On 9th February this year, it was revealed that one of the most well-known global NGOs, Oxfam, covered up a 2011 investigation into the hiring of sex workers for orgies, downloading of pornography, bullying and intimidation by its staff working in Haiti. This was after the devastation caused by the 2010 earthquake that killed thousands and had aid agencies and NGOs parachuting down in the country by the dozens. After the investigation, the organisation allowed three men, including the Belgian country director Roland van Hauwermeiren, to resign, and sacked four for gross misconduct.
As reported by The Times newspaper, the confidential report had found ‘a culture of impunity’ among some staff in Haiti and concluded that ‘it cannot be ruled out that any of the prostitutes were under-aged.’ Van Hauwermeiren admitted using prostitutes at a villa whose rent was paid for by Oxfam with its charitable funds. This was a clear case of exploiting disaster-affected survivors for sex in one of the world’s poorest countries. Alarmingly, Oxfam GB’s (Great Britain) code of conduct did not ban paying for sex until February 2017.
While Oxfam denied covering up the story, Times reported that Oxfam did not warn other aid agencies about the guilty staff, which meant that Van Hauwermeiren found work easily in the aid sector after his dismissal (with Action against Hunger). More seriously, Oxfam did not report any of the incidents to the Haitian authorities, citing that ‘it was extremely unlikely that any action would be taken.’
The fallout was swift – Penny Mordaunt, the UK international development secretary, threatened to cut government funding to Oxfam unless it handed over all information, while the Charity Commission launched a statutory inquiry into Oxfam. High-profile donors and ambassadors such as Archbishop Desmond Tutu and the actor Minnie Driver withdrew support.
Earlier this year, Oxfam GB was banned from operating in Haiti, while its chief executive Mark Goldring finally resigned after lashing out at critics by claiming that the attacks were ‘out of proportion to the level of culpability.’ Oxfam had to let go of 100 staff members due to a severe drop in funding, with the organisation losing at least 7,000 regular donors and agreeing not to bid for money from the Department for International Development (DFID), which was responsible for funds amounting to about £30m per year.
The Oxfam scandal has also exposed a culture of abuse in other charities such as Médecins Sans Frontières, the British Red Cross, and Save the Children, with more than 120 people in the sector believed to have been accused of sexual abuse in 2017 alone. Interestingly, Britain’s National Crime Agency had warned since 1999 that predatory child sex offenders targeted the developing world and charities such as Oxfam provided ready access to vulnerable populations.
A UK parliamentary report found that the aid sector was guilty of ‘complacency verging on complicity’ over an endemic sex-abuse scandal. The cover-up and impunity accorded to perpetrators is because NGOs are more concerned about their reputations (a critical factor for funding and influence) than the interests of victims. The UN has been rocked by several such allegations, including allegations of sexual violence by its staff and peacekeepers and sexual harassment within the organisation.
In its attempt to make amends, Oxfam has set up an independent commission of leading women’s rights experts to carry out a review of working culture and practices. Led by Zainab Bangura, a former under-secretary general of the United Nations, and Katherine Sierra, a former vice president of World Bank, this is part of the action plan to ‘minimise the risk of sexual abuse and root it out wherever it occurs.’
CB’s questions to Oxfam India on its existing policies and practices, and plans to ensure no such wrongdoings take place met with stony silence. The only statement issued by the Indian entity was a fairly standard press release that referred to a whistleblowing policy and an updated global Code of Conduct.