universal set of ethics?

I’m not thinking rocket science here: honesty, transparency, accountability, humility, service, equality, independence, respect for people and their dignity, consistency between words and actions, and the empowerment of others so that they are always ‘in the driving seat’ as the Haitian President demands (instead of  prioritizing your own organizational self-interest). These are things that cross the political and cultural spectrum. They’re also the things that are supposed to mark out charities from other institutions, but they seem to have been compromised in the rush for growth and influence.

Though not easy, it’s possible to monitor adherence to these standards across the board, regardless of where a charity operates or the issues on which it works. Filling out the definitions of these things with measurable criteria and case studies would be a useful task for the Charity Commission in the UK and similar bodies elsewhere—things like a maximum ratio between the highest and lowest paid staff members, or a ban on ‘charity porn’ advertising, or fines for non-disclosure of information in the kinds of sexual abuse and harassment cases that are front and center now. No doubt the wisdom and practicality of these ideas will be disputed, but they could provide a concrete framework for a public conversation about charities that’s much-needed, and which would help to restore public trust.

In other sectors like business, government and entertainment you could say that ethics are always going to be negotiated in pursuit of money, sex and power, but there’s no reason why that modus operandi should be replicated in a charity. In fact if charities are not leaders in ethical behavior then what are they for? If I want to bully people and twist the truth I can go into politics; if I want to chase the money and act like a multinational corporation I can go into business. But there’s no point importing these cultures into charities so that they become another vehicle for disguised self-interest or cover-ups and power plays or male violence.

It seems to me that as a condition of their existence, and as something for which they should be held legally accountable, charities must live their ethics in everything they do—from the way they treat employees to the images they use in fundraising to the programmatic choices they make. However big they are, that’s the only way that charities will become a force for change at any scale, a force for moral revolution that percolates throughout society from left to right and back.

Reading the outpouring of letters and statements that have been published from charity workers since the scandals broke gives me cause for optimism in this sense, even if Oxfam and Save the Children have been hesitant and unconvincing in their responses: in the most elemental of ways, many people in the charity sector are doing precisely what charities should do, despite the attendant risks of intimidation and retaliation: speak up, protect the equal dignity of every person, hold yourself and your organization fully accountable, stand up to bullies, and tell the truth.

After all, where does the charitable impulse come from, or civic energy or community-mindedness if you don’t like the other ‘C’ word? Not from wholesale agreement or the hegemony of one set of voices or ideas or approaches. It comes from a much deeper commitment to do the right things in the right ways and see where that leads us.

I live in horror of the dentist, but I volunteer to go twice a year for a deep cleaning of my teeth. Of course it hurts for a while, but afterwards I feel refreshed, and free of the accretions of all the things I shouldn’t have been eating, born out of my own lack of discipline in attending to my health and welfare.

Perhaps the same could be said of charities: they would also benefit from a thorough moral and ethical cleansing to get them back on track. Everyone needs a deep clean from time to time. Best to do it before your teeth get infected.

Michael Edwards is a writer and activist based in upstate New York, and the editor of Transformation. His website is and his twitter account is @edwarmi.

This article was first published on openDemocracy, an independent global media platform covering world affairs, ideas and culture which seeks to challenge power and encourage democratic debate across the world. It’s republished here under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International license.