Optical charities react following Oxfam revelations

"All forms of exploitation, particularly by people in a position of power over others, are abhorrent and we strongly condemn them”

Ophthalmologist giving a child an eye exam

International optical charities have affirmed their commitment to safeguarding measures in the wake of damaging Oxfam revelations.

A parliamentary inquiry into sexual exploitation in the aid sector was launched after The Times revealed sexual misconduct by Oxfam aid workers in Haiti. The disclosures included charity staff using sex workers at Oxfam accommodation.

The charity, which has close to 10,000 staff working in 90 countries, is also under investigation by the Charity Commission for how it handled the misconduct.

Oxfam did not inform local police of the allegations, the country director was allowed to resign and a press release issued by the charity did not disclose the sexual nature of the misconduct.

“With hindsight, they made the wrong call as to how public to be,” Oxfam chief executive, Mark Goldring, told the International Development Committee.

He confirmed that there have been more than 7000 cancellations of regular donations to Oxfam following the scandal.

“Zero tolerance”

International non-governmental organisation, Sightsavers, operates eye health programmes in more than 30 countries.

Asked for their reaction to the Oxfam revelations, a Sightsavers spokesperson told OT: “All forms of exploitation, particularly by people in a position of power over others, are abhorrent and we strongly condemn them.”

A statement from the charity revealed that the events had prompted the organisation to examine its own policies.

“We have been reviewing our policies to ensure they are robust for all aspects of potential sexual exploitation. We have expressly made it clear that the use of sex workers, whether or not in work time, and irrespective of whether this is legal in the relevant country, would constitute gross misconduct,” it said.   

Sightsavers has also adjusted its whistleblowing procedure so that all whistleblowers go straight to a trustee with human resources experience, not just to senior management.

A charity spokesperson said the organisation has a “zero tolerance” approach to the type of behaviour that has come to light at Oxfam.

“Our staff know that any kind of sexual exploitation, abuse or harassment is completely unacceptable,” the spokesperson emphasised.

A member of Sightsavers’ senior management team has responsibility for safeguarding, while there is a designated member of staff in each country office who is responsible for child safeguarding.

The charity also has a dedicated whistleblowing email address that staff can use in confidence. Staff are given contact details for the independent whistleblowing charity, Public Concern at Work and the Charity Commission’s whistleblowing email address.

"Our staff know that any kind of sexual exploitation, abuse or harassment is completely unacceptable"

Protecting both staff and communities

The UK charity, Vision Aid Overseas (VAO), helps to close eye health disparities in Africa by providing training, infrastructure and equipment to enable the provision of low cost eye tests and spectacles.

A VAO spokesperson said there are clear procedures in place to report harassment, misconduct or child protection issues in a safe and confidential manner.

“Staff, volunteers and trustees working for VAO agree to policies addressing child protection, harassment and misconduct which are designed to protect both the staff, volunteers, trustees and partners that we work with, as well as to protect the individuals and communities that we serve in our programmes,” the spokesperson elaborated.

“There have been no reported incidents of improper behaviour by any of our staff, volunteers or trustees, overseas or here in the UK,” they concluded.

Safeguarding on a small scale

Andean Medical Mission (AMM) is a UK charity that helps to develop and manage eye care services in remote regions of the Bolivian Amazon and Andean mountains.

AMM director, Dave Goldsmith, told OT that the charity operates with only one employee and between four and five volunteers.

“From our point of view we like being small enough so that every person working knows exactly what everyone else is doing,” he shared.

Clinics are normally run in pairs, while there are always two or three people with the patient at all times during surgery.

Volunteers agree to a code of conduct and the normal security checks are carried out before they travel.

“Supporters of AMM can be assured of a well-run and efficient charity that puts patient safety and their visual outcomes above all else,” Mr Goldsmith emphasised.

Quality care in a safe environment

International non-governmental organisation, Orbis, works to prevent and treat avoidable blindness in 18 countries worldwide.

Orbis UK chief executive, Rebecca Cronin, told OT that the charity endeavours to provide the highest standards of care worldwide in the safest environment possible.

Orbis works with long term partners in the countries where it operates and does not provide emergency aid, she added.

“All staff, contractors and volunteers agree to follow a strict ethical code of practice and clear policies. These include a child protection and whistleblowing policy. In order to work with us, partners agree to follow clear safeguarding policies,” Ms Cronin highlighted.

“We are committed to upholding these policies throughout our global operations,” she concluded. 

Image credit: Getty