Everything you need to know about the Oxfam sex abuse scandal

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Moya Crockett
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From the initial allegations to the potential fallout, here are all the facts about a complicated case. 

On Friday 9 February, The Times published an explosive investigation into the conduct of Oxfam staff, stating that aid workers paid earthquake survivors for sex in Haiti in 2011. Oxfam itself has since been accused of engaging in a cover-up, and the government has threatened to strip the charity of funding unless it can demonstrate “moral leadership”.

Below, everything we know about the unfolding scandal. 

What is Oxfam accused of? 

According to The Times, senior Oxfam aid workers engaged in sexually inappropriate and exploitative behaviour in Haiti in 2011.

Oxfam employees were taking part in relief efforts after a devastating earthquake hit the Caribbean island in 2010, killing at least 160,000 people and affecting an estimated three million. It was during this trip that Roland van Hauwermeiren – then Oxfam country director for Haiti – allegedly paid earthquake survivors for sex at his villa, which was rented for him by the charity.

The Times’ investigation was based on an internal report by Oxfam, which confirmed that van Hauwermeiren had hired prostitutes to attend parties at his villa.

According to the newspaper, Oxfam’s confidential investigation found that “children may have been among those sexually exploited by aid workers”. It also said that some Oxfam staff in Haiti had enjoyed a “culture of impunity”, where they were free to behave as they pleased without fear of repercussions. 

Was there a cover-up? 

Young girls jump rope in a refugee camp in Haiti in 2011, a year on from 2010’s devastating earthquake 

Oxfam has been accused of trying to hush up the full findings of its investigation into the behaviour of staffers in Haiti.

At the time, the charity published an edited report and a press release, acknowledging that “serious misconduct” had taken place on the island. However, neither the report nor the release included details of the allegations against van Hauwermeiren and his co-workers.

In August 2011, Oxfam informed the Charity Commission – the government body that regulates charities in England and Wales – that it was looking into allegations of inappropriate sexual behaviour, bullying, harassment and staff intimidation in Haiti.

But it did not alert the regulator to the precise nature of the allegations, and the Commission took no action at the time. It has since said it would have handled the investigation “very differently” if it had had all the facts.

The charity has also been blamed for failing to share information about the behaviour of former staff involved in the scandal. As a result of the internal investigation in 2011, four employees were sacked and four others (including Hauwermeiren) resigned. Oxfam insists that it did not give van Hauwermeiren a positive reference after his resignation, but The Times said on Saturday that the failure to publicise the disgraced aid workers’ behaviour allowed them to get similar jobs elsewhere. 

What happened in Chad? 

Oxfam staff also allegedly hired sex workers in Chad in 2006. On Sunday, The Observer published claims by former Oxfam employees, who said that the organisation’s house in the Central African country was frequently visited by women thought to be prostitutes. Van Hauwermeiren was head of Oxfam in Chad at the time.

One former staffer said: “They would invite the women for parties. We knew they weren’t just friends but something else.” Another said that a senior figure in the charity’s Chad mission was dismissed for his conduct in 2006.

Oxfam said that it was unable to confirm or deny the reports about staff behaviour in Chad, and could not confirm whether it had records of an employee being fired in 2006. The charity did acknowledge that the issue of prostitutes had been raised with van Hauwermeiren at the time, but did not say whether he took any action.

In a statement, Oxfam said it was “shocked and dismayed” about the revelations from Chad. “While we can’t corroborate the information from Chad at the moment, it highlights again unacceptable behaviour by a small number of people and the need for a sector-wide approach to tackle the problem.”

How is Oxfam responding to the allegations?  

Oxfam chief executive Mark Goldring in 2011

With contrition and a pledge to do better. “As members of this organisation, we are absolutely committed to our work and Oxfam’s values,” the charity said in a statement. “We are deeply hurt by these abuses and are committed to real change in the way we handle cases of sexual harassment, exploitation and abuse and to how we support survivors.”

Oxfam said it would now vet potential staff more thoroughly before hiring them, introduce mandatory safeguarding training for new recruits, and work with the wider aid sector to share information about people who had been found guilty of sexual misconduct.

It added that new measures had been put in place to tackle sexual abuse and misconduct after the Haiti investigation in 2011, including a new code of conduct banning the soliciting of prostitutes. Before 2011, “the code only prohibited sex with beneficiaries and anyone under 18”, the charity said.

More women had also been instated in international and regional leadership roles as part of the charity’s commitment “to changing our culture”.

However, the charity has denied trying to cover up the investigation into staff behaviour in Haiti. The charity’s chief executive, Mark Goldring, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that “we were very open with the public that we were ashamed of the behaviour of our staff”.

He added that “with hindsight” he wished Oxfam had talked about sexual misconduct in 2011, but said he didn’t “think it was in anyone’s best interest to be describing the details of the behaviour” in a way that would “draw extreme attention to it”. 

Oxfam’s deputy chief executive, Penny Lawrence, resigned on Monday 12 February, saying she was “ashamed” of how the charity had handled claims of misconduct in Haiti and Chad.

“It is now clear that these allegations - involving the use of prostitutes and which related to behaviour of both the country director [Roland van Hauwermeiren] and members of his team in Chad - were raised before he moved to Haiti,” she said

What could the consequences be? 

International Development Secretary Penny Mordaunt

Oxfam currently receives around £32m a year in government funding, but there is now a chance it could lose this financial support. International Development Secretary Penny Mordaunt told the BBC’s Andrew Marr on Sunday that the charity had failed in its “moral leadership” over the “scandal”, and had done “absolutely the wrong thing” in not reporting the allegations in detail to the Charity Commission.

No organisation should be a government partner if it did not “have the moral leadership to do the right thing”, Mordaunt added. She was due to meet with representatives from the charity on Monday 12 February.

The Observer reports that aid workers are worried that allegations like those against Oxfam “might reduce donations to the most vulnerable at a time when funding is already under pressure”.

Haiti has demanded that Oxfam identify the aid workers who paid possibly underage sex workers in 2011 so they can be prosecuted, as prostitution is illegal there. It is also considering legal action against the charity. 

Andrew MacLeod, the former chief of operations of the UN’s Emergency Coordination Centre, has also said that Oxfam workers involved in the scandal could be prosecuted for sex crimes.

“If they were adults, this man should be charged in front of the courts in Haiti because prostitution is illegal [there]. If they are children, they should be charged in front of the courts here [in the UK] because he’s broken the sex tourism laws,” MacLeod told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on Monday. “If they are uncertain, they should pass the dossier to the police for investigation.”

Images: Rex Features