The Times newspaper published claims last year that Oxfam staff had employed local women in Haiti as sex workers, after they were sent to the Caribbean island in 2010 to help people in the wake of an earthquake.
The scandal prompted by the allegations saw the resignation of Oxfam GB’s chief executive, Mark Goldring, and its deputy chief executive, Penny Lawrence. It also had a significant impact on the public’s trust of the charity sector.
Today, the UK’s Charity Commission has published the results of an in-depth inquiry into the allegations, including how they were handled by Oxfam GB.
The inquiry — which takes into account over 7,000 items of evidence — also explored a claim that the charity had attempted to cover up its internal investigation.
In a foreword to the report, Baroness Stowell, chair of the commission, issued an important warning to the whole of the UK’s charity sector.
“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 well-being of those it exists to protect,” she wrote.
“Ultimately, being a charity is more than just about what you do, it is also about the way in which you do it,” she wrote, adding that the commission is “determined to reassure the public that it understands this fundamental point and will work with the sector it regulates to demonstrate the fact in the months and years ahead.”
Oxfam had launched an internal investigation back in 2011 into the Haiti allegations. As a result of the investigation, four senior members were fired, and three more resigned before the investigation was finished.
But according to the commission’s findings, Oxfam GB’s handling of “these matters was influenced by a desire to protect Oxfam GB’s reputation, and to protect donor and stakeholder relationships.”
The commission’s specific findings include:
- The charity didn’t adequately follow up on whether victims of sexual misconduct in Haiti were minors.
- It didn’t report allegations of child abuse by Oxfam GB staff in Haiti, and it failed to take the risks to alleged victims seriously enough.
- Staff members implicated in sexual misconduct were dealt with inconsistently, noting that senior staff appeared to be treated more leniently than junior staff.
- There were missed opportunities to identify and tackle early warnings before the events in Haiti.
The commission further expressed concern about the experience of the investigators, and the resources they were given, according to the Guardian.
As a result of its findings, the commission has issued Oxfam GB with an official warning and has issued the charity with direction on how to improve.
“What went wrong in Haiti did not happen in isolation,” said Helen Stephenson, chief executive of the Charity Commission, in a statement. “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,” she continued. “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.”
She added her thanks to the whistleblowers in the case, who “took the courageous decision to come to us with their concerns.”
She said: “Their contribution has made, and will continue to make, an important difference.”
According to Stephenson, there are further significant cultural and systemic changes needed to address the “failings and weaknesses” identified in the report.
“And so the conclusion of our inquiry marks the beginning, not the end, of the process of change for Oxfam GB,” she said. “Its leadership has had work ahead of it. We will be watching their progress closely in the weeks and months ahead.”
Today we published our inquiry report into Oxfam GB, finding that aspects of the charity’s past record on safeguarding amount to mismanagement.— Charity Commission (@ChtyCommission) June 11, 2019
We have taken regulatory action and used our powers to issue an Official Warning: https://t.co/MT1JVhHCNd
In response to the report, Oxfam GB’s chair of trustees, Caroline Thomson, said in a statement Tuesday that the charity is “deeply sorry” for its failure to prevent sexual abuse by its former staff in Haiti.
She said that the charity would use the report as a spur to greater improvement, and that it accepted it should have improved its safeguarding further and faster after Haiti.
“What happened in Haiti was shameful and we are deeply sorry,” she said. “It was a terrible abuse of power, and an affront to the values that Oxfam holds dear.”
She further said that, while the findings are “very uncomfortable” for Oxfam GB, the charity accepts them.
“We now now that the 2011 investigation and reporting of what happened in Haiti was flawed; more should have been done to establish whether minors were involved,” she said. “And while the commission makes clear that it found no record of a ‘cover up’, we accept that Oxfam GB should have been fuller and franker in its initial reporting of the allegations.”
The UK's International Development Secretary Rory Stewart said in a statement that the revelations last year were "horrifying and shone a light on fundamental problems."
"Oxfam is an important British institution that saves lives in some of the world's toughest places," he said. "This is a long-term process, in which there are no easy answers or room for complacency. We will be working closely with both Oxfam and the Charity Commission in the coming weeks."
As well as the specific allegations around Haiti, the inquiry also explored Oxfam GB’s wider approach to safeguarding, both historically and more recently.
It concluded that the charity’s commitments and promises weren’t always matched by its actions, according to a government press release.
Specifically, it found that:
- Resourcing and capability around safeguarding at the charity between 2015 and 2017 didn’t match the risks associated with its global reach and the nature of its work.
- The approach to safeguarding was at times unstructured and issues like poor record keeping meant trustees weren’t able to identify serious failures in case handling.
- As late as 2017, promises that the resources for safeguarding would be increased weren’t delivered.
Meanwhile, Stephanie Draper, CEO of the UK network for NGOs Bond, said that NGOs “are taking this seriously.”
She said that safeguarding experts from NGOs are working together to “ensure strong policies are acted upon across the sector, particularly around governance, organisational culture, employment practice, and reporting and complaints mechanisms.
“There is no single silver bullet and only be working with the government, multilaterals, donors, and the private sector can we ensure there isn’t anywhere to hide for those seeking to abuse their power,” she said.