We Need to Go Beyond a Robotic Response and Learn

The Oxfam story is a layer cake and a bitter one at that.

This story is about abuse, power, people speaking out, and people not being listened to. It is about kids being harmed and being helped often within metres of one another. It is about chances to intervene being missed. It is shocking.

This story has provided ammunition for those desperate to turn the UK away from some of the world’s most vulnerable people. Often the same people who want to silence charities that critique the government’s record. While theirs is a predictable and opportunistic response, it is also a side-show.

The real story in the handling of these awful allegations is how the charity sector and those of us who have dedicated large portions of our lives to it, appear unable or unwilling to learn. Here we have been our own worst enemy.

Since the story broke, a few charities have rallied to the cause and this is to be commended. While deploring the behaviour and handling they have made the case for aid, and charity intervention, as vital to us operating as a good citizen in a complex, global world.

Almost no one is speaking about the causes and how we redesign jobs, systems and cultures to protect the vulnerable and celebrate whistleblowers, beyond the stock line, distancing in itself, “that we will learn lessons”.

When critics assail us, charities need to be truthful, genuinely contrite and most importantly hungry to learn. Not just to quit and say I messed up. That can come afterward.

At its heart learning is about power. Who has it, who guards it and who will relinquish it. Learning is about saying we don’t have all the answers and being open enough to go and find out. Yet this is barely visible in our response. Partial, rote, robotic, half apologies will only exacerbate the crisis.

We should be desperate to understand why things happened in the first place. We should be working with anyone who can help us understand why people and systems reacted as they did and collaborating with people who will help us reduce harm and maximize good. A promotion for every whistleblower?

As a sector, we need to do better or we let down those we all profess to serve. This starts with us being honest with ourselves and learning, in the public eye. This would be the best response to this whole sorry mess.

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