Weeks of horrendous revelations about the actions of Oxfam staff in midst of crises have shocked me and millions of others. Stories about abuses of power, position and privilege which are both all too familiar in this era, but also a punch in the heart because we thought that Oxfam and its people couldn’t do that. The consequences for this failure have been monumental and very public, and rightly so. These are serious events, and Oxfam cannot go back to business as normal. But amongst the drama and awful details of the story as it unfolds, many current and former staff are trying to process and share their own feelings at seeing their organisation’s failings.
When I started with Oxfam Australia back in April 2008, I was elated. I was leaving a job that I wasn’t enjoying, and not only that, I was joining an organisation that was one of my dream workplaces. I had been a donor for years, signed up for a monthly gift in my early 20s by a charming and effusive fundraiser on the street. I had chosen Oxfam as my ‘people charity’ and also filled my environmental charity slot as well. Joining Oxfam, I was excited but overwhelmed. It was a vibrant and diverse team that I stepped into, and I was anxious about doing the best job I could, not just for my professional reputation, but the incredible sense of responsibility to the organisation and the communities it served and was supported by. I felt painfully new then, and that feeling really only wore off after years.
I had the fortune to join a generation of Oxfam employees who were vibrant, intelligent, ambitious, diligent, talented and committed; colleagues, volunteers, bosses, mentors, I met people who lifted me up, intimidated me with their accomplishments, became my close friends, provided counsel, and let off steam and talked shop together. I did a lot of growing up with these people, finding more emotional maturity, learning to trust and rely on others, celebrating their successes and commiserating their failures. I worked alongside friends and peers as they graduated, fell in and out of love, complained about each other, worked long hours and weekends and late nights, and set off alarms. And I grieved with them when we lost people who were close to us. And alongside the personal journey I took in my ten years with Oxfam, was a professional evolution just as marked. I found a deep respect for colleagues who brought decades and worlds of experience I could only imagine, and for some of them, the impossible balance of building a heart strong enough to get to work when horrible disasters strikes, but a heart also soft enough to maintain its aching sadness at the injustice and suffering that we were fighting so hard to eliminate; that included the long days and nights spent working to support our work in Haiti. I worked with volunteers, and the public, and senior leaders, and with our Board, and that universal commitment to doing whatever we could to advance Oxfam’s work was something you could rely on, no matter who you were working with.
Flash forward a decade and I have only recently left Oxfam, where I spent just shy of 10 years working with some of the best people I have ever met. I cleaned up my desk, and finished my time with Oxfam with a great deal of hesitation and melancholy; one doesn’t spend that long at a job without wanting to be there. My relationship with Oxfam is now familial: it’s an abiding love of this organisation and the people that come together to create it, but with healthy dose of jaded frustration at some of those people, who disappoint, or don’t share your view on things, or irritate you by leaving dishes in the sink (seriously). This matured love recognises the contradiction of aspiration and realism that Oxfam treads, of the impossible ambitions the organisation sets, most often for itself.
During my time with Oxfam I had the chance to see only a fraction of the work that we do close up, I got to meet only a few hundred of the 10,000 staff and 50,000 volunteers who contribute to the Oxfam mission, and my time there was short compared to some I’ve met in Australia and around the world who’ve given decades or their entire career in service to Oxfam. And learning about the abuse of trust that some staff committed under Oxfam’s banner is sickening, a feeling I’ve heard reflected from others. The feeling is contradictory and complicated: I’m unbelievably angry about the individuals who took advantage of chaos and crisis; I’m frustrated by leadership and systems that failed to stop this or act severely enough at the time; I’m sad for the donors and volunteers who feel let down and taken for a ride; and I have such sorrow for the communities that turned to us for help in their most difficult times, and did not find the heroes we owed them.
But alongside this, I also feel anxiety and fear: anxiety that the Oxfam that I grew to love and dedicate a quarter of my life to will disappear in the shadow of this awful period; and fear that this scandal will not only damage donors’ trust in Oxfam but in the global project of poverty reduction. The world has made spectacular progress in reducing extreme poverty, and we could eliminate it by 2030. But we will only be the generation that has the honour of ending extreme poverty if governments, citizens, nonprofits, and civil society work together to end injustice, focus their efforts and resources, and find solutions that help communities build futures free from poverty forever.
I hope that society can hold accountable those who hold power, not just humanitarian NGOs but governments, militaries and corporations who work alongside the world’s poorest and most vulnerable, especially women and girls. I hope that Oxfam can move forward from this moment, chastened but learning, committed to doing better. For all these reasons and more, the monthly donation that I agreed to on my way to work so many years ago, will continue. I believe in the work that Oxfam does, as much as I believe it can and must always get better, and I’ll stand by while it does, supporting it and holding it to account.