“The big defining thing in my life: sometimes I think of it as guilt,” Dhananjayan Sriskandarajah, says. “Sometimes I think of it as a responsibility. I just feel incredibly fortunate that my parents had the wherewithal and the opportunity to leave Sri Lanka when they did and take me with them later. ” It allowed them to escape the country’s devastating civil war that began in 1983.
These feelings have pulled Sriskandarajah towards a career of public service leadership. He has headed the Royal Commonwealth Society, Civicus, a Johannesburg-based worldwide alliance of civil society organizations, and, since 2019, Oxfam GB, one of 21 worldwide Oxfam affiliates, and the original Oxfam, founded 80 years ago.
Becoming its chief executive was brave. Oxfam has a proud record, working in disaster zones, providing clean water, helping women build businesses. But it has spent the past decade mired in scandal. In 2010, Oxfam officials brought sex workers into their premises in Haiti after a devastating earthquake. The UK Charity Commission said in a 2019 report that Oxfam had “a culture of tolerating poor behavior” and had ignored warnings, some from its own staff.
Sriskandarajah had been looking forward to a fellowship at the London School of Economics when the Oxfam post came up. Caroline Thomson, then chair of trustees, said Oxfam had chosen him from “a very strong short list” because of his deep understanding of the challenges facing the sector. . . including on gender justice ”. He set aside any misgivings about taking the job when a former Oxfam board member told him: “Real leaders run into the fire, not away from it.”
Sriskandarajah traces his route to leadership through the countries he grew up in. When he was a small child, his parents went abroad to do their doctorates, leaving him in Sri Lanka with his grandparents. By the time they had finished studying at Sydney university – his father was a vet and animal husbandry expert, his mother a plant scientist – they had seen him once between the ages of one and six. “I called my grandmother ‘mother’ and, in Tamil, I called my own mother ‘eldest daughter-in-law’, because that’s how she was referred to the household I was growing up in.”
In the early 1980s, Asian immigration into Australia was still difficult, so his father got an academic post in Papua New Guinea, where Sriskandarajah was reunited with his parents. At his international school, his Australian teacher looked at his first name and said, “that’s too difficult, mate, I’m going to call you Danny”, which is what people have called him ever since.
The family made it to Australia a few years later, where his highly academic New South Wales state school spotted leadership potential. “I wasn’t the smartest. I was never at the top of my class. ” But he became the school sports captain and then the school captain. “I gravitated to these things because I felt I could stand out in a pretty competitive, but healthyily competitive, pool.” After serving as a student representative at Sydney university, he came to Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar in 1998. Although he has now spent more time in England than anywhere else, his gratitude to Australia is fierce. If he had stayed in Sri Lanka, he says, his education would have been disrupted by the war. As a Tamil he “almost certainly would have had a pretty terrible life”.
How did he deal with Oxfam’s low morale? “We set up an email in the three months before I started called ‘thoughts for Danny’. The idea was any staff member across the organization could send anything that they wanted me to look at and we got a few hundred responses – and some quite confronting messages to me about what needed fixing in the organization. That was about really trying to get under the skin of what was going on. ” Before arriving, he also sent all staff his application letter to the Oxfam board. As well as stressing the importance of safeguarding, the letter said Oxfam had to focus on its original purpose of dealing with the world’s inequalities. “It was reminding colleagues about the bigger picture, about what we are here to do.”
Oxfam was not alone in its moment of reckoning. “Haiti was a wake-up call for us, but also for the sector,” he says. “Experts in this area have said, for a couple of decades at least, that there was something wrong in the international development sector. This is very much something we had to fix in Oxfam, and I hope we are, but it is part of a systemic cultural issue. ” There is an imbalance of power between NGOs and those they work with. “It’s akin to other sorts of systems or structures where abuse of power can occur: healthcare or children’s services. But the sector had not approached this set of issues in the same way that children’s services or healthcare has had to. ”
Following its critical 2019 report, the Charity Commission last year commended Oxfam for improvements, some launched before Sriskandarajah’s arrival, in its recruitment, training and understanding of what prevented people from reporting harassment. The Commission noted Oxfam had also increased the proportion of women leaders from 25 per cent to 50 per cent. “And that’s important because, like most charities, we’re female majority in the staff, but we had a sort of glass pyramid because we tended to be more male majority in the senior leadership,” Sriskandarajah says.
Three questions for Dhananjayan Sriskandarajah
Who is your leadership hero?
Mary Robinson [former president of Ireland]. An amazing political leader, head of state but, for me, a values-based leader of the best sort – on human rights, on climate justice, when she chairs the Elders [an independent group of global leaders]. Principled, brave. And then, the icing on the cake, I last saw her at COP in Glasgow, she’s just so warm, she always asks after your family.
If you weren’t a CEO / leader what would you be?
I would love to have been a travel writer. I’ve now lived in six countries on four continents, I’ve been to more than 100 countries, seen the world and had opportunities that would have been unimaginable to someone like me even a few decades ago.
What was the first leadership lesson you learned?
When I got the Rhodes scholarship, I had seven or eight months before starting at Oxford. I got a job at a newly created research institute at Sydney university looking at health ethics, led by an eminent professor, a surgeon. Every Friday morning, he’d insist that everyone turn up, we’d have coffee for an hour or two, no agenda, and we’d all take turns to raise an issue. That to me is the idea of a leader who is approachable, caring and inclusive, and championing and empowering others around them.
So it came as a blow when, in April last year, new allegations emerged about Oxfam employees in the Democratic Republic of Congo. In June, Oxfam announced it had dismissed four staff members for nepotism, sexual misconduct and bullying. “We had an ongoing external investigation that we commissioned six months before the news reports were coming out,” Sriskandarajah says. What is important, he adds, is that Oxfam is now transparent about where abuses are still taking place and has systems to deal with them.
While Oxfam was cleaning itself up, Covid struck. The pandemic vastly increased the number of people who needed help. “The World Bank estimates 160mn people at least will already have been pushed into $ 5.50-a-day poverty,” Sriskandarajah says. Oxfam had to close its network of about 600 UK shops for seven months, putting staff on furlough. Its income from government and public authority grants and donations helped to limit the fall in total income to £ 344.3mn in 2020-21 from £ 376.4mn the year before.
The war in Ukraine, which began after this interview was conducted, presents the world’s poor with new problems. While Oxfam works on the Ukraine crisis with other organizations in the Disasters Emergency Committee, Sriskandarajah emails: “We’re also acutely conscious of how wider impacts such as rising food prices could harm vulnerable people around the world – millions of people in the Horn of Africa is already facing extreme hunger due to climate change, conflict and the pandemic. ”
Oxfam is forming deeper partnerships in fewer countries, working increasingly through local partners. Doesn’t this outsourcing increase Oxfam’s reputational risk? Sriskandarajah concedes that outsourcing done badly can damage the outsourcer, but he says it is vital to build local organizations. “It’s been too long that the international development sector has said ‘we’re going to fly in and do a good job’.” And Oxfam needs to ensure that its own staff abide by its rules. “Just because you are doing good can’t be an excuse for tolerating harm,” he says.