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This Monday, July 11, 2011 file photo shows silhouettes of U.N. peacekeepers from Brazil at the airport in Port-au-Prince, Haiti.
Eduardo Verdugo/AP
OpinionCitizenship

As Oxfam Scandal Escalates, What Does This Mean for the Aid Sector?

Oxfam is at the heart of a scandal involving senior staff members, who are alleged to have paid prostitutes for sex while on a mission to Haiti in the wake of the 2011 earthquake.

The organisation, one of Britain’s biggest charities, has been accused of trying to cover up the allegations when they first emerged in 2011, and following its internal investigation into the claims  — which it strenuously denies. 

Four staff members were sacked as a result of the investigation, and three more were allowed to resign. Oxfam’s deputy CEO Penny Lawrence also stepped down on Monday, as Oxfam officials met with UK international development secretary, Penny Mordaunt. 

Take action: Tell Your MP Why You're Proud of UK Aid — and Call on Them to Make It as Effective as Possible

The meeting was to discuss whether or not the charity’s government funding — worth £32 million a year — should be cut as a result of the scandal. 

For Mordaunt, in order to not lose their funding, charity officials must account for the way it handled the claims. 

In its response to the allegations, which appeared in the Times last week, Oxfam detailed the steps it took following its 2011 investigation. These included the launch of a Safeguarding Team, and a confidential “whistleblowing” hotline — part of a package of measures designed to protect staff and beneficiaries. 

Read more: Oxfam Has Denied Claims It Covered Up Allegations of Staff Paying Haiti Prostitutes for Sex

This scandal will have a far-reaching impact on the charity sector, and it’s not just the problem of a single few men in Haiti eight years ago. The Sunday Times revealed this weekend that more than 120 workers from Britain’s leading charities have been accused of sexual harassment in the past year. 

Sexual harassment allegations over the past months, ranging from Hollywood to Westminster, indicate that wherever there is power there is abuse. But the public expects better from the aid sector, just like we expect more from those who work in schools, or religious institutions. The aid sector is one of the places that people expect, and should expect, to feel safe and protected. 

As Kevin Watkins, CEO of Save the Children, said on Monday, the issues raised by Oxfam’s Haiti episode “fit a broader pattern.” 

“Our societies have a systemic problem associated with male abuse of power,” he said. “Sexual harassment and sexual violence are symptoms of a wider disease that has invaded our institutions — from schools, churches, broadcasters to political parties. Now, the spotlight is on the aid sector.” 

Read more: The UN Is Vowing to Fight Sexual Harassment in Its Agencies

The UK aid budget is already under fire from multiple sides: the media, some of the British public, and some leading politicians. On Friday, Jacob Rees-Mogg MP arrived at Downing Street — armed with a petition of 100,000 Daily Express readers who want the aid budget to be cut. 

For those who already have the UK aid budget — 0.7% of the UK’s national income — in their crosshairs, this is the perfect ammo. 

This is not to excuse the despicable behaviour of these abusers, who were meant to be helping some of the world’s most vulnerable people — people who were living through the very worst days a human being can imagine — and then taking advantage of these people’s vulnerability for their own gratification. 

But this scandal is not an excuse to cut aid funding, and cutting aid funding is not a solution. 

Read more: 1 in 5 UK Parliament Staff Have Been Sexually Harassed in the Past Year

Let’s say, for argument’s sake, that the Department for International Development (DfID) listened to the aid critics, and cut funding to Oxfam. And then cut funding to the other leading charities where the 120 people accused in the past year were working.

Who is really going to lose out in that circumstance? How would DfID ensure that the people who really suffer from that funding aren’t the vulnerable people supported by these charities? Can DfID truthfully say that this funding cut wouldn’t be simply a measure to appease public opinion, rather than a legitimate solution to this devastating sexual harassment problem? 

And, most importantly, is threatening and cutting funding really the most effective way to lead change across the sector? 

What is important is for DfID and for charities to focus their energy on getting the right systems in place to protect the most vulnerable.

As Mordaunt pointed out on the BBC’s Andrew Marr programme this weekend, the overwhelming majority of staff working in the humanitarian sector are committed professionals. They’ve dedicated, and in some cases given, their lives to alleviate the suffering of the world’s most vulnerable. 

Read more: 10 Amazing Things That UK Aid Did in 2017

And she has repeated this sentiment in the statement that DfID put out on Monday: "At their best, UK charities do extraordinary work around the world, saving and transforming lives. It is vital now that the whole sector steps up and demonstrates the leadership that the public expects." 

Mordaunt's statement included a number of first steps to allow DfID and the UK to lead in tackling this abhorrent issue: 

  1. Issuing a letter to all UK charities working overseas, calling on them to step up and do more, to give “absolute assurance” that systems are in place to protect the most vulnerable. 
  2. Creating a new unit to urgently review safeguarding across all parts of the aid sector. 
  3. Bringing in independent experts to advise both Mordaunt and the safeguarding unit. 
  4. Stepping up the UK’s work to tackle sexual exploitation and abuse across the UN and other international organisations. 
  5. The Charity Commission and DfID will co-host a safeguarding summit before the end of the month with the aid sector, to agree a set of actions to strengthen safeguarding processes and mechanisms. 

As Watkins points out, Save the Children is still reeling from the deaths of four young staff members in Afghanistan, at the end of last month. The four young men literally gave their lives on their mission to educate women and girls in one of the most dangerous places on earth. 

We must remember that the aid sector is also — and overwhelmingly — home to inspirational people like these, as well as the people who acted so terribly in Haiti.

The aid sector, like every other, is not painted in black and white. And our attitude to UK aid can’t be black and white either. Yes, terrible things can and will happen. Even in the aid sector, as in the rest of society, there will be those willing to exploit vulnerability. But rather than slash funding, DfID and the UK must instead work with these charities to make sure that events like those in Haiti never happen again.

Read more: This MP Just Made the Most Compelling Case for UK Aid — and You Have to Hear It

Global Citizen campaigns to achieve the UN’s Global Goals, and end extreme poverty by 2030. The UK is a world leader in helping this happen, with a long and proud track record of global leadership. 

We were the first G7 country to deliver on the promise to spend at least 0.7% of our gross national income on international development, and we were then the first in the world to write that commitment into law. You can take action with us here to help protect the 0.7%.