Oxfam failed to investigate sexual abuse claims, report says

Management did not act on fears aid workers were using prostitutes

The UK’s Charity Commission is set to release its findings on Tuesday. Reuters
The UK’s Charity Commission is set to release its findings on Tuesday. Reuters

Oxfam GB failed to act on concerns that its aid workers were sexually abusing women and girls in Haiti, a report to be published on Tuesday states.

Emails shared with the charity in early 2011 that claimed aid workers were sexually exploiting women, including minors, in refugee camps were considered to be malicious and not acted upon.

Only in July 2011 when separate concerns were voiced that aid workers were taking prostitutes to Oxfam lodgings was a full internal investigation launched. As a result, multiple people resigned or were dismissed as the scandal unfolded.

Oxfam, which did not look into the refugee camp allegations, said in its inquiry: “It cannot be ruled out that any of the prostitutes were under-aged.”

The UK’s Charity Commission released its findings on Tuesday after extensively investigating Oxfam GB. The report took over 7,000 items of evidence into account, examining the charity’s handling of events in Haiti, and separately its more recent record on protecting people, including its beneficiaries, volunteers and staff, from harm.

“No charity is so large, nor is its mission so important that it can afford to put its own reputation ahead of the dignity and wellbeing of those it exists to protect,” wrote Baroness Stowell, chair of the Charity Commission, in the foreword to the report.

The news saw more than 7,000 people cancelling their donations, forcing Oxfam to slash £16million (Dh74.70 million) of its budget to global aid projects.

The report by the Charity Commission is critical of senior staff involved in its work in Haiti, following a 2010 earthquake that left more than 200,000 dead and 1.5 million homeless.

It also criticises the decision to allow the Haiti country director Roland van Hauwermeiren a “phased and dignified exit” and move to a new post despite him admitting to using prostitutes at his Oxfam-funded residence.

The worker denies the allegations against him. "It was, in my opinion, a mature honourable lady, not an earthquake victim and no prostitute, whom I had met since I supported her young sister and very young mother with diapers and powdered milk. I never gave them money,” Mr van Hauwermeiren said in an open letter last year.

The Commission also found that the charity’s reports to donors and the Commission itself were “not as full and frank about the nature and seriousness of the incidents and problems in Haiti as they should have been”.

“What happened in Haiti was shameful and we are deeply sorry. It was a terrible abuse of power, and an affront to the values that Oxfam holds dear,” said Oxfam’s Chair of Trustees Caroline Thomson.

Ms Thomson described the Commission’s findings as “very uncomfortable” saying “more should have been done to establish whether minors were involved” in the 2011 internal investigation.

“The decision to allow the Country Director to resign without a fuller investigation of his own conduct would not be permitted today, under our current policies and practices. And while the Commission makes clear that it found no record of a ‘cover-up,’ we accept that Oxfam GB should have been fuller and franker in its initial reporting of the allegations.”

Ms Stephenson said although Oxfam GB had committed to learning lessons from its mistakes, “significant further cultural and systemic change is required to address the failings and weaknesses our report identifies.”

“We will be watching their progress closely in the weeks and months ahead,” she said.

On Monday, the charity’s trustees were ordered by the regulator to take specific actions, including submitting a plan of action to implement the Commission’s recommendations.

Also on Monday, The Times reported that Oxfam was not dealing with bullying claims at its head office despite a supposed culture change following the Haiti debacle.

A whistleblower, who resigned last month, told the newspaper that managers had not taken disciplinary action against a male employee accused of sexual harassment.

Oxfam insists it is committed to a culture change to address past failings.

“Over the coming weeks, we will study the Commission’s full report and put together a broader plan to further strengthen our approach to safeguarding, in light of both the regulator’s findings and the forthcoming report by the Independent Commission on Sexual Misconduct, Accountability and Culture Change,” said Ms Thomson.

Updated: June 11, 2019 06:57 PM


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