How Oxfam's scandal in Haiti swept through the international aid sector

Anne Gulland
Women walk past an Oxfam sign in Corail, a camp for people displaced by the 2010 earthquake, on the outskirts of Port-au-Prince - REUTERS
Women walk past an Oxfam sign in Corail, a camp for people displaced by the 2010 earthquake, on the outskirts of Port-au-Prince - REUTERS

The damning report into the sexual abuse scandal that engulfed Oxfam last year does little to take the heat off the charity – or the wider aid sector. 

An official 15-month investigation into the scandal by the Charity Commission uncovered a culture of “tolerating poor behaviour” at Oxfam. 

The charity was also found to have “failed to meet promises made” regarding the safeguarding of children and vulnerable adults and was ordered, under the terms of the Charities Act 2011, to submit an action plan for approval by the Commission.

The long-awaited report will not make easy reading for anyone in the UK charity sector – for decades regarded as one of the best and most efficient in the world.

In a foreword to the 150-page report, the longest the commission has ever published, Baroness Stowell, chair of the Charity Commission, suggested that a degree of arrogance and hubris was partly to blame.

Two goats eat branches next to an Oxfam sign in Corail, a camp for displaced people of the 2010 earthquake, on the outskirts of Port-au-Prince - Credit: Reuters
A report by the International Development Select Committee last year said the Oxfam scandal was likely to be the 'tip of the iceberg' Credit: Reuters

“No charity is so large, nor is its mission so important that it can afford to put its own reputation ahead of the dignity and wellbeing of those it exists to protect”, she said.

“Ultimately being a charity is more than just about what you do, it is also about the way in which you do it”.

The scandal broke in February last year when Oxfam was it was revealed to have covered up an investigation into the hiring of prostitutes, some allegedly underage, by staff working in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake

Seven aid workers were allowed to resign or were dismissed over allegations that they paid local women for sex. Several moved to other aid jobs in countries where vulnerable people were at risk, yet Oxfam made no attempt to alert other charities.

Neither did Oxfam inform the Haitian authorities, the charity regulator or its big donors, including the British government. 

It sat on the report until it was exposed by a whistleblower in The Times newspaper. 

People work to free trapped victims from the rubble of a collapsed building after an earthquake in Port-au-Prince, Haiti.  - Credit: AP
People work to free trapped victims from the rubble of a collapsed building after the 2010 earthquake in Port-au-Prince, Haiti Credit: AP

The Charity Commission launched an inquiry into the scandal after the intervention of Penny Mordaunt, then UK international development secretary.

Its report considered 7,000 pieces of evidence and looked at both the events in Haiti and the organisation’s response to it. 

It concludes that there was no official cover-up but says the charity was not as full and frank as it should have been.

Helen Stephenson, Chief Executive of the Charity Commission, said the regulator’s findings demonstrate that the incidents in Haiti were symptoms of a wider problem.

“What went wrong in Haiti did not happen in isolation. Our inquiry demonstrates that, over a period of years, Oxfam’s internal culture tolerated poor behaviour, and at times lost sight of the values it stands for.

“The charity’s leadership may have been well-intentioned. But our report demonstrates that good intentions have limited value when they are not matched with resources, robust systems and processes that are implemented on the ground, and more importantly, an organisational culture that prioritises keeping people safe.”

Although the Commission’s report is specific to Oxfam, the scandal has swept across the international aid sector.

Organisations including Save the Children, Plan International and Medecins sans Frontieres have all reported cases of sexual abuse and harassment in the wake of the Oxfam case. 

A report by the International Development Select Committee last year said sexual exploitation and abuse by aid workers and peacekeepers “has been happening in the sector for a long time”.  It said the Oxfam scandal was likely to be the “tip of the iceberg” and called for an independent ombudsman to end years of “abject failure” in tackling abuse. 

Oxfam took an immediate financial hit, with around 7,000 donors cancelling direct debits in the weeks after the news of the scandal first broke.  Save the Children has also seen a drop in funding – from £406m in 2017 to £303m in 2018. Individual donations fell by £1m. But perhaps the most serious damage has been to the reputation of UK aid, with the donating public becoming more sceptical generally. 

This was partly reflected by Richard Curtis, the screenwriter and founder of Comic Relief when giving evidence to MPs today.  He said his organisation would no longer send celebrities abroad in the wake the “white saviour” row that proceeded this year’s Red Nose Day.

The row came after BBC presenter Stacey Dooley posted a picture on Instagram with a young Ugandan child, along with the caption "OB.SESSSSSSSSSSED" and a picture of a broken heart.

It prompted a furious response David Lammy, MP for Tottenham, who tweeted: "The world does not need any more white saviours. As I've said before, this just perpetuates tired and unhelpful stereotypes. Let's instead promote voices from across the continent of Africa and have serious debate."

Stephanie Draper, chief executive of Bond, a network of 420 international NGOs, said the Oxfam scandal had been a “turning point for the sector”, which would have to work hard to regain public trust.

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A post shared by Stacey Dooley (@sjdooley) on Feb 23, 2019 at 10:15am PST

“The critical thing is that these NGOs exist to help people living in poverty. It’s really important they are able to continue to do that but it’s only possible with the support of the British public. As a sector we’re really committed to building trust by being transparent, by having the right reporting and complaints procedures in place and ensuring that we have the right underlying culture,” she said.

One of the key criticisms levelled at Oxfam was that its safeguarding procedures – policies to ensure the very people the charity is helping do not face abuse – were not up to the task.  Since the scandal broke its safeguarding funding has quadrupled from £120,000 in 2017-18 to £496,000 in 2018-19. And the number of full-time staff has gone from three to seven.

Karl Wilding, director of policy at the National Council of Voluntary Organisations, said that the scandal had put safeguarding at the “front and centre” of charities’ minds.

“It has made charities ask themselves questions – are they doing safeguarding well? My suspicion is that there has been a problem. If you’re a children’s charity safeguarding is part and parcel of what you. But if you don’t work with vulnerable people you don’t think about it,” he said. But he warned of a tick-box approach.

“It’s not about ensuring you have a safeguarding officer in place. It’s about ensuring the culture is right,” he said.

One senior executive with a leading UK charity said charities were braced for the number of complaints to rise as a result of better safeguarding and reporting systems being put in place.

“It is like improving the systems for reporting domestic crimes like rape – as your systems improve and people are encouraged to come forward numbers will initially rise”, they said. The same source also thought the Oxfam scandal would cause charities to place greater focus on “results and impact” as opposed to marketing.

“If you have a need to restore trust and confidence in the sector, which we do, it’s going to be important to double down on achieving and demonstrating results.”

The executive added that cultural change would also take time and that, at its heart, was a need to become "more respectful of the people we are dealing with on the ground”.

“Ultimately, that's where the change needs to be.... that's how things like Haiti can be stopped from happening in the first place.”

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