Oxfam, once famed for its commitment to safeguarding the most vulnerable populations, has been hit by a damning report following allegations of sexual misconduct by its aid workers following Haiti’s devastating earthquake in 2010. In the report by the Charity Commission, Oxfam was found to have failed to disclose child abuse allegations, including evidence of aid workers paying for sex during the aftermath of the natural disaster that killed as many as 316,000 people and left a million civilians dead, forcing it to issue an official warning over the mismanagement of these serious claims.
girls as young as 12 and 13 being exploited after losing their homes to the earthquake.
The Commission’s report, published 18 months after investigations began after whistleblowing exposed these severe allegations, claims that senior officials at the NGO did not take reports of sexual abuse seriously enough, with girls as young as 12 and 13 being exploited after losing their homes to the earthquake. Such evidence includes a series of emails received by the charity in 2011, just months after the disaster hit the Caribbean nation. The emails suggested that some Oxfam workers were having sex with women and girls, many in refugee camps after being forced from their homes by the earthquake.
The most telling cover-up of evidence comes from the handling of two specific emails sent to the charity in July and August 2011. Both said to be from a 13-year-old Haitian girl, the content held allegations that charity workers had caused two minors, aged 13 and 12, to suffer physical abuse and other misconduct. The girls, who had been engaging in prostitution, claimed Oxfam workers, including someone they recognised as a boss who was working for the charity (country director Roland van Hauwermeiren), had had sex with children and had caused them physical harm by beating them.
Caroline Thomson says the charity cannot promise that such horrific events will never happen again
Despite the serious nature of the allegations of sexual abuse, former trustees were not made aware of the emails, and neither were local or British law enforcement agencies. In the report, over 7,000 pieces of similar evidence were uncovered relating to the allegations, prompting swift resignations from Oxfam GB’s chief executive Mark Goldring and the NGO’s deputy, Penny Lawrence, as well as a loss of UK aid and thousands of regular donors. Perhaps most devastatingly, boss Caroline Thomson says the charity cannot promise that such horrific events will never happen again, due to the ‘lawless’ areas in which the charity performs its work.
The new Oxfam boss was accused of demanding evidence to be destroyed of a colleague’s alleged engagements with a sex worker
Whilst the events that occurred almost a decade ago are disgusting, harking back to colonial-era Britain, the covering up of allegations for so long is dangerous and could happen again if transparency is not aimed for. As with many scandals, a reshuffling of management aims to promote this clarity and prevent such allegations not being publicised. In 2011 an internal investigation fired 4 of its staff, and resulted in the resignation of 3 others, including Mr Van Hauwermeiren, although sexual abuse was never mentioned. The newly appointed boss Dhananjayan Sriskandarajah has been drafted in to clarify the situation and restore the charity to its former fame. However, it has been revealed recently that Sriskandarajah had been previously accused of covering up allegations of sexual misconduct at a previous workplace, the Royal Commonwealth Society, where he was director general. The new Oxfam boss was accused of covering up a sex scandal at the Royal Common Wealth Society by Nigel McCollum, who alleged the charity subsequently pressed him to resign from his senior post. Dr Sriskandrajah denied the allegations, stating “I was not involved in, or party to, any decisions relating to the resignation referred to in the Mail on Sunday. The matter was rightly dealt with by the trustees at the time and not me. I had been in post for just eight weeks at the time of the resignation”.
This damning report reveals not only the disgusting behaviour of a few individuals who abused their position, but it strikes a hole through the core of what the charity does as a whole, and questions whether more effort needs to be done to safeguard those who are vulnerable, as well as those who dare to speak out about allegations of abuse and misconduct.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article posited that Dr Sriskandarajah was accused of destroying evidence of a sex scandal at the Royal Commonwealth Society. In reality, Dr Sriskandarajah was accused of a cover up. The article has been corrected.