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Cutting overseas aid no answer to Oxfam sex scandal, NGOs say

Women walk past an Oxfam sign in Corail, a camp for displaced people of the 2010 earthquake, on the outskirts of Port-au-Prince, Haiti, February 13, 2018.
Women walk past an Oxfam sign in Corail, a camp for displaced people of the 2010 earthquake, on the outskirts of Port-au-Prince, Haiti, February 13, 2018. REUTERS/Andres Martinez Casares

Campaigners have welcomed moves by British-based charity Oxfam to tackle sexual misconduct within its organisation, after it was revealed that some of its staff abused prostitutes in Haiti. But they warn that the scandal should not lead to cuts in overseas aid and called for reform of the entire sector.


“What happened in Haiti and the way it was handled was unfortunate and wouldn’t happen today," Oxfam International's Executive Director Winnie Byanyima told RFI on Friday.

She was speaking hours after her organisation unveiled a battery of measures to clear the "stain" left by a prostitution scandal involving some of its aid workers.

Former staff members have accused the charity of trying to cover up the scandal, which has sparked the resignation of South Africa's Archbishop Desmond Tutu as the charity's global ambassador.

"I want to reassure people that the 10,000 or so staff members around the world in more than 90 countries are all, most of them, the majority of them, are good people, people with strong values,” Byanyima said. "But the few that have tarnished our name, who have caused us to lose the trust of our supporters and our donors, we are taking responsibility."

Oxfam plan involves:

  • Creating an independent commission run by women and human rights campaigners;
  • Doubling the resources for the charity's safeguarding team and tripling its  staff;
  • Establishing a global database of accredited referees to ensure that sex offenders cannot falsify references and reoffend at other charities;
  • Strengthening the charity's whistleblowing mechanism to enable victims to come forward.

"It's great that this scandal has led to taking safeguarding seriously and talking about structural and institutional changes", Luisa Enria, a lecturer in international development at Britain's Bath University, told RFI in response.

"At the same time, I think it might not be enough and I think that really if we want to make a difference I think we really have to take the issue of our organisational culture head on."

Bullying and harassment

Some aid workers have been denouncing a culture of bullying, harassment and inequality in the aid sector for years.

"On my very first mission, I walked in on a male member of staff, who was also my housemate, in an embrace on the sofa at lunchtime, with a member of his staff, who was local, Muslim, married, and a survivor of the Tsunami," former humanitarian worker Imogen Wall told RFI.

"It was clearly an inappropriate relationship."

But when Wall tried to discuss the affair with other colleagues, she discovered "everybody knew".

An investigation was meant to take place but never did. "He was just allowed to leave and he went straight to another job at another charity."

Under Oxfam's new vetting system, this sort of practice would no longer be allowed.

The British government has suggested a better response would be to cut Oxfam's funding unless the charity shows "moral leadership".

Aid cuts feared

"I think this is missing the point,” argues Luisa Enria, who warns against using the scandal to justify cutting UK development aid.

The prospect of funding cuts has worried African countries. Oxfam does work in at least 36 of them, including Chad, north-east Nigeria, Somalia and South Sudan, where it emerged this week that Oxfam staff members had also abused women.

"I am not justifying any case, I will not," defends Oxfam International's Executive Director Byanyima.

However, she does believe that there is "an anti-aid community out there that could be happy" to see Oxfam's reputation suffer, to justify not forking out huge sums in foreign aid.

"That would be unfortunate because our world is still a very unjust world with many innocent people trapped in wars, trapped in disasters, who need our help."

For her part, Enria calls on African leaders "to have a say in these conversations", in order to spur a comprehensive reform of the aid sector.

"The aid sector is premised on certain forms on inequality that are manifest not only in extreme cases of sexual abuse like this one but also much more mundane issues like massive pay gaps between local and international staff along racial lines," she says.

Call for change

That needs to change, argues Imogen Wall.

"Any sector who works with vulnerable people sadly will attract people who seek to abuse those vulnerable people," she comments.

The former humanitarian and independent journalist advocates a shake-up of the humanitarian system, to "identify, punish and remove" those who abuse others.

She calls for better information sharing among aid agencies and police checks akin to the UK's Sex Offender's List.

"It would be intolerable in any other sensitive sector" not to have a shared database, she argues.

"The aid world has been told for years it has got a problem with this issue and has failed to take action. So now they're playing catch-up and they're going to have to pull it together if they want to retain trust," she said.

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