Vidya Ram

The ugly truth about the Oxfam scandal

Vidya Ram | Updated on February 16, 2018

Writing on the wall For charity in general and for Oxfam in particular   -  REUTERS

The aid agency’s conduct in Haiti is a reminder of how systems of protection are only as strong as those meant to regulate them

In 2010, following the 7.1 magnitude earthquake, and tens of aftershocks that devastated the island of Haiti, killing over 220,000 and injuring over 30,000, billions of dollars of aid poured in, with international aid organisations playing a pivotal role in the recovery and relief effort. Among those to take a lead role was Oxfam, the Oxford-based charity, which had a ₹629 crore fund for its relief efforts in the country.

The charity, founded in 1942 by Quakers, had an annual income of £408.6 million in the year to March 2017, making it the country’s fifth best-funded charity according to the 2017 Charity 100 Index. Among its supporters was the British government, which disbursed £31.7 million to the charity in 2016, as part of its £13 billion foreign aid budget. The charity’s strong track record has, over the years, won it supporters from bands such as the Beatles and Coldplay to comedian Stephen Fry and actress Minnie Driver. Much of its support and funding now faces an uncertain future following scandalous revelations over the behaviour of senior staff in charge of the Haiti recovery operations, and the lack of transparency in the way the charity subsequently handled the matter.

An investigation by The Times unveiled how the charity had allowed three senior male staff to resign following an inquiry into sexual misconduct, and fired four others for gross misconduct and bullying , including the use of prostitutes in Haiti. It also emerged that one of the alleged perpetrators had faced allegations while working in Chad for Oxfam, but had still been assigned to Haiti following the earthquake

Wrong doings

Moreover, some of the men were able to get jobs at other organisations in contact with vulnerable people. Concerns have also extended well beyond the initial allegations to the way Oxfam handled the matter, and relayed information to regulators and others. The scandal has already triggered the resignation of the charity’s deputy head, while corporate sponsors are urgently seeking clarity on the situation.

Britain’s charity regulator the Charity Commission opened a statutory inquiry into Oxfam this week, including into concerns that the charity had not “fully and frankly” disclosed materials about the allegations at the time. Just weeks earlier, the regulator had published a report on Oxfam, following allegations including over sexual harassment, but concluded the charity had a “strong policy framework” for protecting staff and beneficiaries from sexual exploitation and abuse.

In a statement following the Times allegations, Helen Evans, a former head of safeguarding at Oxfam revealed how she had warned the Charity Commission about how Oxfam was “failing to report incidents of sexual exploitation and abuse” and that the scale of abuse was “likely to be far wider than was being reported to Oxfam” while children as young as 14 were at risk due to failures to run basic criminal background checks on those working in its charity stores in the UK.

The controversy has been leapt upon by some on the right in Britain, who have long been critical of the government’s commitments on international aid and development. Britain is one of only six countries globally to hit the UN’s aid spending target of 0.7 per cent of gross national income. In 2013 Britain became the first G7 country to meet that commitment, and in 2015 passed legislation that made meeting that target a legal requirement, despite efforts by some Conservative parliamentarians to thwart it.

What lies ahead

However, the right’s disquiet long pre-dates the legislation — with many arguing aid had to be used to expand trade and national interests. For example, in 2012, India’s decision to shortlist French firm Dassault to supply it 126 Rafale fighter jets rather than the UK-backed Eurofighter (the number of aircraft has of course fallen since) triggered much indignation in some quarters. “Well, that’s gratitude,” The Daily Mail newspaper raged at the time. “We give India £1 billion in aid, THEY snub the UK and give France a £13-billion jet contract!” In Parliament, at the time David Davis, now the Minister heading the department for exiting the European Union, linked the decision to Britain’s aid to India (“We give many times more aid to India than France ever did”).

In October last year, the right-wing Daily Express launched a campaign and petition to cut Britain’s aid commitments, backed by several Conservative MPs. Following the Oxfam revelations, Jacob Rees-Mogg, a Conservative MP (currently one of the favourites to replace Prime Minister Theresa May) presented the newspaper’s petition to Downing Street.

However, beyond the anti-aid rhetoric, the scandal has triggered a wider debate about the route forward, coming just weeks after an undercover investigation by the Financial Times revealed how hostesses at a prestigious men’s only charity event at one of London’s luxury hotels had been groped and sexually harassed: the charity was eventually disbanded and a minister who attended faced calls to resign, which he narrowly avoided.

Priti Patel, the former development minister who resigned for failing to disclose details of a visit to Israel last year, told The Sun newspaper that senior officials knew of the allegations of abuse at Oxfam but hushed them up. “Oxfam is not alone. The aid sector is not alone,” said whistleblower Evans, who alongside highlighting Oxfam’s failures pointed to the failure of the Charity Commission and the government to pay full heed to her concerns, despite concerted efforts by her to reach out.

“The Charity Commission and government departments have serious questions to answer: why did they take no action in response to concerns raised by Helen Evans in June 2015 and August 2015? Are there other whistleblowers that have brought safeguarding concerns to the Charity Commission only to be ignored?,” asked the Labour’s spokesperson on international development Kate Osamor.

A systemic problem?

The potential for abuse of the most vulnerable at the hands of those they are meant to protect is of course nothing new. The UN reported that there were 300 incidents of sexual exploitation and abuse, carried out by its peacekeepers and civilian staff in 2016.

Britain’s international development minister Penny Mordaunt who has so far resisted efforts to be drawn into a wider debate about Britain’s aid budget, urged the entire development sector to confront the issue of sexual abuse and exploitation and has set up a unit to review safeguarding procedures across the aid sector in Britain and beyond.

She is far from alone in urging for the need for greater transparency and reform. However, the scandal is a painful reminder of how systems of protection are only as strong as those meant to regulate them. Warnings going unheeded, and too-comfortable relationships between regulators and those it regulates, have become all too familiar themes across sectors globally.

Published on February 16, 2018

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