British aid agency Oxfam says it is investigating 26 new allegations of sexual misconduct. It follows revelations last week that some Oxfam staff paid sex workers in Haiti in 2011, in the aftermath of the earthquake that struck the Caribbean country the previous year.
As several other aid agencies begin investigating their own handling of abuse complaints, the scandal looks set to mark a turning point for the sector.
Summoned to appear before a committee of British lawmakers Tuesday, Oxfam directors apologized for the damage caused to the people of Haiti and to the aid workers whose efforts have been tarnished.
“This is about aligning our people with the values of Oxfam. Some hideous men came to our organization and abused the trust of the British people. They support us. But they were able to get away, to get a recommendation to leave. This was wrong. So, we are going to change the culture,” Winnie Byanyima, Oxfam International’s executive director, told MPs.
Oxfam’s Haiti country director at the time of the 2011 allegations, Belgian national Roland van Hauwermeiren, was allowed to resign before the end of the investigation. He denies any wrongdoing.
“It was decent. It was as if I was meeting a lady in Belgium – by the way I have a girlfriend here now – and I would fall in love with her. There is nothing wrong with that,” van Hauwermeiren told Belgian media last week.
‘Brushed underneath the carpet’
Several other charities including Save the Children and Doctors Without Borders are now investigating their own handling of abuse allegations. Many governments, including Haiti’s, are urgently reviewing their relationships with aid organizations.
“There has been a working culture where this has been brushed underneath the carpet and victims of this kind of abuse have not had the opportunity to speak up. We’re already talking about an existing power imbalance that exists between the aid giver and the aid beneficiary. Now, if that’s abused, that sends out a really very, very negative message against the entire sector,” said Gemma Houldey of the University of Sussex, a former aid worker who now researches the working culture of the sector.
Oxfam received $45 million from the British government in 2017, and almost the same amount from the European Union. Both are now reviewing that funding. The British secretary of state for international development, Penny Morduant, warned charities that their practices are under scrutiny.
“Unless you safeguard everyone, your organization that comes into contact with you, including beneficiaries, staff and volunteers, we will not fund you. Unless you create a culture that prioritizes the safety of vulnerable people and ensures victims and whistleblowers can come forward without fear, we will not work with you,” Morduant said in a recent speech.
Funding from members of the public has already been impacted. Oxfam says seven thousand regular donors have ceased payments in the past week-and-a-half.
“This of course has an immediate impact on the people who are receiving the aid, the people that are living in disaster areas, recovering from conflict situations. They’re the ones who are going to bear the brunt of this straight away, and that’s what we should be considering,” said Houldey.
Victims of alleged abuse in the aid sector are beginning to speak up, and that has been widely welcomed; but there are also fears that aid funding could be cut, just as the world faces numerous humanitarian crises.