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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 21 June 2018

UK government reviews Oxfam work amid Haiti sex worker scandal

The charity’s chief executive has denied there was a “cover-up” after revelations that some of its staff hired prostitutes in the earthquake-hit country in 2011

In this file photo taken on January 14, 2010 a man covers his face as he walks amid the rubble of a destroyed building in Port-au-Prince on January 14, 2010, following the devastating earthquake that rocked Haiti on January 12. AFP / Juan BARRETO
In this file photo taken on January 14, 2010 a man covers his face as he walks amid the rubble of a destroyed building in Port-au-Prince on January 14, 2010, following the devastating earthquake that rocked Haiti on January 12. AFP / Juan BARRETO

The British government has announced it is reviewing all of its work with Oxfam amid allegations that the charity covered up a scandal involving its staff using prostitutes in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake.

The Department for International Development said on Saturday that it had no tolerance for sexual misconduct and that the charity needed to explain "the way this appalling abuse of vulnerable people was dealt with".

"The International Development Secretary is reviewing our current work with Oxfam and has requested a meeting with the senior team at the earliest opportunity," a DFID spokesperson said.

It comes after an investigation by British newspaper The Times found the charity, which is headquartered in Oxford, UK, allowed three men to resign and sacked four others who had been accused of gross misconduct following an inquiry into sexual exploitation by aid workers in Haiti.

Oxfam’s staff had been on the poverty-stricken island as part of a massive international relief effort after a devastating earthquake in 2010, which killed 220,000 people and left 1.5 million displaced.

Oxfam’s chief executive Mark Goldring insisted there was no cover-up, telling the BBC: "We were very open with the public that we were ashamed of the behaviour of our staff. We still are."

He added that he is “absolutely committed… to wipe out that kind of behaviour from Oxfam and rebuild that relationship of trust [with the public]."

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Oxfam has said it launched an immediate internal investigation in 2011 which found a "culture of impunity" among some staff.

"The behaviour of some members of Oxfam staff uncovered in Haiti in 2011 was totally unacceptable, contrary to our values and the high standards we expect of our staff," it said a statement on Friday.

"Our primary aim was always to root out and take action against those involved and we publicly announced, including to media, both the investigation and the action we took as a result."

But in its statement, DFID said the charity had fallen short and that it had “serious questions” to answer. Oxfam received nearly £32 million in funding from DFID last year.

The DFID spokesperson added: "We acknowledge that hundreds of Oxfam staff have done no wrong and work tirelessly for the people they serve, but the handling by the senior team about this investigation and their openness with us and the charity commission showed a lack of judgement.

"We have a zero tolerance policy for the type of activity that took place in this instance, and we expect our partners to as well."

According to sources cited by The Times, groups of young prostitutes were invited to homes and guesthouses paid for by the charity for sex parties.

In further revelations, the paper reported that Oxfam failed to warn other aid agencies about the implicated staff, which allowed them to get jobs among vulnerable people in other disaster areas.

Roland van Hauwermeiren, 68, who Oxfam has confirmed was forced to resign as Haiti country director in 2011 after allegedly admitting hiring prostitutes, went on to become head of mission for Action Against Hunger in Bangladesh in 2014, according to The Times.

The French charity told the paper it made pre-employment checks but that Oxfam "did not share with us any warning regarding [his] unethical conduct, the reasons for his resignation or the results of internal inquiry".

"Moreover we received positive references from former Oxfam staff who worked with him, among them a [former] HR person," a spokesman added.