Review of Oxfam Campaign Controls

Risk Management Procedures in Relation to June 2010 Incident at the UNFCCC Intersessional in Bonn

In June 2010, there was an incident at the UNFCCC Intersessional meeting which involved the name plate of the delegation of Saudi Arabia being vandalized, an act whch was both offensive and unacceptable. It was alleged that there was passive involvement of an Oxfam staff member. Oxfam acknowledged its failure to condemn this act immediately, when it apologized publicly to the Saudi Government and the UNFCCC at the August Intersessional. Subsequently, the Board of Oxfam International commissioned an Independent Review of Oxfam’s Campaign Controls and Risk Management Procedures. The review is based on documents provided by Oxfam International and interviews conducted by Dr. Cobus de Swardt between 26 August and 9 September 2010.

Oxfam takes its public accountability very seriously and believes that key findings of such a Review should be made public. Below is Dr. de Swardt’s summary, his recommendations and Oxfam’s management response.

Review Summary and Conclusion

Based on the information at my disposal, I found

  1. Oxfam’s leadership is sincere and serious in its apology, as well as its dedication to prevent such an event (both the incident as well as the poor response) occurring in the future,
  2. given the gravity of the incident there has been a lack of urgency and judgment to deal with the issue thoroughly, formally, and at the highest levels within Oxfam, with the UNFCCC, with Saudi Arabia, with other governments and with other NGOs, and
  3. that having managerial responsibility without authority during international fora places Oxfam and its world wide reputation at risk.

Furthermore, I am of the opinion that the delay in appropriate response by Oxfam management and leadership to the incident was, in the end, the result of the interplay of several factors, including:

  1. a lack of clarity about the incident and its context,
  2. unclear and informal line management, and
  3. a lack of structure for risk management (which could potentially mitigated errors of judgment).

Addressing the above perceived shortcomings and weaknesses could, in my view, strengthen Oxfam’s resolve to pursue its mission with vigor.

Recommendations for Rapid Response

R1. Oxfam International should consider establishing a centralized international telephone and email ‘Rapid Response 24/7 Help Line’ (“hotline/red telephone”), attended to by a very small team of specialists in integrated risk and crisis management. This help line/service could:

(i)    provide immediate support at any time in the form of advice, action and coaching;
(ii)    coordinate political, legal, and safety assessments (i.e., link to specialists and to other NGOs);
(iii)    escalate issues to Oxfam leadership, head of communications, etc. immediately if needed; and
(iv)    keep a detailed record of all incoming queries and follow-up actions.

“When in doubt, call” could be the motto to all staff/partners facing potentially difficult situations.

R2. Oxfam International should consider establishing a centralized legal assistance and coordination service, particularly, but perhaps not exclusively, for cases related to international events. This service could also be considered for wider use depending on the needs of affiliates.  The legal service could potentially be an organizational part of the ‘Rapid Response 24/7 Help Line’. (See also R1 above.)

R3. Oxfam should consider making a strong and practical commitment to its staff/partners, also through producing—in appropriate and user-friendly format—and actively promoting, clear guidance on mutual responsibilities (e.g., of Oxfam and of individuals), rights (e.g., also of individuals) and support (e.g., also from Oxfam during a crises).

R4. Oxfam International should consider how to ensure sufficient and efficient formal communication between itself and international bodies, such as the UNFCCC. This could be done in several different ways (e.g., a senior and formal point person per organization, etc.). My knowledge of Oxfam and its various relations/campaigns is too limited to make operational suggestions in this regard.

R5. Oxfam should consider making a strong commitment to international bodies about its seriousness (i.e., political will) and organizational preparedness (i.e., management processes) to abide by official guidelines and act with integrity. This action could be seen as an important compliment to ‘operationalise’ Oxfam’s apology and commitment as expressed, for example, to UNFCCC and Saudi Arabia.

R6.  Oxfam should consider, in my view at the very least, compiling an internal legal file of all aspects of this case.

R7. Oxfam should consider to take internal communication on high profile public issues affecting its reputation more seriously in the future. I am not in a position to make operational suggestions in this regard.

R8. Oxfam should consider ways to improve its handling of high profile public issues relating to potentially problematic staff actions in the future. In my view Oxfam should seek to demonstrate:

(i)   fairness towards, and support for, its staff, as well as
(ii)  decisiveness to deal strongly with staff that bring the organization into disrepute through wrong-doing. (In this regard see also R6 above, and R9-11 below, as ways to implement this recommendation).

R9.  Oxfam (International and affiliates) should consider to carefully review the lines of final authority for international actions seeking to fully empower the person in the lead role at the event. In my view Oxfam International has to take full responsibility for actions committed in its name, as well as (with all affiliates) the protection of its brand. It is likely that a seceding of authority to Oxfam International by affiliates would also require the voluntary consent of individual staff - without which Oxfam International might have no choice but not to include them in international delegations.  A similar review would be needed vis-à-vis other partners participating/accredited ‘under the Oxfam banner’.  Particular attention would need to be given to the integration of partners into Oxfam teams without disempowering the partners, their local organizations and/or their local stakeholders. Whilst affiliates, individual staff coming from affiliates and potentially outside partners might feel constrained by this ‘centralization of authority’ for international events, they will benefit significantly from the political and legal support provided to them by Oxfam International to maximize opportunity and in facing crises.

R10. Oxfam should consider striving to have a clear line management structure, accompanied by full authority (see R9 above) and clearly spelled out basic responsibilities for each international event. (See also R11 below.)

R11.  Oxfam should consider producing a ‘Basic Guidance document’ for its campaigning work to provide a simple overview/template which could include:

(i) the key purpose of its campaign work,
(ii) the key operating principles of the campaign (including in regard to the links between policy advice and more direct action orientated contributions),
(iii) the overall management structure and lines of authority,
(iv) a clear, simple and short Code of Conduct/Principles of Conduct/Core Values (including the full adherence to guidelines provided by accrediting agencies (such as UNFCCC); and
(v) basic risk management processes/risk map (which could also include the 24/7 helpline suggested in R1 above).

If Oxfam were to produce such a short document, it should be easily accessible to all, adaptable to different events/agencies, and actively used during (including before and after) international events, including being signed off by all Oxfam participants. This document does not at all replace hands-on management, nor the much needed authority and judgment of leadership, but could be an important additional tool.

R12. Oxfam should carefully consider the political judgment, cultural sensitivity and diplomatic skills of all members of delegations, particularly those in leadership positions. In addition, Oxfam should consider practical ways (such as cultural briefings by experts, mentoring buddies, etc.) to augment the understanding (of political contexts and cultural environments), skills and expertise of staff participating in international fora, particularly when these involve high stake discussions and negotiations. 

Cobus de Swardt
20 September 2010

The Review was carried out by Dr Cobus de Swardt, Managing Director of Transparency International, in his private capacity and on a pro bono basis.

Management Response

Oxfam is doing the following in response to the Review:

  1. Adopting a simple Code of Conduct for all staff at Campaign Events.
  2. Refreshing Campaign Event Guidelines, incorporating recommendations from this Review.
  3. Adopting a Campaign Event Contract to be signed by all affiliate staff participating in OI Campaign Teams. This will be based on the Code and Guidelines and will require staff to accept direction from the Campaign Team Leader during the event. Partners and allies accepted onto OI Teams will also sign the contract.
  4. Creating a Rapid Response Capacity for Campaign Events which will include identified legal resources and senior staff to ensure adequate support and back-up at all levels.
  5. Ensuring thorough induction for all Campaign Event Teams on the Code and Guidelines prior to the Event. This will be the responsibility of the Team Leader.
  6. An ‘Incident Report’ File has been created and any future issues will be filed systematically.
  7. Building performance of the event management measures above into the formal evaluation of each event.
  8. Reviewing other matters raised, which are not covered above for further consideration.