Oxfam, the international aid organization with more than 10,000 staff worldwide and many hundreds of millions of dollars of income from donations alone, has been getting a lot of bad press recently. Many readers will likely be familiar with the Oxfam sex scandal, wherein Oxfam workers in Haiti had sex with victims of the 2010 earthquake, perhaps including child victims. In 2014, Oxfam’s former antifraud chief was arrested for embezzlement. And last February, the chairman of Oxfam International, Juan Alberto Fuentes, was arrested in Guatemala for his role in a corruption scandal that developed over his time as the finance minister of Guatemala. Although the arrest of Mr. Fuentes was for conduct that predated his work at Oxfam, the arrest sparked further questions about corruption and accountability in the organization, and called into question the reliability and credibility of Oxfam’s anticorruption advocacy work.
Of course, both sex scandals and corruption scandals happen in other organizations too, including governments and for-profit corporations. So far as I know, there’s no evidence that aid organizations are systematically more prone to such institutional failures than other entities. Yet these scandals feel particularly disturbing when they occur at an organization like Oxfam, perhaps because we implicitly hold do-gooder NGOs to a higher ethical standard. And in fact we should: both the legitimacy and effectiveness of the international work done by NGOs like Oxfam rests, at least to some degree, on some sense that these organizations have the moral authority to enter a country and change the way things are run. To retain that moral authority, aid organizations must take extra steps to ensure they remain above suspicion. The failure of the Oxfam board to conduct due diligence on Fuentes is a strike against Oxfam’s credibility, and this fundamentally hurts its mission.
The question is what Oxfam, or similar organizations, can do to increase the chances of meeting these high standards, and avoid similarly embarrassing scandals in the future. My answer: Oxfam should tie its own hands and mandate top-down, independent integrity oversight, supervised by donating governments.