When Oxfam Great Britain (GB) decided to issue a press release in June announcing a fraud investigation into one of its flood relief programmes in Sindh, Pakistan, which formed part of its largest humanitarian emergency response in a country which had witnessed its worst-ever floods, many asked ‘Why go public?’
It wasn’t an easy step to take. But I felt it was the right one. Oxfam GB has always been an organisation which values the principles of accountability and transparency and challenges those in the government to demonstrate that they share the same principles.
The positive results of our external investigation are clear. We now know that a senior official working for an Oxfam GB partner organisation diverted £135,000 of funds earmarked for operating expenses, overheads and human resources for two humanitarian programmes operating in Sindh. The individual was fired in May and the partner organisation is now under legal entitlement to return all of the funding in question. Fortunately, this has not impacted individuals in Pakistan receiving help from Oxfam GB and we are on track to recover the lost funds.
In Pakistan and internationally, people often speak in very broad terms about corruption being pervasive at all levels of public life, tarnishing everyone with the same brush. And I felt it was even more important for us to take a public stand and make clear that for Oxfam — and the people and partners we work with — corruption never is and never will be acceptable.
Of course, there will always be individuals who are intent on misusing their positions of power and influence to serve their own interests. But there are also many others with high principles of integrity; who stand up for what is right and try to influence and change the culture around them.
It’s never easy to publicly admit that something has or might have gone wrong. It’s always much easier to sit on the fence, stay quiet and pretend nothing has happened. But we should not be afraid to take a stand and be held accountable by the people we work with, by donors and by the government. We shouldn’t be ridiculed for demonstrating that we are opening ourselves up to scrutiny and that we are willing to learn lessons from mistakes that have been made. It will strengthen us as an organisation going forward — and maybe even encourage others in society to be equally bold in refusing to accept corruption at any level.
Of course, there are always risks in doing so. Will it dent public trust in Oxfam and make people less willing to donate? It’s possible. But, at the same time, this episode demonstrates that we are living by our principles; and that we have robust systems and processes in place that identify when things have gone wrong. Systems that are continually being looked at and strengthened.
I’m determined to lead Oxfam GB as an organisation which stays true to its ideals; an organisation of integrity; true to the people we represent — those without a voice, who are the poorest in society and the most vulnerable to the many disasters and crises we face. Accountability is an important part of achieving this goal. The better we hold ourselves accountable as an organisation, the more effective we can be in encouraging others to do the same.
Published in The Express Tribune, August 15th, 2011.