Charges of bullying and prostitution trigger scandal in Oxfam

Barbara Debout reports on the Oxfam scandal caused by charges that the former director of Oxfam Haiti paid for prostitutes with the organisation’s money.

It is in a tense atmosphere, where the term “misogyny” is omnipresent in the media, that the Oxfam scandal has spread. The former director of Oxfam Haiti, Roland van Hauwermeiren, has become embroiled in a sex scandal. It is claimed that he paid for sex with different sexual workers in facilities in Haiti supported by the charity, according to a report launched in 2011 by Oxfam.

With two other leaders, Roland van Hauwermeiren, 68 years old, had to resign after allegations that the three men had paid for young prostitutes during their humanitarian mission in Haiti, after the terrible earthquakes in 2010. Oxfam forwarded the internal inquiries, carried out in 2011, about this humanitarian mission to the Haitian government. One of the leaders accepted the charges, some others are accused of harassment and bullying, and a witness claims to have been physically threatened.

A young Haitian woman declared to The Times that she had a sexual relationship with Mr van Hauwermeiren when she was 16 and he was 61 years old. According to her testimony, he gave her money and nappies for her baby. In the past few weeks, the former director fought back by saying that he had never organised “wild parties” with young prostitutes. He claimed, in a letter published by Belgium media, that “this was with an honourable, mature woman, who was not an earthquake victim nor a prostitute. And I did not give her any money.”

However, in the internal report of 2011 that the organisation released in a partially censored version, the ex-leader admitted to having sexual relation with prostitutes. Oxfam offered him a “way to leave with dignity if he fully cooperates with the investigation”. Because of the media coverage, the non-governmental organisation chose recently to finally release these inquiries in order to be transparent.

“Let’s get somebody else in who can cleanse the organisation”

The real cause of the scandal seems to be that the organisation knew about the activities of Mr van Hauwermeiren. After his resignation, he became the director of the French organisation, Action Contre la Faim, in Bangladesh. The organisation regrets that Oxfam kept this important information quiet.

Also according to The Times, in 2004, while he was working in Liberia, a complaint about sexual assault was lodged against him. In this series of revelations, the newspaper said that the first alerts about Roland van Hauwermeiren were when he was in Chad in 2006. The accusations against the Belgian have triggered what is being called “Oxfamgate”.

Helen Evans, the former head of safeguarding in Oxfam between 2012 and 2015, declared on Channel 4 the existence of an “abuse culture” in some Oxfam offices. She said she reported incidents of rape or attempted rape in Sudan as well as assaults on young volunteers in UK Oxfam shops. These were based on an internal inquiry carried out on 120 people in three different countries.

Also in the interview for Channel 4, she deplored the lack of reaction from the Oxfam leadership, despite her reports. The current director, Mark Goldring, recognised that he had “not acted in a prompt manner” but assured that “he took the matter seriously”. However, calls have been made for his resignation.

Nigel Evans, a Conservative member of the UK parliament’s International Development Select Committee, said to The Times: “By what Mr Goldring has already conceded, he should go. He has admitted that he didn’t take on board what his own safeguarding officer was saying. He’s part of the problem, not the solution. Let’s get somebody else in who can cleanse the organisation.”

Penny Lawrence, deputy chief executive of Oxfam, resigned in the wake of the scandal.

To add to this whole situation, Oxfam international director Juan Alberto Fuentes Knight was recently arrested as part of an anti-corruption investigation opened in 2015 in Guatemala. During the period of the inquiry, Mr Fuentes Knight was the finance minister of the president of Guatemala. Those two political figures have been arrested with about 10 other ministers.

Oxfam Ireland is one of 17 Oxfam organisations working in 92 countries and has 51 shops across Ireland, north and south, with over 1,000 volunteers. With possible implications in the worldwide organisation as well as in Britain, Jim Clarken, Oxfam Ireland’s chief executive, has reacted rapidly after the exposure of the scandal. He sent an email to people who pay monthly direct debits to Oxfam Ireland reassuring them that its branch was not involved in the recent scandal, which concerns only UK workers for now.

He stressed in his letter: “No staff employed by Oxfam Ireland were involved in these cases and they did not involve the misuse of public funds. All of the money that was raised by Oxfam Ireland supporters for Haiti was spent as planned on the relief response to the 2010 earthquake.”

But the clear message from Jim Clarken in his letter is what he feels. “I feel great responsibility in the trust that you place in us and I know that this awful situation may have damaged that. We feel deep shame at the behaviour of those who failed to uphold our values, values I know you share.”

Concerned about the future of the organisation in Ireland and to offer reassurance, Jim Clarken said: “It is my priority to ensure that our staff, volunteers and the people we work for are safe and valued and we have several safeguarding policies in operation to prevent harassment and abuse, including a prevention of sexual exploitation and abuse policy. We promise to continue to be open and transparent and rebuild any trust lost.”

At this uncertain time in the charity world, Oxfam Ireland and GOAL are talking about a “possible merger” of the two organisations.

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