Oxfam Haiti allegations: How the scandal unfolded - BBC

An Oxfam sign above one of its shops

Oxfam, one of the UK's biggest charities, has dominated the headlines in recent weeks following allegations its staff hired prostitutes while working overseas.

Since then, the story has continued to develop, with the Charity Commission launching a statutory inquiry - the most serious action it can take.

Oxfam - which has nearly 10,000 staff working in more than 90 countries - denies any cover-up.

Here is a summary of the events so far:

Friday 9 February

  • The Times newspaper publishes a front page article under the headline: "Top Oxfam staff paid Haiti survivors for sex".
  • The article alleges that Oxfam covered up claims that senior staff working in Haiti in the wake of the 2010 earthquake used prostitutes, some of whom may have been underage.

Image captionThe Times broke the story on its front page

  • Among the male staff accused of sexual misconduct is Oxfam's then-director of operations in Haiti, Roland Van Hauwermeiren. He is alleged to have used prostitutes at a villa rented for him by the charity.
  • In a statement, Oxfam denies claims of a cover-up. It says the behaviour of its staff was "totally unacceptable".
  • The charity says it uncovered the accusations in 2011 and immediately launched an internal investigation.
  • According to Oxfam's own 2011 report, four members of staff were dismissed and three, including Mr Van Hauwermeiren, were allowed to resign before the end of the investigation. It says claims of underage girls being involved were unproven.
  • Saturday 10 February

    • The Charity Commission says it was not given full details about the use of prostitutes by aid workers. It says it would have acted differently if it had known all the facts.
    • In a fresh story, the Times says Oxfam did not warn other aid agencies about problem staff caught using prostitutes. It emerges that Mr Van Hauwermeiren went on to work elsewhere in the aid sector.
    • Oxfam's chief executive, Mark Goldring, says the charity did "anything but" cover up the incident. But he admits the 2011 report released by the charity did not give details of the revelations, and only referred to them as "serious misconduct".
    • Sunday 11 February

      • Oxfam is hit with further allegations that staff on its mission to Chad, also led by Mr Van Hauwermeiren, used prostitutes in 2006.
      • The Sunday Times also reports new claims alleging more than 120 workers from UK charities were accused of sexual abuse in the past year.
      • Meanwhile, Oxfam announces new measures for the prevention and handling of sexual abuse cases.
      • Oxfam's chair of trustees, Caroline Thomson, says staff members had been coming forward with "concerns about how staff were recruited and vetted" following the recent media reports.
      • International Development Secretary Penny Mordaunt warns that ministers could cut off funding for Oxfam if it cannot account for the way it handled claims.

      Monday 12 February

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Comment by Steve Radford on March 1, 2018 at 16:47

   Much as I loathe Clare Short, the appalling former New Labour Minister for International Development who always sided with global capital against the poor and those who opposed the ongoing (to this day) corporate drive for resources, markets and political and economic power, she has a good point about the manufactured press outrage over the misbehaviour of some Oxfam staff in Haiti and elsewhere.  Anyone who thinks that the likes of the Daily Mail's owners, editors and columnists give a toss about the Haitian poor is living in a parallel universe. The furore is largely driven by a desire to whip up animosity against the whole concept of foreign aid and to discredit those (like Oxfam) who have criticised the positions of the wealthy countries on trade and development issues.

   This pattern of manufactured outrage, gross exaggeration and downright lies is the standard tactic of the reactionary right, but it is also adopted by many people who call themselves progressive, or radical, or feminist, or even anti-racist (the ludicrous and largely fictitious claims of widespread and rampant anti-semitism in the Labour Movement are a classic example). To put the allegations against Oxfam and its operations in Haiti in some perspective I suggest reading the excellent commentaries by Patrick Cockburn, one of the few foreign correspondents and columnists prepared to tell people what they obviously don't want to hear:



   Of course, that is not to say that the aid agencies are blameless and that there is no problem with the way they operate, but what we are witnessing now is a wholesale assault on the notion of a fair and balanced assessment of how best to respond to unpleasant situations or to deal with people who are suspected of abusing their positions. We are being told that the aid agencies should operate an international blacklist of individuals who should be denied employment based not on criminal convictions in a jurisdiction where some form of justice might be expected - which precludes large parts of the world - but on mere suspicion or unsubstantiated allegations. I do not deny that there may have been instances where Oxfam staff, and employees of other agencies, may have behaved appallingly, and they should be held to account for this by the application of proper procedures and/or criminal prosecution. But as someone who has represented staff in the Voluntary Sector as a union representative for many years, I don't see why these people should be denied the basic rights to Due Process and Natural Justice that the rest of us would like to enjoy.

   Big charities (and most medium sized ones as well) operate as businesses, whether they are largely domestic in their focus or work overseas. Their managers are professionals who may or may not be competent and they inevitably adopt the priorities of any other business enterprise so that reputation and minimising bad publicity that may hurt them commercially become as important, or more important, as adhering to any high moral principles... or applying fair and transparent personnel procedures. The travails of Save the Children is a good case in point.

   StC does some good work around the world but its employment practices are clearly appalling - and I can say that without knowing any of the details about the allegations of sexual harassment made by former employees. I have heard the StC spokespeople state that the allegations against their former Director were all resolved through "mediation"... let me stress that word "mediation".  I have no idea whether or not the allegations were true or baseless, but I do know that there are absolutely no circumstances where mediation is the appropriate response to a complaint of sexual harassment by a junior employee against a senior executive. Simply on the basis of what STC themselves have said about the incidents I can conclude (and so can anyone else who knows anything about employment procedures, equal opportunities and anti-bullying/anti-harassment policies) that StC sought to avoid their responsibilities as an employer and to protect their Director's reputation at the expense of their female staff. StC deserve to be roundly criticised and condemned for this and any Trustees who were involved should be booted out as well (and if I were a Trustee then I'd want to see the head of HR held to account too), but this does not invalidate their work around the world. There may be other criticisms of StC's style of operations that are more damning in relation to their work overseas but these particular allegations speak to their employment practices with their own staff and not to their work with children.

   There are some agencies whose work with the world's poor and vulnerable has crossed the line in such an appalling way that you can reasonably say they can never be trusted again. Medecins Sans Frontiers did this a couple of decades ago when they provided facilities for carrying out FGM, arguing that otherwise girls might be mutilated in unsanitary conditions by non qualified people... I kid you not. Help the Aged (now merged with Age Concern) was another organisation who should have faced terminal consequences for their craven, racist and utterly dishonest and fraudulent money-raising from multicultural communities in the UK to provide health facilities in Apartheid South Africa that conformed to that country's racist priorities and discriminated against poor elderly blacks to benefit relatively rich whites. But Oxfam, for all its many faults, has not yet committed crimes of this magnitude, as far as I know. 

   Call me cynical, but I suspect that some of the grovelling that Oxfam is being coerced into by the current Tory International Development Minister will include suitably coded promises to tone down their criticisms of government policies and priorities in allocating aid budgets and in promoting global trade and capitalist expansion.

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