Oxfam is among the most well-known and, up until now, well-regarded charities in the world. However, allegations that Oxfam staff members were hiring prostitutes are sure to tarnish the charity’s reputation. Oxfam employees apparently hired sex workers in Haiti in 2011 and in Chad back in 2006. It appears that Oxfam had tried to handle the accusations internally, rather than bringing the issues to legal authorities.
Oxfam’s senior leadership is now meeting with UK government officials to discuss allegations and how they plan to address the issues. The British government has made it clear that if Oxfam doesn’t right the ship, they stand to lose government funds. Oxfam has already promised that it will overhaul its vetting procedures and that it will set up a whistleblower hotline.
Yet these measures may prove to be too little, too late for Oxfam. Not only could the charity lose millions in funding from the UK government, but the scandal is likely to hurt outside donations as well. Oxfam received roughly $44 million from the United Kingdom during the previous fiscal year, but that cash spigot might soon be shut off. Donations to Oxfam regularly top 100 million pounds, but donors might take their cash elsewhere in the future.
Britain’s International Development Secretary Penny Mordaunt blasted Oxfam, stating:
“If the moral leadership at the top of the organization isn’t there, then we cannot have you as a partner.”
Oxfam employees weren’t “just” hiring prostitutes. It appears that some senior leaders actively participated in a cover-up. As is often the case, the cover-up may turn out to be an even bigger story than the initial actions.
Oxfam’s senior leadership was originally made aware of the accusations in 2011 when a whistleblower went directly to Dame Barbara Stocking, then the CEO of Oxfam. However, the allegations are only now coming to the public, following an investigation by the Times.
The story gets worse. Oxfam employees weren’t merely hiring prostitutes on their own time or stopping by brothels. It appears that Haiti Oxfam country director Roland van Hauwermeiren actually turned an Oxfam-rented villa into a de facto brothel. Apparently, women in the “brothel” wore nothing but Oxfam t-shirts. It’s possible but not proven that some of the prostitutes were underage.
Oxfam employees were also accused of hiring sex workers back in 2006, this time in Chad. Once again, it is believed that the prostitutes made their way to one of Oxfam’s staff houses. It appears that Oxfam fired at least one employee in Chad. However, as the 2011 scandal in Haiti proves, the charity didn’t put in place proper safeguards and vetting procedures.
Oxfam had previously conducted an internal investigation to substantiate the allegations. Three men were allowed to resign, while four more were fired for gross misconduct. Hauwermeiren, by the way, was one of those who was allowed to resign. Keep in mind, he was the country manager in both Haiti and Chad and appears to have been directly involved in the sex scandal.
Oxfam’s unwillingness to more seriously punish Hauwermeiren, and its failure to bring the accusations to light, suggest that the organization may have cared more about concealing the story, rather than holding its employees accountable. Oxfam tried to minimize the occurrence, claiming in a written statement:
“[The story] highlights again unacceptable behavior by a small number of people and the need for a sector-wide approach to tackle the problem.”
Oxfam also noted that its organization policies prohibit sexually exploitive acts. However, as is too often the case, words on paper don’t match actions in the real world.
Oxfam was founded in 1942. The charity is often among the first on the ground in the wake of natural disasters. The charity addresses poverty and humanitarian issues worldwide. Oxfam describes its mission as:
“Working with thousands of local partner organizations, we work with people living in poverty striving to exercise their human rights, assert their dignity as full citizens and take control of their lives.”