The aid sector has lost its sheen through a series of abuse scandals

The end of the NGO?

Abuse scandals at Oxfam have exposed the aid sector’s colonial identity. Change is necessary—but what kind of change?
October 4, 2023

When the Times landed in shops and homes across the UK on the morning of 9th February 2018, it carried a front page splash that would send one of the country’s biggest and best-loved charities into crisis and spark a reckoning in the international charity sector that is still playing out.

Under the headline “Top Oxfam staff paid Haiti survivors for sex”, the newspaper revealed that employees of the charity’s UK affiliate, Oxfam GB, who were stationed in Haiti during the response to the devastating 2010 earthquake, had paid local women for sex. It was a breach of Haitian law and an abuse of power. There were also unproven allegations that underaged girls had been involved. Four staff members had been fired; three were allowed to resign.

The story dominated the front pages for days as further revelations emerged, including that one of the most senior officials implicated in the allegations went on to work at another international charity afterwards. It seemed that alleged offenders were able to move around the sector unchecked.

In the following weeks, Oxfam lost the support of donors and celebrity ambassadors. Senior leaders resigned and the UK charity regulator opened an investigation. Oxfam was in a tailspin that would change its trajectory as an organisation.

But the story was about much more than Oxfam. As the scandal unfolded, it became clear that international charities tasked with supporting some of the world’s most marginalised people had failed to tackle abuse in their ranks.The wider story was about power, colonialism, and how organisations that intended to do so much good in the world could also be complicit in harm.

Five years later, should international charities like Oxfam exist at all? Many of them have embarked on journeys of reform, but there are ongoing, heated debates about what that should look like—and to what extent it’s possible. Is it time for these major international charities, often referred to as INGOs, to pack up shop? Or are they too vital to lose?

The 2018 Times front page investigation that sent Oxfam into crisis. The headline reads "Top Oxfam staff paid Haiti survivors for sex" The 2018 Times front page investigation that sent Oxfam into crisis

“INGOs are at a turning point in their history,” as a report from Oxford University, published this summer, put it. “Once seen as occupying the moral high ground… INGOs need to fight for their future—and ours.”

The Oxfam scandal wasn’t the first of its kind. As far back as 2002, a report conducted by the UN Refugee Agency and Save the Children UK in west Africa found that agency workers from local and international NGOs, as well as UN agencies, were among the “prime sexual exploiters of refugee children”. Aid workers were accused of “using the very humanitarian assistance and services intended to benefit refugees as a tool of exploitation.”

The report, which included allegations against employees of some of the world’s biggest aid agencies, led only to patchy efforts to address the problem. 

By early 2018, when the Oxfam story emerged, the world had changed. Revelations about Hollywood’s Harvey Weinstein had sparked reckonings around abuses of power, particularly sexual abuses, in multiple industries. 

More stories followed, implicating other major international charities including Save the Children and Médecins Sans Frontières (also known as Doctors Without Borders). A committee of investigating MPs warned that these cases were only the “tip of the iceberg”, and that abuse was “endemic” across the sector, not just among charities but also the UN and other organisations working in international aid. The UK government announced plans to clamp down on it.

It also sparked discussion about how the massive power differences in global development created unique vulnerabilities for abuse. As Mike Jennings, a reader in international development at the School of Oriental and African Studies (Soas), put it at the time: “Emergency situations are almost a perfect environment for these kind of activities to emerge… You have extremely vulnerable people… and a few people who are effectively controlling access to resources, or have huge amounts of power. Whenever you have those inequalities and variances in power, you have scope for abuse.”

Massive power differences in global development created unique vulnerabilities for abuse

So as INGOs reeled in the wake of the Haiti scandal, the conversation quickly became about more than safeguarding. It opened up questions about how power works in international development, and the role of INGOs within that.

Foreign aid finds many of its roots in colonialism, as powers sought to “develop” their colonies. Many of the biggest aid donors, including the UK, implement projects that are subject to their priorities in countries over which they once ruled. Often these donors will decide which projects to fund and then contract western aid organisations to run them.

INGOs are a source of soft power for the UK, which is home to the headquarters of Save the Children International, Plan International and Christian Aid, to name a few. But there is a growing debate about whether international organisations are best placed to design and deliver aid projects. 

Many global development professionals argue that aid is more effective when it is directed locally rather than by someone sitting at a desk in Westminster. They also argue that this is the morally preferable thing to do. To this end, some of the world’s biggest donors and INGOs have committed to channelling a portion of their funds to local groups.

In turn, advocates of so-called “localisation”—including the UK parliament’s International Development Committee—argue that once communities have more power and voice there will be fewer opportunities for abuse and people will be better placed to speak up when something does happen.

Conversations about some of these issues had begun decades before the so-called #AidToo movement started. There had been a growing awareness that INGOs were largely led by white westerners who were distant from the communities concerned; that decision-making was often in the hands of western funders; and that they had a tendency to fly in project leaders from overseas, even if much of the hard graft of getting vaccines into arms and children into schools was done by locally employed staff. 

In particular, people had long criticised the way some international charities talked about their work—think of the TV adverts featuring dark-skinned children staring up at the camera as white-skinned aid workers swoop in to help.But it wasn’t until the cascade of pressure that followed the #MeToo movement, and later Black Lives Matter, that these conversations became an urgent priority.

These are questions facing the entire aid sector. INGOs are arguably further down the line in discussing them than other big players, such as government donors and UN agencies, who hold much of the power in the aid system. But organisations that were accustomed to thinking of themselves as the “good guys” had to wrestle with the reality that they were part of the same system they had been criticising.

This reality sent both Oxfam and the wider INGO sector into “a crisis of confidence, because these were organisations that were doing good in the world that suddenly realised that actually they were also causing harm,” says Danny Sriskandarajah, the current CEO of Oxfam GB. That triggered “a deep process of reflection and learning that was unsettling and difficult and painful”.

The irony is that Oxfam was considered by many in the sector to be ahead of the game on safeguarding, and to some extent decolonising.Founded as the Oxford Committee for Famine Relief during the Second World War by a group of Quaker academics and activists, it went on to become one of the world’s biggest global development charities. Its first campaigns focused on relieving hunger in war-torn Europe; later, as that situation started to improve, it committed itself to alleviating “suffering arising as a result of wars or other causes in any part of the world.”

Its attention expanded from meeting acute humanitarian needs arising from emergency situations to long-term development work—enabling access to clean water, working with small-scale farmers, supporting girls’ education. 

Some INGOs, including Oxfam, started life as fundraising and advocacy organisations, raising money for overseas causes, but have since morphed into service-delivery organisations, running their own projects around the world as they expand their global footprint. They have become huge machines.

By 1994, Oxfam had transformed into the Oxfam International confederation, banding together with a group of Oxfam offshoots and other NGOs in the US, Australia and elsewhere. In 2018—then under the leadership of Ugandan diplomat and development expert Winnie Byanyima—Oxfam International moved its headquarters from Oxford to Nairobi, with the stated goal of shifting its leadership closer to the communities that it served. Oxfam GB retains an office in Oxford, but it is now just the UK branch of an international confederation that is headquartered elsewhere.

When it comes to safeguarding, the incident in Haiti had also prompted changes long before it became public knowledge in 2018. In the immediate aftermath, Oxfam became one of the first INGOs to establish a dedicated job overseeing safeguarding across the organisation. (People who have held the position have since said that they didn’t have enough power or resources, but it was a start.) Yet when the internal report into abuse of power in Haiti was leaked to the Times, it turned Oxfam into the highest-profile example of an issue that affected the entire sector.

The repercussions—at least for Oxfam GB, which was at the centre of the scandal—were swift. Within a week it had “agreed to withdraw” from bidding on UK government contracts, which were worth around £30m to it each year, pending an inquiry. The EU, worth another £30m annually, soon followed. It estimated that it lost the support of 10 per cent of members of the public who donated regularly. Haiti banned it from operating in the country. Its deputy chief executive resigned, while its chief executive would be gone by the end of the year. The organisation was forced to make £16m worth of cuts, and anticipated laying off around 100 staff members. It was a humbling moment for a giant of the charity world.

As it grappled with the financial and reputational impact, the pandemic hit—shuttering the shops that brought in around £90m a year. Brexit also meant it lost access to EU funding. 

And then, just weeks after the UK government reinstated funding, another scandal broke, involving allegations of bullying and sexual misconduct against a small number of Oxfam staff in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). UK government funding was suspended again and would only be reinstated late in 2022, when the government concluded that the charity had made “significant improvements to its safeguarding systems”.

With its income tumbling, Oxfam GB began to grapple with the power dynamics that had landed it in this situation.

In September 2018, seven months after the scandal broke, Oxfam GB appointed Sriskandarajah as its new chief executive. Born in Sri Lanka and raised in Australia and Papua New Guinea, he was a former director of the Royal Commonwealth Society. He had a reputation as a strong advocate for the Global South—a term now commonly used to describe lower- and middle-income countries—and for understanding the changes that INGOs needed to make.

In his application letter, he had told the Oxfam board that, while it had to address the safeguarding issue, its broader challenge was to understand the role of the INGO in the 21st century. He wrote that “this is the moment to reimagine a decolonised Oxfam that could lead by example,” he recalls to me. “I think I closed the application letter with something like, ‘If you want to increase your market share in a tired-looking international development sector, I’m not your person; but if you want to work together to reimagine an inspiring new role for the likes of Oxfam in the world, I’d love to help.”

He never expected to actually get the job, he hastens to add. That he did, he believes, was due to “a coming together of external pressure and internal realisation” that something had to change. “I think the board realised this was a time to lean into it…. For Oxfam, [the Haiti scandal] was the trigger for a process that has become much broader,” he says.

Sriskandarajah’s five-year tenure at the organisation is coming to a close at the end of this year. During that time, Oxfam has become increasingly vocal about the need for radical change. In a submission to a parliamentary inquiry into racism in the aid sector in 2021, it wrote that “shifting power from funders and from organisations like Oxfam, to the people living with poverty is a necessity. ‘Power’ not only means money but also the power to make decisions, be heard, and influence. Oxfam believe in strengthening the power of local organisations and communities.”

Oxfam has become increasingly vocal about the need for radical change

There are lots of ways this has shown up in its work, Sriskandarajah says. For example, Oxfam’s global strategy and priorities are now set by a “global assembly”, which includes representatives from Oxfam but also from the communities it works with around the world.

Most INGOs have overseas offices that deliver their work locally, but critics argue that the power remains with the headquarters. For Themrise Khan—a development expert from Pakistan and co-editor of a new book, White Saviorism in International Development—this is part of the neocolonial model. 

“They [INGOs] say they’re very decentralised in the countries [where] they work, but they’re actually not,” she says. The country offices “answer to their headquarters, which are based in XYZ country in the west… [And] whatever systems they bring with them… they’re not our systems. They’re an imposition.”

Oxfam has started to carve off some of its country offices. In some cases, such as Colombia, it has set them up as independent organisations; in others, such as Turkey, it has handed all its work over to established local organisations, which have been absorbed into the Oxfam confederation. 

Sriskandarajah visits a camp for internally displaced people in Yemen, where Oxfam has worked for 33 years Sriskandarajah visits a camp for internally displaced people in Yemen, where Oxfam has worked for 33 years

Sriskandarajah notes, however, that INGOs’ abilities to shift power and resources is often limited by their funding model. Much of the money comes from donor governments such as the UK, who decide which projects will be delivered, in what he describes as a “donor-down” rather than a “needs-up” system. Oxfam is fortunate that a significant proportion of its income comes from the general public, giving it a bit more flexibility.

Late last year, alongside a group of similar organisations including Save the Children, Action Aid and the International Rescue Committee, Oxfam signed the “Pledge for Change”, which consists of three pillars aimed at reimagining INGOs. 

The first is “equitable partnerships”, which means local organisations will lead humanitarian and development efforts whenever possible. 

The second is “authentic storytelling”, which means not taking credit as an INGO for the work done by local communities, and “avoid[ing] exploitative imagery that portrays people as helpless victims”. At least some of those television adverts have been changing in recent years to put the work done by local people in the spotlight. 

Médecins Sans Frontières (which is not a signatory of the Pledge for Change) released a video last December explaining how the photographs it used for fundraising and advocacy had historically been selected or selectively cropped to perpetuate a “white saviour” narrative that was seen as effective for fundraising efforts. The video followed a scandal in which graphic photos of MSF patients, including a rape victim, had been found for sale on stock image websites.

Earlier this year, Oxfam introduced a new, inclusive language guide which caused much furore for describing English as “the language of a colonizing nation” and for suggesting that some of the vocabulary associated with international aid (including the word “aid” itself) perpetuated a colonial mindset.

The third pillar of the Pledge for Change is “influencing wider change”, which means advocating for reform across the aid and development sector.

This work isn’t popular with everyone. The inclusive language guide provoked a storm of criticism from parts of the media. In a column for the Daily Mail, Andrew Neil slammed Oxfam as “obsessed with colonialism”; Kate Garraway on Good Morning Britain said it was wasting money on “wokeness gone mad”.

“There are some… who want to instrumentalise the actions that we’re taking, and others like us, into this really reductive culture-war framing,” says Sriskandarajah. But the world is changing, and British institutions need to change too if they’re going to continue to play a role in the new world order, he says.

“Britain is home, I think proudly, to all these amazing institutions, international NGOs… but that internationalism is here because of a colonial past and I think if Britain wants to be a global Britain, you can’t ignore or paper over the controversies of that.”

It’s not just Oxfam: many western INGOs are engaging in these changes at some level. But the changes are slow and limited. Safeguarding continues to be a major issue in the sector. The UK charity regulator received more than 400 reports of safeguarding incidents taking place overseas in the past year.

The scandals continue to roll in, though usually without the attention that Haiti received. In the DRC scandal, one of the biggest so far, more than 100 women said they were sexually abused during the response to the Ebola outbreak between 2018 and 2020, mostly by aid workers from the World Health Organisation, although some INGOs were also implicated.

And despite years of talk about channelling more money to local organisations, progress has been dormant. About 20 INGOs are signed up to a 2016 deal known as the “Grand Bargain”, under which they pledged to transfer 25 per cent of their humanitarian funds to local partners. But only five say they have met that target. Oxfam isn’t among them— it’s on 15-20 per cent.  

So the big question remains: how far is it possible to “decolonise” INGOs? And if it’s not possible, is the age of the INGO coming to an end? 

A handful of small INGOs have chosen to shutter their overseas operations completely

For some, the answer to that question is yes. They argue that power imbalances are too deeply embedded in the concept of the INGO, of western organisations working to “develop” non-western countries. A handful of small INGOs have chosen to shutter their overseas operations completely, winding down programmes or handing their work over to local counterparts.

“My perspective is that it’s not about change anymore,” says Khan, the development expert from Pakistan. “We are at a point in the discussion where it’s more about basically ending the role of an INGO.”

Even the very concept of the INGO and decolonisation are part of the problem, she says. The term “INGO” is typically only applied to western-based organisations, even though there are others doing similar work—such as Brac, a Bangladesh-based development organisation that works in 11 countries from South Sudan to the Philippines and is the biggest NGO in the world based on employee numbers. But organisations like this are typically not part of the conversation about INGOs. The entire discussion about “decolonisation” is being driven by the west, Khan says.

For others, demolishing these organisations would be self-defeating—especially without broader reform of the sector and without solid research into the impact. Despite their problems, they are still providing support to millions worldwide at a time when need is only growing, due to the fallout of the war in Ukraine, a global food crisis, climate shocks and global economic challenges. They are effective fundraisers and advocates, and are repositories of vast amounts of experience, expertise and manpower. When disaster strikes, few organisations are able to mount such large responses so quickly or share so much technical expertise across geographies. When the devastating Turkey-Syria earthquake struck earlier this year, the Disasters Emergency Committee—a group of 15 UK-based INGOs—raised £150m from the British public which went towards providing emergency cash, shelter, medical treatment, food and water to survivors.

But there is a growing consensus that they need to change; in particular, that they need to get back to advocacy and fundraising for global issues, leaving the practical work of development—and decision-making about how to do that— primarily to local organisations.

“Many of the problems we work on will not be solved by just local action,” says Sriskandarajah. “We need… [to build] beyond borders to make the connections on climate change or gender justice or vaccine access.” 

Looking to the future, he ultimately wants to see Oxfam GB as one branch of a global social justice network, which is no longer delivering projects in other countries but is using its position in the UK to advocate for global solidarity, as other branches will do elsewhere. 

That needs to come alongside a broader reframing of the entire system for international aid, so that it’s “less about charity, more about shared responsibility,” Sriskandarajah says.

Khan describes this as a “positive” approach. But she questions whether it will be possible in practice, not least because most INGO funding relies on delivering projects. “These organisations have become so massive and they’ve become so ingrained in their own systems, how are they going to move back?”

It’s a big challenge, as Sriskandarajah acknowledges. But he says western INGOs have three choices: die well, because they feel they have done what they needed to do and there are now enough local organisations to take over the work; die badly, because their credibility and resources fall out from underneath them; or transform into something that looks very different. 

“Oxfam is taking a big bet on transforming,” he says. The future of international charity work could depend on it succeeding.