Following last week’s controversial revelations of the sexual exploitation by Oxfam workers, British charities face government crackdowns and funding cuts.
All British charities working overseas have been ordered to provide ‘absolute assurances’ that they are safeguarding vulnerable people in the areas of their work.
In a report in The Times last week, Oxfam was accused of covering up allegations that senior aid workers paid local prostitutes for sex in Haiti in 2011.
Oxfam was one of several British charities in the country following the 7.0 magnitude earthquake that caused more than 200,000 casualties in January 2010.
A whistleblower has alleged that Oxfam workers hosted ‘sex parties’ at charity rented properties. The Times quotes one source saying that one party was ‘like a full-on Caligula orgy’ with girls dressed in Oxfam t-shirts.
Oxfam responded to The Times report, admitting the behaviour of some of its staff had been ‘totally unacceptable’, however, they had already announced an investigation into the allegations in 2011 when they surfaced initially, including sexual exploitation and the downloading of pornography.
In a statement from Oxfam, a spokeswoman said, “The behaviour of some members of Oxfam staff uncovered in Haiti in 2011 was totally unacceptable, contrary to our values and the high standards we expect of our staff.”
“Our primary aim was always to root out and take action against those involved and we publicly announced, including to media, both the investigation and the action we took as a result.”
The charity is being accused of covering up the details of the initial allegations as four senior members of staff including the country director Roland Van Hauwermeiren were either dismissed or allowed to resign prior to the conclusion of the investigation.
Aid workers offering interviews to various publications have said that they have heard of similar behaviour across Africa and Asia. A former UN employee said sexual misconduct was ‘definitely widespread’ and therefore not isolated to the recent Oxfam scandal. She continues to explain that although publicising allegations could ultimately improve industry-wide practices, the thread of funding-cuts because of such publicity encourage organisations such as Oxfam to, “bury sexual misconduct instead of doing a proper inquiry.”
In the wake of the further investigation into misconduct by Oxfam beyond Haiti, their deputy chief executive Penny Lawrence resigned from her position on Monday saying she was ‘ashamed’ of what happened.
Lawrence was Oxfam’s international programme director in 2011 at the time the allegations were initially reported. She said she took full responsibility for what happened whilst under her watch.
In a statement, she said, “Over the last few days we have become aware that concerns were raised about the behaviour of staff in Chad as well as Haiti that we failed to adequately act upon. It is now clear that these allegations – involving the use of prostitutes and which related to behaviour of both the country director and members of his team in Chad – were raised before he moved to Haiti.”
“I am desperately sorry for the harm and distress that this has caused to Oxfam’s supporters, the wider development sector and most of all the vulnerable people who trusted us.”
On BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, Michelle Russell, Charity Commision director of investigations said, “We’ve made very clear that had the details of what has come out over the last few days been told to us, we would have dealt with this very differently. We were categorically told there was no abuse of beneficiaries involved in the allegations. Nor were we told that there were issues or possible issues around possible crimes, including those involving minors.”
Penny Lawrence’s resignation has come as the International Development Secretary, Penny Mordaunt, held crisis talks with Oxfam.
Concerned sexual misconduct could be a wider issue in humanitarian agencies beyond Oxfam, Mordaunt has written a letter to all British charities working overseas. Mordaunt has demanded each charity to provide, “absolute assurance that the moral leadership, the systems, the culture and the transparency needed to fully protect vulnerable people are in place,” or risk funding cuts.
In an interview with Andrew Marr, Mordaunt said, “It is not only Oxfam that must improve. My absolute priority is to keep the world’s poorest and most vulnerable people safe from harm. In the 21st century, it is utterly despicable that sexual exploitation and abuse continues to exist in the aid sector.”
In light of these recent allegations, The Department for International Development (Dfid) has set about reviewing safeguarding in the humanitarian aid sector in efforts to stopping ‘criminal and predatory individuals’ from working for British funded charities. Furthermore, a register of development workers may be established to combat such situations of sexual exploitation.
Oxfam received £31.7m in government funding in 2016/17. However, Mordaunt has said the UK will not work with any charitable organisation that, “does not live up to the high standards on safeguarding and protection that we require.” She also said she has told Oxfam that the organisation must, “demonstrate the moral leadership necessary to address this scandal, rebuild the trust of the British public, their staff and the people they aim to help.”
In 2013 legislation was approved requiring the UK government to spend at least 0.7% of the national income on overseas development assistance (ODA). According to the Department for International Development, this translated to a figure of £13.4bn in 2016.
Last year, Oxfam had a total income of £409m of with £176m of which came from government and public authorities. Such income, therefore, places the charity at number four on the list of UK charities with the largest income behind Cancer Research, The British Heart Foundation and Macmillan Cancer Support.
The question now will be how this scandal will affect Oxfam and other humanitarian aid charities beyond the government funding they receive. The faith of donors will need to be restored and this will go further than Oxfam’s deputy chief executive resigning.