The Oxfam Scandal

The British charity organization Oxfam, and the humanitarian world, at large, is reeling this week after revelations that Oxfam failed to respond accordingly during an investigation into several employees’ alleged illegal procurement of women and girls for sex while stationed in Haiti in 2011. Seven staff in various positions in Oxfam were found to have hired prostitutes, which is illegal in Haiti, for sex parties while working to help citizens recover from the devastating 2010 earthquake, and the initial complaint made to Oxfam’s headquarter’s included accusations of staff offering aid in exchange for sex and sexually harassing other members of staff.

Oxfam was made aware of this conduct at the time and launched an investigation, interviewing over 40 witnesses. It has been revealed recently that when informing the British government and the UK’s Charity Commission, Oxfam failed to stress the severity of the allegations, instead claiming vaguely that “serious misconduct” related to abuse of power and bullying was being investigated, and asserted that no beneficiaries of aid were affected. Furthermore, the charity fired four of the staff involved while the other three were allowed to discreetly resign. These employees went on to work for other aid agencies. One of these staff members, Roland van Hauwermeiren, the Haitian country director at the time, was allowed to resign in exchange for assisting with the investigation, despite admitting to the use of sex workers and being accused of “negligence and failure to safeguard employees – in particular, female employees.” It has also come to light that during the investigation in 2011, a report was leaked to a separate member of staff for Oxfam by the manager of one of the employees accused. This leak led to three accused staff members physically threatening and intimidating one of the witnesses who had been named in the report to ensure their silence.

The exposure of Oxfam’s failings during this incident is being regarded by many politicians and former and current employees in the humanitarian sector as just one example of a ‘global problem’ permeating the aid industry. The scandal comes at a time when new data has revealed that in the past year, more than 120 workers for various British charities, including the British Red Cross, Christian Aid and Save the Children, were accused of sexual abuse, with 87 cases recorded within Oxfam. The United Nations has, for decades now, been mired with accusations of sexual exploitation and abuse of civilians by peacekeeping soldiers across all their peacekeeping missions, including the UN mission to Haiti, and condemned for their lackluster and evasive response to these incidents. Last year, the UN announced that in 2016 alone there were 145 reported cases of sexual exploitation involving 311 victims in peacekeeping missions, revealing the organization’s failure to establish and implement a meaningful policy response to this longstanding issue.

Within Oxfam itself, a pattern of sexual exploitation and poor response from the organizations’ leadership has emerged as more than a decade ago, there were accusations in Chad of the use of sex workers by Oxfam staff, including Roland van Hauwermeiren, who then became country director for Haiti. This pattern continues and spreads across the aid industry, as staff accused of such conduct are allowed to continue working for charities and NGOs. This was the case for Roland van Hauwermeiren, who after resigning from Oxfam moved on to the French charity organization Action Against Hunger as the country director in Bangladesh.

Oxfam is now scrambling to defend their now tenuous reputation and deal with the fallout of the scandal, as it has unfolded over the past 2 weeks. The charity’s deputy chief executive, Penny Lawrence, resigned last week as a direct result of the allegations. At the beginning of this week, Oxfam released in full the internal report that was written in 2011 following the investigation, which identifies the nature of the initial accusations of sexual misconduct in Haiti and details extensively the way in which Oxfam responded to the allegations, including the failings of the charity’s investigative process. In a statement accompanying the report, Oxfam expressed a desire to be as “transparent as possible about the decisions we made” and recognizes the “breach of trust that has been caused.” The charity has also announced intentions to establish a commission, the High-Level Commission on Sexual Misconduct, Accountability and Culture Change, comprised of experts in the defense of women’s rights in an attempt to strengthen its protection systems and investigate cases of sexual exploitation by its staff.

Yesterday, Oxfam formally apologized to the government of Haiti. This follows the senior Haitian minister Aviol Fleurant, who is in charge of the oversight of aid agencies for the nation, threatening to revoke the charity’s right to operate in Haiti. The Haitian President Jovenel Moise has asserted that the current Oxfam scandal is merely “the visible part of the iceberg” and has called for investigations into the conduct of Doctors Without Borders and other charities that came to Haiti following the 2010 earthquake.

Following the scandal, the European Union and the British government are considering cutting funding to Oxfam. In particular, Conservative lawmakers in Britain are using this event to argue for a drastic diminishment of the government’s foreign aid spending, of which Oxfam received £32 million last year. Such an approach would ultimately, and unfairly, severely punish those most vulnerable: the potential beneficiaries of foreign aid.

Oxfam is now taking meaningful steps to respond to the scandal and create an effective policy that upholds the safety of the beneficiaries and promote a culture of openness and acknowledgment of mistakes made. However, more must be done to analyze the depth and breadth of incidences of sexual exploitation across the humanitarian sector and to recognize Oxfam’s role in implicitly condoning such acts through their poor response to the 2011 allegations and attempts to cover up the scandal at the time. Charities rely almost exclusively on their public reputation, through government and individual donation, in order to operate and provide effective aid to those in need. It has thus become the trend, as can be seen, most damningly with the UN’s response to accusations of sexual exploitation, for charities, and other aid organizations, to attempt to minimize the perceived severity of such incidences and protect those accused over their victims, who are frequently citizens of developing countries and at the receiving end of a skewed power structure created by the presence of Western aid workers in their country. By attempting to keep such incidences from the public eye, organizations like Oxfam reveal a fixation on public image and procuring donations at the expense of the safety of their beneficiaries.

A truly effective response to the alleged pervasiveness of sexual exploitation across the aid industry would include a global investigative body that is completely independent of any aid organizations and works in partnership with charities to monitor cases of sexual exploitation and abuse across the sector. Furthermore, charities must introduce mandatory reporting between aid agencies, the UN, and host governments when such incidents occur in order to remain credible.

Oxfam has a long way to go to rebuild their international reputation following the outbreak of this scandal. It is hoped that the organization rises to the task so that it can continue to invest in projects, focus on their goals of alleviating poverty, and provide those in need with the tools for empowerment and agency.

Ruby Leonard