Oxfam GB chief: ‘Doing good can’t be an excuse for tolerating hurt’

“The massive defining factor in my life: generally I consider it as guilt,” Dhananjayan Sriskandarajah, says. “Generally I consider it as a duty. I simply really feel extremely lucky that my mother and father had the wherewithal and the chance to depart Sri Lanka once they did and take me with them later.” It allowed them to flee the nation’s devastating civil warfare that started in 1983.

These emotions have pulled Sriskandarajah in direction of a profession of public service management. He has headed the Royal Commonwealth Society, Civicus, a Johannesburg-based worldwide alliance of civil society organisations, and, since 2019, Oxfam GB, one in all 21 worldwide Oxfam associates, and the unique Oxfam, based 80 years in the past.

Turning into its chief government was courageous. Oxfam has a proud file, working in catastrophe zones, offering clear water, serving to ladies construct companies. However it has spent the previous decade mired in scandal. In 2010, Oxfam officers introduced intercourse staff into their premises in Haiti after a devastating earthquake. The UK Charity Fee stated in a 2019 report that Oxfam had “a tradition of tolerating poor behaviour” and had ignored warnings, some from its personal employees.

Sriskandarajah had been wanting ahead to a fellowship on the London Faculty of Economics when the Oxfam put up got here up. Caroline Thomson, then chair of trustees, stated Oxfam had chosen him from “a really sturdy quick listing” due to “his deep understanding of the challenges dealing with the sector . . . together with on gender justice”. He put aside any misgivings about taking the job when a former Oxfam board member instructed him: “Actual leaders run into the hearth, not away from it.”

Sriskandarajah traces his path to management by means of the nations he grew up in. When he was a small youngster, his mother and father went overseas to do their doctorates, leaving him in Sri Lanka together with his grandparents. By the point that they had completed finding out at Sydney college — his father was a vet and animal husbandry professional, his mom a plant scientist — that they had seen him as soon as between the ages of 1 and 6. “I referred to as my grandmother ‘mom’ and, in Tamil, I referred to as my very own mom ‘eldest daughter-in-law’, as a result of that’s how she was referred to within the family I used to be rising up in.”

Within the early Nineteen Eighties, Asian immigration into Australia was nonetheless tough, so his father obtained an instructional put up in Papua New Guinea, the place Sriskandarajah was reunited together with his mother and father. At his worldwide faculty, his Australian trainer checked out his first title and stated, “that’s too tough, mate, I’m going to name you Danny”, which is what folks have referred to as him ever since.

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The household made it to Australia a number of years later, the place his extremely tutorial New South Wales state faculty noticed management potential. “I wasn’t the neatest. I used to be by no means on the prime of my class.” However he grew to become the college sports activities captain after which captain of the college. “I gravitated to those issues as a result of I felt I might stand out in a reasonably aggressive, however healthily aggressive, pool.” After serving as a scholar consultant at Sydney college, he got here to Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar in 1998. Though he has now spent extra time in England than anyplace else, his gratitude to Australia is fierce. If he had stayed in Sri Lanka, he says, his schooling would have been disrupted by the warfare. As a Tamil he “nearly definitely would have had a reasonably horrible life”.

How did he take care of Oxfam’s low morale? “We arrange an e-mail within the three months earlier than I began referred to as ‘ideas for Danny’. The thought was any employees member throughout the organisation might ship something that they needed me to take a look at and we obtained a number of hundred responses — and a few fairly confronting messages to me about what wanted fixing within the organisation. That was about actually making an attempt to get underneath the pores and skin of what was occurring.” Earlier than arriving, he additionally despatched all employees his software letter to the Oxfam board. In addition to stressing the significance of safeguarding, the letter stated Oxfam needed to deal with its authentic goal of coping with the world’s inequalities. “It was reminding colleagues in regards to the larger image, about what we’re right here to do.”

Oxfam was not alone in its second of reckoning. “Haiti was a wake-up name for us, but additionally for the sector,” he says. “Specialists on this space have stated, for a few a long time at the very least, that there was one thing incorrect within the worldwide improvement sector. That is very a lot one thing we needed to repair in Oxfam, and I hope we’re, however it’s a part of a systemic cultural concern.” There may be an imbalance of energy between NGOs and people they work with. “It’s akin to different types of methods or buildings the place that abuse of energy can occur: healthcare or kids’s companies. However the sector hadn’t approached this set of points in the identical manner that kids’s companies or healthcare has needed to.”

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Following its vital 2019 report, the Charity Fee final 12 months commended Oxfam for enhancements, some launched earlier than Sriskandarajah’s arrival, in its recruitment, coaching and understanding of what prevented folks from reporting harassment. The Fee famous Oxfam had additionally elevated the proportion of ladies leaders from 25 per cent to 50 per cent. “And that’s vital as a result of, like most charities, we’re feminine majority within the employees, however we had a form of glass pyramid as a result of we tended to be extra male majority within the senior management,” Sriskandarajah says.

Three questions for Dhananjayan Sriskandarajah

Who’s your management hero?

Mary Robinson [former president of Ireland]. An incredible political chief, head of state however, for me, a values-based chief of the very best kind — on human rights, on local weather justice, when she chairs the Elders [an independent group of global leaders]. Principled, courageous. After which, the icing on the cake, I final noticed her at COP in Glasgow, she’s simply so heat, she all the time asks after your loved ones.

In the event you weren’t a CEO/chief what would you be?

I might like to have been a journey author. I’ve now lived in six nations on 4 continents, I’ve been to greater than 100 nations, seen the world and had alternatives that will have been unimaginable to somebody like me even a number of a long time in the past.

What was the primary management lesson you learnt?

After I obtained the Rhodes scholarship, I had seven or eight months earlier than beginning at Oxford. I obtained a job at a newly created analysis institute at Sydney college taking a look at well being ethics, led by an eminent professor, a surgeon. Each Friday morning, he’d insist that everybody flip up, we’d have espresso for an hour or two, no agenda, and we’d all take turns to lift a problem. That to me is the concept of a pacesetter who’s approachable, caring and inclusive, and championing and empowering others round them.

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So it got here as a blow when, in April final 12 months, new allegations emerged about Oxfam workers within the Democratic Republic of Congo. In June, Oxfam announced it had dismissed 4 employees members for nepotism, sexual misconduct and bullying. “We had an ongoing exterior investigation that we commissioned six months earlier than the information studies had been popping out,” Sriskandarajah says. What’s vital, he provides, is that Oxfam is now clear about the place abuses are nonetheless happening and has methods to take care of them.

Whereas Oxfam was cleansing itself up, Covid struck. The pandemic vastly elevated the quantity of people that wanted assist. “The World Financial institution estimates 160mn folks at the very least will have already got been pushed into $5.50-a-day poverty,” Sriskandarajah says. Oxfam needed to shut its community of about 600 UK retailers for seven months, placing employees on furlough. Its income from authorities and public authority grants and donations helped to restrict the autumn in whole earnings to £344.3mn in 2020-21 from £376.4mn the 12 months earlier than.

The warfare in Ukraine, which started after this interview was carried out, presents the world’s poor with new issues. Whereas Oxfam works on the Ukraine disaster with different organisations within the Disasters Emergency Committee, Sriskandarajah emails: “We’re additionally acutely aware of how wider impacts comparable to rising meals costs might hurt weak folks world wide — tens of millions of individuals within the Horn of Africa are already dealing with excessive starvation on account of local weather change, battle and the pandemic.”

Oxfam is forming deeper partnerships in fewer nations, working more and more by means of native companions. Doesn’t this outsourcing improve Oxfam’s reputational threat? Sriskandarajah concedes that outsourcing finished badly can harm the outsourcer, however he says it’s vital to construct native organisations. “It’s been too lengthy that the worldwide improvement sector has stated ‘we’re going to fly in and do a great job’.” And Oxfam wants to make sure that its personal employees abide by its guidelines. “Simply since you are doing good can’t be an excuse for tolerating hurt,” he says.


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