Another Perspective on the Oxfam Scandal

The uproar following the abuse of vulnerable people in Haiti and elsewhere by Oxfam workers and the attempt to cover it up is justifiable and timely. This scandal has exposed the failings of other large charitable organisations working internationally especially those with funding strings tied to the generosity of the public and government. The debates have focused on issues around safeguarding, safer recruitment, internal policies on reporting, enforcing stricter monitoring rules, the Charity Commission and its capacity as a watchdog, better scrutiny on how charities spend public funds among others. For stakeholders within the sector, such atrocities are not really new and had always been an elephant in the room, discussed in hushed tones.

This article is not intended to regurgitate ideological debates on colonialism or neo-colonialism however we cannot deny that over the years the motives of international charities is not based only on altruism. This ‘philanthropic colonialism’ was eloquently described by Peter Buffet (Warren Buffet’s son) in an Op-Ed contribution in the New York Times 5 years ago. He aptly titled his article ‘The Charitable-Industrial Complex’, and he reflected on the geometric growth of the non-profit sector at a rate exceeding that of both the business and government sectors. It has become a massive industry with billions of dollars spent annually with millions of people employed. The article echoes the words of Aime Cesaire in his 1955 article Discourse on Colonialism (Discours sur le colonialisme). In defining colonization in Africa, Cesaire chose to describe what it is not, neither evangelization, nor a philanthropic enterprise, nor a desire to push back the frontiers of ignorance, disease, and tyranny, nor a project undertaken for the greater glory of God, nor an attempt to extend the rule of law.

According to the UK Charity Commission there are 168,237 registered charities as at December 2017 with total annual income exceeding £75 billion with the top 10 charities generating around 10% of the total income at £7.2 billion. This excludes incomes from thousands of organisations registered as limited by guarantee or as community interest companies who choose not to register with the Charity Commission. Oxfam, Save the Children and Marie Stopes International rank among the top 20 charities in the UK that do extensive work abroad. A quick research sifting through their website and annual reports exposes a dismal representation of ethnic minorities among their employees, top management and trustees.

Oxfam GB as at 31 March 2017 employs 5,083 staff and according to the 2016/17 annual report ‘the percentage of staff from an ethnic minority remained at approximately 12% of the total workforce’. In plain English that translates to 191 ethnic minority staff from the 2,002 UK staff who completed the equal opportunities form. We do not know how many of the 12% are represented in middle or senior management.

Based on information culled from the website of Save the Children, the global workforce is made up of around 24,000 staff, of which just over 16,000 are employed by Save the Children International (SCI), with around 8,000 staff employed by the 29 members of Save the Children. As at December 2016, Save the Children UK had 1,148 members of staff, with 91% working in the UK and 9% working internationally. Information about the percentage of ethnic minority staff employed by Save the Children was not reported in the 2016 annual report or anywhere else on the website.

Quite similar to Save the Children website, you cannot find (I stand to be corrected) any key information about the ethnic composition of the employees working for Marie Stopes International either on the website or the 2016 annual report. I could only confirm from the website a statement which says ‘we have 12,000 talented, dedicated and courageous people working for us across six continents. They are all passionately driven by our mission: to ensure every woman can have children by choice, not chance’.

This desk research resonates with the 2013 Dame Mary Marsh review of Skills & Leadership in the VCSE Sector. In an interview with The Independent she said the recruiting processes of many charities give undue advantages to one group over the other which leads to ‘…a situation where charities had become overly middle-class and unrepresentative of the communities they served’. I suggested 11 years ago to a UK charity that specialises in sending volunteers overseas to consider using more of ethnic minority or diaspora professionals as volunteers to their ancestral countries of origin. My pleas fell on deaf ears, even after I elucidated the cost benefit to the charity of having a volunteer who will acclimatise faster, is culturally attuned, and who endue a level of social affinity.

Very soon this controversy will blow away like many others and key learnings will be missed. Moving forward, large charities and corporations especially those working in developing countries should be compelled to publicly publish a policy statement on how they will increase ethnic minority representation to at least 25%. This will be similar to the anti-modern slavery and human trafficking statement required from organisations with a total turnover threshold at £36m, most UK organisations have complied by publishing statements on their websites. Advocating for more representation of ethnic minorities in the work place is not different from the advocacy on gender pay gap reporting, employers with more than 250 staff must publish gender pay figures annually on their own website and on a government website

Another area for urgent reform is the skewed membership of charity Board of Trustees. A casual look at the Board of top 50 charities in the UK shows a glaring disparity in demographic representation of the ethnic minorities that their people benefit the most from charitable activities abroad. If such inequalities is perpetuated at the Board level definitely this subtle nuances will reflect across-the-board. A World Bank forecast for 2017 estimates that remittance to developing countries will grow by 3.3% to $444 billion compared to $429 billion in 2016. The remittance flows are larger than Official Development Assistance (ODA) and more stable than private capital flows. This underscores the commitment to development by ethnic minorities to the ‘homeland’ and UK charities could benefit from these funds if there are equitable representation of this group in the composition of these Boards and top management.

Lastly, charities working abroad should adopt a policy of recruiting locally at least 65% of overseas staff within the country of operation or service delivery. The era of Mungo Park discovering River Niger is long gone. If the motive is altruistic and the end game is sustainability then it is imperative that local human resource is developed and core capacities built. Recruiting more ethnic minorities at home and local workers abroad should not be limited to junior workers, a conscious effort should be made to reflect representation within the senior management rank as this will enhance the quality of decisions and policies.