The end doesn’t justify the means for charities

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Susan Smith says the Oxfam crisis highlights why all charities must be values-led organisations 

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14th February 2018 by Susan Smith 0 Comments

The revelations over the conduct of Oxfam staff overseas dominated the media at the start of the week and the public is rightly horrified that one of the UK’s best loved charities could be embroiled in such deplorable activities.

So, what has gone wrong? How could this happen to an organisation set up to alleviate poverty and deliver aid to the world’s most vulnerable? Why did its senior staff, no doubt good people with the best intentions, allow its former Haiti head to step down gracefully after discovering he’d been using local prostitutes? And then lie about it?

The full truth will unfold in the course of time, but for now it seems the organisation was far more focused on protecting its reputation than protecting the people it was set up to help, and indeed its own staff and volunteers.

Oxfam appears to have lost sight of the bigger picture in its determination to deliver aid to as many people as possible and to maintain its position as one of the world’s biggest agencies.

It is of course desperately sad that the fallout from this will be a drop in donations to international aid agencies when the UN predicts more than 135 million people will need humanitarian assistance this year.

However in the recent past the sector has been guilty of short-sightedness; for too long charities have believed the end justifies the means. The fundraising scandals of 2016 showed this.

The international development sector has long been plagued by much more serious problems – stories of bribery, corruption and simple mismangement have abounded for decades. There were already critics who refused to donate for fear of where their money would end up and what horrors it might pay for.

It can be argued that tackling the challenges of chaotic and lawless environments is part of the job, a necessary evil to be circumnavigated to get aid to the people who really need it. But, where do you draw the line? Does it mean bribing local officials, negotiating with war-lords, and turning a blind eye to prostitution? Does it mean colluding with the forces you are trying to overcome? Does it mean cutting corners in recruitment and safeguarding?

Of course it doesn’t. As human beings, we have a duty to consider the wider moral and ethical impact of our actions. Neither the pursuit of profit nor charitable purpose is a justifiable end if the means is sexual exploitation.

There are many lessons for the charity sector from this – charities must be transparent, admit mistakes rather than brush them under the carpet, empower staff to whistleblow when necessary, and they must be proactive in tackling so called necessary evils that interfere with their mission.

But, most importantly, charities must be values-led organisations. These values must be wider than one simple charitable purpose and they must permeate the whole organisation from board to volunteers. The public demands a charity sector intent on making the world a better place; let’s not disappoint them.