From Crisis to Learning

By Dr. Tessie San Martin
February 21, 2018

Earlier this month, The Times of London and then The New York Times reported that some staff at Oxfam, one of the world’s most respected international NGOs, had engaged in “sexual misconduct” in Haiti in 2011. The reporting revealed that Oxfam staff, including the country director, engaged in sexual exploitation and bullying, including paying women for sex, in the aftermath of Haiti’s devastating earthquake in 2010. Even worse, it appears as though senior management knew about the situation and kept it quiet.

It would seem that no industry or entity is immune from what has become all too common: people in power (often men) abusing their positions and preying on the weak and vulnerable. But international NGOs like Oxfam, or the non-profit I represent, Plan International USA, are supposed to be different. Our work demands trust: trust from donors, trust from those we are ostensibly there to help. And when that trust is violated, then everything else must be called into question; our value chain—stewarding donor resources and translating donor intent into programming that saves lives and transforms individuals and communities—falls apart. As Penny Mordaunt, the UK’s International Development Secretary, said not too long ago, such behaviors by organizations like ours represent a "complete betrayal of trust.”

As a child rights organization, and one that focuses in particular on girls’ rights, ensuring the right safeguards are in place is essential. The revelations have forced international aid and humanitarian organizations like ours to put a mirror to ourselves—and the picture is not pretty. Sadly no organization, including Plan International, is immune from abuses of power. From 1 July 2016 to 30 June 2017, we had six confirmed cases of sexual abuse and exploitation of children by staff or associates. One involved a staff member and the other five were associates.* The staff member was dismissed without a reference and contracts of associates were terminated. Five out of the total six cases were of a criminal nature and were reported to the local authorities. In all cases we linked victims and families with local support networks including but not limited to medical and psychosocial support.

In the same period, there were nine confirmed incidents of sexual harassment or sexual misconduct by staff. This resulted in seven dismissals. The other two staff, whose misconduct amounted to use of inappropriate language, were given a warning. All incidents involved adults.

Is this a lot or a little? Even one case of abuse is one too many. But while no organization can 100 percent ensure that it has the systems and processes to fully guard against criminal and predatory individuals from being hired, or from abusing positions of trust, Plan is rightfully proud of its child and staff safeguarding policies. And we are actively engaged in the US with the INGO umbrella group, InterAction, in reviewing and strengthening the standards of our sector to prevent sexual harassment and abuse.

The risk of failing to safeguard 100 percent is always there. The mark of an effective, and trustworthy organization or sector, does not rest solely on whether its policies and policing efforts are strong, or even in the robustness and transparency of its reporting system. It is in how it uses moments of failure and crisis to learn and improve. Moreover, in this effort the tone is set at the top: no amount of investment in safeguards will work unless CEOs like myself and charity boards are also nurturing continuously a culture that values transparency, creates trust, and supports and encourages speaking truth to power.

*This includes not just Plan International USA but the other 20 National Organizations that support the Plan International mission, as well as the 10,000 employees of Plan International Inc.