Over the past two weeks, the Oxfam Haiti scandal has unfolded at a rapid pace. Every day, a new development has chiseled away at both the charity’s reputation and income. Subsequently, a number of other charities have been placed under the spotlight and the Charity Commission has put greater emphasis on safeguarding. But exactly what happened and when? Charity Times provides an overview.
On Friday 9th February, The Times published a front-page article reporting on allegations that some of Oxfam’s senior aid workers had hired prostitutes while providing aid to earthquake-hit Haiti in 2010.
According to a 2011 report seen by The Times, following the events in Haiti, Oxfam allowed three men to resign from their positions and sacked four male employees for gross misconduct, after the charity launched an inquiry into sexual exploitation, bullying and intimidation.
The newspaper revealed one of the men who was granted resignation without disciplinary action was the charity’s country director in Haiti, Roland Van Hauwermeiren.
According to the report, he admitted to using prostitutes at the property rented for him by Oxfam with charitable funds.
The incidents, which allegedly took place shortly after the Haiti earthquake in 2010, were raised by a whistle-blower who claimed the men had partaken in “sex parties” at the residence.
Oxfam denies cover up
Despite claims, Oxfam immediately denied covering up the misconduct and in a statement, the charity said the behaviour of the aid workers was “totally unacceptable” and “contrary to the values and high standards we expect of our staff”.
“As soon as we became aware of the allegations we immediately launched an internal investigation,” Oxfam said.
“We know that, like us, our supporters will be distressed by what happened. We hope that they will be reassured by the steps we have taken.”
Charity Commission gets involved
In response to the allegations, the Charity Commission said the events that took place have “absolutely no place in society” and they were “made all the more shocking by the alleged involvement of charity workers”.
However, the Commission said it was not given full details about the use of prostitutes by aid workers and it would have acted differently, had it known all the facts surrounding the events that had taken place in Haiti.
At the time, the Commission said it had written to Oxfam as a “matter of urgency” to request further information regarding what had happened in Haiti in order to establish “greater clarity” on the matter. The Commission's requests included a timeline of events, information about when the charity was made aware of specific allegations and the detail of the investigation’s findings and conclusions.
“This information will be considered as part of an ongoing case regarding the charity’s approach to safeguarding,” the watchdog said.
The Commission has subsequently opened a statutory inquiry into Oxfam.
Oxfam admits lack of transparency
Following the Commission’s involvement, Oxfam’s chief executive, Mark Goldring, said although the charity did not cover up the incident, the charity's 2011 report did not provide full details of the events that took place in Haiti. In the report, the events were merely listed as “serious misconduct”.
In light of the lack of transparency in the 2011 report, Oxfam’s chair Caroline Thomson said the charity was creating a ‘package of measures’ for handling sexual abuse cases.
In a statement published on 11 February, Thomson said she “shares the anger and shame that behaviour like that highlighted in 2011 happened in our organisation”.
“In the words of our chief executive Mark Goldring, we are ashamed of what happened. We apologise unreservedly. We have made big improvements since 2011 and today I commit that we will improve further.”
Penny Lawrence steps down; celebrity ambassadors cut ties
On 12 February, with allegations rife, Oxfam’s deputy chief executive Penny Lawrence resigned over the handling of the sex scandal. In a statement, Lawrence said she was “ashamed” and took “full responsibility” for the mishandling of the case.
Shortly after, actress Minnie Driver became the first celebrity to cut ties with Oxfam. In a statement, she said she was “nothing short of horrified” by the allegations and wanted to step down from her role as ambassador. Archbishop Desmond Tutu also resigned from his role as ambassador for Oxfam.
EU threatens to cut Oxfam funding; donors drop out
The European Commission, which provided Oxfam with €1.7 million for its Haiti programme, said it is ready to cease funding “any partner not living up to high ethical standards”. The charity has since agreed to stop bidding for UK funding until it can meet ‘higher standards’.
Meanwhile, speaking to MPs, Goldring said around 7,000 people have cancelled regular donations to Oxfam in the wake of the scandal, meaning hundreds of thousands of pounds has already been shaved off the charity’s annual income.
Roland Van Hauwemeiran investigated further
In an open letter, the former Oxfam director, who was allegedly at the centre of the scandal, denied he had paid for sex, but admitted mistakes had been made. At the same time, a former colleague of Van Hauwermeiren claimed he was investigated by British health charity Merlin after allegedly hiring prostitutes in Liberia in 2004, prior to his role at Oxfam.
Sexual misconduct allegations continue
As the events have unfolded, more allegations have been made against the charity. Speaking to MPs, Goldring said 26 claims of sexual misconduct have been made since the scandal broke.
Other charities have now been put under the spotlight as the sexual allegations continue. Following the Oxfam revelations, Save the Children chief executive Kevin Watkins said his charity investigated 53 allegations in 2016 and that the Oxfam scandal has been a “wake up call” for the sector.