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Caterina Bulgarella on Oxfam: Why values and purpose create ethical debt

The last few weeks have seen a crescendo of revelations about Oxfam. Since the Sunday Times broke the story that Oxfam personnel had engaged prostitutes during the earthquake rescue operations in Haiti, the charity found itself fronting a scandal of still unknown proportions.

The Oxfam story is too grim to be discounted as one of the many failures of large organizations. There is simply too much bad behavior to account for, including aid staff possibly having sex with underage girls in Oxfam-paid facilities, workers failing to protect colleagues while on duty, personnel physically threatening witnesses, and, above all, “humanitarian” staffers taking advantage of crisis victims whom they were supposed to be helping. Since the scandal, new allegations suggest that Oxfam personnel may have used prostitutes in Chad. And Oxfam itself has admitted receiving at least 26 reports of sexual misconduct in recent weeks.

Oxfam’s story may end up exposing endemic predatory practices in the aid sector. The Charity Commission will investigate sexual misconduct across aid organizations as a result of what transpired at Oxfam. Save the Children UK acknowledged that it had dismissed 19 staff due to sexual misconduct, and that as many as 193 sexual harassment cases were recorded at Save the Children International in 2016. Besides, alleged misconduct dates way back as an earlier report about sexual exploitation of female refugees by United Nations and NGO staff documented. According to Report the Abuse, not only is sexual misconduct and exploitation a sector-wide problem, but in as many as 39% of the cases expat staff are the perpetrators.

The endemic ethical failures of the humanitarian industry shed light on an unexpected fact: the non-profit sector is hardly immune to ethical fiascos, likely facing the same poor decision-making outcomes that affect the for-profit sector. This may seem odd given that the non-profit industry was born purpose-led and values-based. Take Oxfam, for example: their purpose “is to help create lasting solutions to the injustice of poverty…,” and their beliefs entail statements such as “everyone has a right to realize their potential… in poverty, people have little power …women and girls are the most oppressed by poverty…”

Clearly, a focus on purpose and values may be insufficient for building ethical conduct in organizations. Research has demonstrated that embracing moral standards and/or engaging in ethical behavior may actually give people some type of moral license. For example, it’s been shown that individuals who’ve had a chance to establish their kindness are less inclined to engage in subsequent prosocial behavior.

Studies also indicate that individuals who have had the opportunity to express their moral intentions may give themselves permission not to follow through. The mental glitch that makes people more likely to take liberties seems to run on an implicit balance sheet: we take stock of our purported allegiance to moral standards or recent ethical actions and may use whatever moral credit we believe we’ve earned to take moral licenses.

How does this play out in real life? Take the case of Oxfam staff in a rescue operation. Imagine Oxfam aid workers launching critical work under the banner of a purpose-led, values-based charity known for its commitment to ending poverty and injustice. After a long day spent providing life-saving help, the moral credit these individuals will feel is likely enough to license and discount serious ethical slippages.

The same type of glitch may also affect the stance of an entire organization. Picture a charity like Oxfam forging ahead with an inspiring purpose and a stirring vision, intent on doing meaningful work. The organization as a whole may feel to operate on such high moral grounds that it may start sliding into complacency when it comes to managing its culture and ethics practices. Reports about questionable behavior by staffers are discounted; moral liberties taken by senior leaders are ignored; ethical challenges are treated in a simplistic way; systems are not set up correctly etc.

This negative chain of events — the hallmark of a bad culture — is not prevented by the existence of values and purpose. In fact, it may even be accelerated by the formal embracement of ambitious ethical principles—a risk that non-profit and for-profit institutions face alike.

Far from being a piece of ethical insurance, purpose and values should be treated as an additional ethical responsibility. This means that the ethical challenges, goals and commitments of an organization become all the more multi-layered when an inspiring purpose and lofty values are endorsed. In terms of best practices, the implications are equally significant, starting with how principles of conduct are chosen and continuing with the individual accountabilities and behavioral norms created as a result of them. This is why organizations that go for a high purpose and noble values accrue ethical debt until they can prove they are living up to the ethical standards they’ve officially espoused.


Caterina Bulgarella, Ph.D., pictured above, is a member of Ethical Systems’ core team and a collaborator of SAI Global. She’s a culture architect and ethics expert  who advises senior leaders on culture change and ethical challenges. She can be contacted here.

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  1. Caterina – great article. With the trends towards corporate citizenship and social responsibility, aiming for a greater purpose than financial success, what are the corporate equivalents we might anticipate? Could a "green" initiative create the possibility of complacency around the occasional spill?

  2. Thank you, Adelle. Green initiatives are a perfect example of what might create complacency in an organization. The E&C field has made tremendous progress; the last thing we should want at this point is to reduce ethics to just an ethics-check-the-box approach.

  3. Great article Caterina. This seems to suggest that organizations with historically strong ethics and compliance programs and cultures must work even harder to ensure that this doesn’t become license or as you put it “credit” to act otherwise.

  4. A strong and sobering piece. The negative chain of events you describe is indeed a hallmark of every bad culture and absolutely not avoided merely because an enterprise is purpose-led and values-based. Any organization can be susceptible to the abandonment of its principles or dereliction of its core values. Professed devotion to charitability, generosity, and helpfulness are only declarations of noble aspiration and intent. There are many additional steps needed to organize, embody, and sustain an authentic ethical or moral posture in-action. I must add: the underpinning drivers propelling seemingly good people to do bad, even horrible things to other people, especially as at Oxfam those who are in desperate need, is not attributable to a “mental glitch.” Predators of many sorts are often drawn to work in charitable, humanitarian, and social justice organizations precisely because of the proximity and access to a vulnerable population. But just as often, they’re not necessarily wolves knowingly hiding in sheep’s clothing. They might embark on their mission with a genuine passion to help, unaware of (or supposing they can suppress or control) the powerful impulses to exploit and harm (the generating substructures of which can be very complex, but typically involves their own personal history of trauma and experience with victimization). And so stringent vetting of case workers (and leaders) is not enough. As you importantly underscore, we must not blindly trust solely on the claim of purpose and values, but require that they uphold the highest standards of transparency, monitoring, and accountability.

  5. Thank you for your article on "ethical debt," which is a very interesting concept. It is troubling, since ethics seems to be just another banking concept. That is, you have an account with ethical "units," and you can use them any way you like as long as the account stays in the black. That's bad enough, but in this ethics as banking model, people actually get worse. Incredible. Looking forward to reading more about this.

  6. I read: “Organizations that go for a high purpose and noble values accrue ethical debt until they can prove they are living up to the ethical standards they’ve officially espoused”

    Are we then to just pray that debt turns out to be finally repaid?

    I am of course not proposing it, but let me remind you of that the Catholic Church used the system of selling indulgences, which allowed you some prepaid space to sin. And currently, with “carbon credits”, you can buy yourself, the right to contaminate.☹

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