John Morrison, head of the Institute for Human Rights and Business, says the Oxfam crisis shows we should say 'no' to cuts in aid, but yes to greater accountability by charities

The revelations relating to UK-registered but global charity giant Oxfam have caught the attention of media worldwide. Allegations of sexual abuse have also surfaced over recent days involving a growing number of leading charities. It seems the tip of another iceberg has been sighted, as happened in the film industry and involving politicians in a number of parliaments.

My intention is not to challenge the effectiveness of humanitarian aid or the legitimacy of an organisation such as Oxfam, which I respect very much in many ways. Instead, we should ask a fundamental question: should NGOs be accountable to at least the same international human rights standards that we expect of businesses, and if so, when will we see such implementation happen?

Because NGOs are constituted to meet a public good – sometimes to literally save lives – the nature of their social licence is perhaps even more direct than profit-driven businesses. Major NGOs have been aware for many years that they need to practice what they preach. Oxfam was at the forefront of the “rights-based approach to development” in the 1990s, which sought to align the work of development and humanitarian organisations with fundamental human rights principles and standards.

A complaint was lodged against FIFA for breaching the UN Guiding Principles in the treatment of workers building the World Cup venue in Qatar (credit: Amnesty International)

Although progress was made, some NGOs have failed to ensure that their own management cultures, policies, and procedures meet societal expectations. Fundamentally, human dignity must be respected at all times, in all places, by all actors that pose risks to people.

The United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, which was agreed unanimously between states in 2011, specifies that the responsibility to respect human rights, to avoid infringing the rights of others and address any adverse impacts they cause, relates to all business enterprises. Seven years after the guiding principles were born, they have set their own norm of expected (and increasingly required) behaviour. It must be the case that the charity industry should also conduct its work consistent with international standards like these.

The conduct that is being uncovered is reprehensible. Greater accountability and cultural changes are needed at every level

In 2015, the Swiss government’s National Contact Point, under the OECD Guidelines on Multinational Enterprises, allowed a complaint lodged against FIFA to proceed even though world football’s governing body is primarily a not-for-profit under Swiss law. It was deemed that because FIFA engaged in significant commercial activities (and has companies associated with it) its primary legal status was not the issue. Oxfam GB, and many other charities, also have large trading arms.

The UK government has also been clear that major charities are covered by extra-territorial requirements of legislation, such as the 2010 UK Bribery Act or the 2015 Modern Slavery Act. In fact, Oxfam’s Modern Slavery Transparency Statement can be found on its website.

John Morrison of the Institute for Human Rights and Business

So it seems safe to assume that should human rights due diligence ever become legally binding under UK law, major charities such as Oxfam would also be required to comply. If the spirit of international law already indicates that these charities should respect human rights – both in terms of preventing negative impacts and providing adequate remedies when abuse occurs – then they should do so now without delay.

Oxfam set out its own expectations of business in relation to the UN Guiding Principles in 2013, as many other charities have. All of us working in the charity sector need to reflect on what our own organisations should be doing to respect the rights of our own workers and all who are affected by our activities.

My intent is not to be contentious here. Without doubt, the primary targets of our work must remain governments and businesses. The former have legal duties to protect human rights, and the latter have more involvement and also more leverage than many to ensure that these same rights are respected. But we must all walk the talk if we are to retain public trust and ensure we are worthy recipients of public funds.

The Edelman Trust barometer shows that NGOs are still trusted more than business, but only just. All sorts of institutions need to look hard into the mirror

Over the years there have been attempts to draw in the behavior of NGOs to the same metrics as other types of institutions. I think, for example, of the Global Accountability Reports published by the One World Trust, or the more basic requirements that NGOs must meet to retain not-for-profit status under most jurisdictions. It will be interesting to see where the UK Charities Commission investigation comes out on any new reporting requirements.

But charities should be ahead of any minimum requirements. Every year the Edelman Trust barometer shows that NGOs are still trusted more than business, but only just: they are, after all, just another type of institution vulnerable to causing harm if they fail to have effective controls in place. All sorts of institutions are needing to look hard into the mirror.

Aid workers in Afghanistan (credit: Maximum Exposure / Shutterstock)

So let’s hope that the current crisis has the right effect. The conduct that is being uncovered is reprehensible. Organisations must never tolerate such abuses, and greater accountability and cultural changes are undoubtedly needed at every level.

We should say “no” to cuts to overseas assistance, even if some of those stoking the negative stories seem to want this outcome. We should say “yes” to greater accountability and charities embracing their own responsibility to respect human rights and ensuring that commitment is embedded across their organisation and activities. And beyond this, UN agencies themselves should embrace similar safeguarding in their own operations, as well as in the public-private partnerships that are emerging in relation to the UN Global Goals on Sustainable Development.

Further debates will need to be had about the role of international organisations and the nature of their responsibilities and duties. More than all else, business and governments must take respect for human dignity and protection of human rights a lot more seriously than has been the case over recent years. We all need a robust civil society to achieve this.

John Morrison is executive director of the Institute for Human Rights and Business. Mark Goldring, CEO of Oxfam, will be speaking at Ethical Corporation's Responsible Business Summit Europe 13-14 June.

Main photo credit: Electric Egg/Shutterstock
Oxfam  Human rights  NGO  fifa  John Morrison  ihrb  #metoo  UN Guiding Principles  SDGs  OECD guidelines on multinational enterprises 

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