Rebecca Cooney: One year on from the Oxfam scandal

The senior reporter at Third Sector reflects on what has changed since the safeguarding scandal broke

Rebecca Cooney
Rebecca Cooney

It’s been a year since The Times broke the story that rocked the international development sector.

For anybody who’s been living under a rock for the past year, the story revealed that three members of Oxfam’s staff, including the Haiti country director Roland van Hauwermeiren, had resigned and four had been sacked after allegations emerged in 2011 that they had employed local women as sex workers while working in Haiti after the earthquake.

Although the charity had told the Charity Commission that there had been an incident of misconduct at the time, it failed to make clear that it entailed sexual misconduct and had involved people who could be viewed as beneficiaries.

The story hit a nerve with the public. There was a point in the immediate aftermath when some observers feared the entire charity sector might implode, or at the very least that it might be the end of one of the best-known and well-respected global charities.

Those doomsday predictions turned out to be inaccurate, but it’s not exactly been an easy ride either.

The year following that initial news story has seen more revelations about sexual misconduct at other charities, a huge spike in complaints to charities and the Charity Commission and a declaration from the Department for International Development that it would not fund charities if they did not live up to expected standards.

The scandal sparked an inquiry by MPs on the House of Commons International Development Committee into sexual exploitation and abuse across the aid sector, which concluded such behaviour had been "an open secret" and that charities had been more concerned with their reputations than looking after victims.

For the charity at the centre of the scandal it has been an incredibly tough year, featuring grovelling apologies, the departure of its chief executive, Mark Goldring, and his deputy, Penny Lawrence, and a major loss of funds.

In the first 10 days alone, 7,000 donors cancelled their regular donations to the charity. In June it emerged that the scandal had forced the charity to make savings of £16m and would have to make about 100 redundancies in the UK.  

Oxfam also agreed to stop bidding on new government funding until it could show it had raised standards and has been banned by the Haitian government from operating in the country.

There was also the occasional misstep from the charity, such as Mark Goldring’s ill-judged comments in a newspaper interview that it wasn’t like the charity had "murdered babies".  

Asked about the scandal one year on, a spokesman said there was no quick fix to the issues faced by the charity, adding that the charity’s commitment to improvement was for the long term.

"What happened in Haiti was a betrayal of the values that Oxfam holds dear," he said.

"Everyone at Oxfam is determined to learn from our past mistakes and create an environment that is as safe as possible for everyone we work with."

In the past year, he said, the charity had taken "significant steps to strengthen safeguarding", including tripling the resources dedicated to it and forming an independent commission to review its culture.

The charity has doubled the size of its safeguarding team at headquarters, trained more than 100 people to detect and investigate safeguarding concerns and installed a director of safeguarding, he said.

One of the major issues laid bare by the scandal was the lack of consequences for perpetrators of sexual abuse. People circulated between charities, countries and disaster zones, making it difficult to stop someone who has left one charity in disgrace popping up elsewhere.

Oxfam says it has developed a central database for safeguarding cases and appointed accredited referees to ensure references will flag up concerns when someone attempts to get another job. And it’s on the steering board for the DFiD programme to develop a global aid worker passport.

But the charity still has a long way to go. In its preliminary findings, the independent commission Oxfam set up to review its processes and culture called on the charity to create a single, unified system for dealing with safeguarding concerns.

It described allegations of bullying in the charity’s offices and warned that staff were not being listened to. It also warned that much of the focus so far had been on improving staff safeguarding, rather than safeguarding for beneficiaries. The final report is due out in May.

At the time of writing, we’re still awaiting the results of the Charity Commission’s statutory inquiry into both Oxfam and Save the Children, another charity that was hard hit by scandal.

In some ways, Oxfam was unlucky. As the countless stories that have come out since have shown, the issue was much wider than one organisation.

For years, there had been concerns about "a certain type of man" who was attracted to the power afforded by working in front-line development, and about the ease with which perpetrators could move around organisations and avoid accountability.

Oxfam just happened to be the charity holding the bomb when it went off.

That’s not to excuse what happened in Haiti – quite the opposite.

The conversation about how the aid sector and charities as a whole respond to allegations of sexual misconduct, harassment and abuse has been protracted and painfully public. But it was one that needed to be had.

Charities are approaching a time of upheaval and uncertainty as global politics, global warming, technology and changing donor demands mean the charity sector will need to renegotiate its relationship with the public and, crucially, with beneficiaries.

People who sexually abuse others in this way rely on darkness, secrecy and a power imbalance. Increased power for beneficiaries and a greater awareness of the importance on safeguarding will hopefully serve to drag exploitation into the light, where it will shrivel up and die.

As hard as the year has been, if Oxfam, the aid sector and the wider charity sector can continue to learn the lessons and harness the momentum for change the scandal has created, it will have been worth it.

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