Aid and Abuse – The saints and sinners of Oxfam
Hurricane Harvey whirls through the aid industry
The Economist | 15 February 2018
FOUNDED in 1942, Oxfam is one of Britain’s most recognisable global brands. The charity is the country’s fourth-largest, and the biggest working on overseas aid, with a presence in more than 90 countries. It is also one of the most respected; loved, even, judging by the 23,000 volunteers who turn out to staff its 630 shops, raising around £100m ($140m) a year in sales of second-hand books and musty mink coats.
Now, however, Oxfam has been hit by allegations of sexual misconduct, at home and abroad. The charity’s gleaming reputation has been severely tarnished. Other aid agencies are also becoming embroiled in a story that adds fuel to a debate about Britain’s international-development work.
Since the Harvey Weinstein scandal unveiled abuses in Hollywood, the whirlwind has swept through politics, business and now, it seems, the aid industry. The claims against Oxfam are grave. The first to emerge was that after the earthquake in Haiti in 2010, its staff in Port-au-Prince paid for sex, including a “full-on Caligula orgy”, as one witness told the Times. Prostitution is illegal in Haiti, and some of the girls are said to have been under age (Oxfam says this claim has not been proven). Oxfam allowed three of the employees involved to resign and sacked four others for gross misconduct, but is alleged to have covered up the severity of their offences. The Charity Commission, the industry watchdog, has launched an inquiry.
Helen Evans, an Oxfam employee-turned-whistleblower, says that she repeatedly warned managers of a “culture of sexual abuse” in the charity’s offices overseas and its shops at home, but was not taken seriously enough. She reports one instance of aid being offered in return for sex.
Oxfam’s deputy chief executive, Penny Lawrence, who was in charge of the charity’s international programme when the Haiti behaviour was reported, resigned on February 12th. On the same day Mark Goldring, the charity’s boss, was hauled into the Department for International Development (DFID) to be told that Oxfam could forfeit over £30m of government money if it did not explain itself. The European Union, which gives Oxfam £29m, has demanded “maximum transparency”. The next day several of Oxfam’s corporate partners, including Visa and Marks & Spencer, said they were reviewing their links.
Similar allegations are now being made against other charities. Priti Patel, a former DFID secretary, has said the Oxfam case is the “tip of the iceberg”. This may sap confidence in the sector, which was already at its lowest-ever ebb in polls by the Charity Commission, which began in 2005. But the headlines may not affect the volume of giving, now £10bn a year. Daniel Fluskey of the Institute of Fundraising says that, despite the weak economy, giving has remained remarkably stable in recent years.
Proponents of Britain’s aid industry hope it will stay that way. For all Oxfam’s woes, experts like Owen Barder of the Centre for Global Development, a think-tank, argue that Britain’s aid is particularly effective and generally well-targeted. Oxfam may be bad at policing its staff, but, argues Dan Corry of New Philanthropy Capital, which assesses charities, it is one of the best at evaluating its projects.
As for the foreign-aid budget, the Oxfam affair has emboldened those on the Conservative right who want to end the commitment to spend 0.7% of GDP on aid, which they consider extravagant at a time of austerity. But other Tories, such as Andrew Mitchell, a former DFID secretary, argue that development is one of the few areas in which Britain is a global leader, spending more than any country bar America and Germany. As the country retreats from the EU, it would be sad if that role, too, were relinquished.
The Guardian view on Oxfam: time to learn, not destroy
Mon 12 Feb 2018 18.22 GMT
The debauchery of the Haiti sex parties is outrageous. But it must not be allowed to overshadow the courage and compassion of thousands of aid workers, nor the value of aid itself
On 12 January 2010, a catastrophic 7.0 earthquake struck Haiti. One of the poorest countries in the world, it was utterly unprepared. Roads and bridges, hospitals and government buildings as well as thousands of homes collapsed or were severely damaged. At least 220,000 died – including more than 100 aid workers already in the country – and as many again were injured. Scores of aid agencies with hundreds of millions of pounds’ worth of relief raced to bring help, each agency hastily recruiting hundreds of extra workers. Among these men and women of goodwill who were dispatched to organise medical help, to inoculate, feed and protect the thousands of vulnerable people were seven Oxfam employees who, it has now emerged, spent their time off procuring young, possibly underage, girls and women for sex. It is likely that some of their victims were reliant on the aid Oxfam provided, with donations collected on street corners and jumble sales in Britain. The enormity of employees of an organisation dedicated to ending poverty, hunger and social injustice hosting sex parties said to be of Caligulan proportions amid the wreckage of a humanitarian catastrophe is what turns a scandal into a crisis that could damage the whole UK charitable sector.
A year after the earthquake, in 2011, Oxfam’s head office was alerted by a whistleblower to the allegations. The charity then made two more serious errors of judgment. First, it played down the seriousness of the offences. The Charity Commission was told only that “serious misconduct” relating to abuse of power and bullying was being investigated. Later the Department for International Development was misled in the same way. As a result neither treated the report with the seriousness it required – and both are now rightly furious at the way they feel they were deliberately misled. DfID’s secretary of state, Penny Mordaunt, will want hard evidence of a transformed culture at the charity if it is to justify its £32m worth of contracts. The resignation of Penny Lawrence, Oxfam’s deputy chief executive and international project manager at the time of Haiti, is only a start.
The second mistake was to fail to prevent the four men who were sacked and the three required to resign from working in the sector again. As the Observer reported at the weekend, allegations about sex parties in Chad in 2006, four years before the Haiti earthquake, led to the sacking of one senior employee. Roland van Hauwermeiren, who resigned after the Haiti scandal emerged, was head of Oxfam in Chad at the time. Ms Lawrence cited the failure to act properly on the earlier allegations as a reason for her decision to leave.
Reputational harm is an existential threat to charities. It is not an accident that Oxfam has been caught out; it is the same mix of negligence and complacency that has exposed the Catholic and Anglican churches to similar disaster. After Haiti, Oxfam tightened its safeguarding processes. But this may well be the tip of the iceberg. One challenge for organisations working with children and vulnerable people is the acknowledged risk posed by sexual predators seeking out respectable cover for contact with their potential victims. Oxfam denies giving references to the employees sacked or allowed to resign after the Haiti allegations, but Mr Van Hauwermeiren went on to another senior job in Bangladesh working for a French charity, and another man involved is reported to have gone on to work with the Catholic aid charity Cafod. A central register of all aid workers employed by UK charities would at least stop employees who had been sacked or disciplined in earlier jobs faking references to get another.
What this crisis must not be allowed to do is undermine the case for generous aid spending as both a moral obligation and as pragmatic policy. The Oxfam case involves fewer men than can be counted on two hands. The courageous and dedicated efforts of thousands of its employees have saved millions of lives in the most gruelling and dangerous circumstances. They and their peers in other charities deserve the best defence. That means honesty and transparency, and a conspicuous determination to root out anyone who threatens their reputation for it.