In medicine, there is a well-known guiding principle "First, do no harm." Understood in this quote is the idea to step lightly into a situation to keep from making it even worse. With three major British charities accused of systemic sexual abuse, harassment, and exploitation including pedophila, it's time for charities to provide the same focus to our work.
The horrifying revelations coming out of the UK, show we have spent far too long ignoring the critics of our work, like Gail Picco. Her book, "Cap in Hand: How Charities are Failing Canada and the World"* suggests that the sector has been ineffective in leadership and management, lacking the ability to sustain real change. She has her critics, but these recent events surely demonstrate that Gail has a genuine, and reasonable point in her complaints.
"Charities benefit so many people," many say. "They do really good work, there are a few bad apples everywhere," some add. But if your young sister who was hired as a prostitute by a charity employee, would you feel the same way?
To be fair, not all charities are bad. And certainly not all charity employees or volunteers are bad. Through our work, we are priviledged in the sector to know countless good and great people. We all know them, they are the best of us. They are the majority. But sadly, there are those who exploit trust. They exploit by stealing money. They exploit by harassing fellow employees. And most grieviously, they exploit by harming the very people our charities are supposed to help.
It's bad when an employee steals money from a charity with lax cash controls. Experience shows that it's hard to monitor bad behaviour when it is right here at home. That concerns me. We don't have bad behaviour under control here in Canada when it comes to proper oversight of charities as employers when it comes to sexual harassment.
If we can't fully develop laws and rules to make sure that we have safe workplaces in Canada, it is hard to imagine how we can promise to eliminate evil behaviour when it occurs thousands of miles and several time zones away with vulnerable people. We are part of a larger culture, one that has systemic problems with sexism and racism. The evidence in the UK suggests that we export that culture when we work abroad.
The existence of this terrible situation is more than a few bad hiring choices. This is a systemic culture problem. And that should concern us in Canada because many of the head offices of international charities are located in the UK or have a major professional branch of their charity in the UK. Oxfam is one such charity, as is Save the Children and the Red Cross. All three have been mentioned, by name, by The Times as having deep problems with sexual harassment and exploitation.
So what do we do?
For starters, let's listen to our critics, like Gail Picco, a lot more. Let's start listening to the people we have been ignoring; those who make us angry or uncomfortable. And let's think about getting our own house in order right here in Canada before we export our problems to other places because "First, do no harm" seems like a very good place for us to start.
Ann Rosenfield is the Editor of Hilborn Charity eNews and is Principal for Charitably Speaking.
*Disclosure Note - Gail Picco's book Cap in Hand is published by Hilborn's Civil Sector Press.