Exclusive: Oxfam did not ban staff from paying for sex until last year

An Oxfam charity shop in south London pictured on February 17, 2018. Photo by: Justin TALLIS / AFP

LONDON — Oxfam GB, the aid organization at the center of the sexual misconduct scandal that has rocked the aid sector, did not ban paying for sex in its code of conduct until February 2017, six years after staff were dismissed for hiring sex workers and other safeguarding breaches in Haiti, Devex has learned.

Earlier this year, The Times published a string of stories based on the contents of an internal report from 2011, that showed Oxfam had investigated senior staff — including its then Haiti country director — for alleged sexual exploitation and bullying. The allegations included Oxfam staff paying young Haitian women for sex during the humanitarian response to the 2010 earthquake. Four men were fired and three were “allowed to resign” as a result of the investigation. Some went on to work at other development charities.

Since the story broke, Oxfam has been vociferous in its apologies and said it has taken steps to strengthen its safeguarding policies in the years since the Haiti incident.

According to The Telegraph, quoting an Oxfam training manual from 2006, the organization did not ban staff from using prostitutes at the time since this would “infringe their civil liberties.” Oxfam told the newspaper their code of conduct had since been updated to prohibit paying for sex, but could not say when this change was made.

Devex has now learned that the change was not made until last year.

“We updated the Code of Conduct in February 2017, as we believed that it should explicitly prohibit staff from engaging in any kind of transactional sexual behavior,” a spokesperson for Oxfam GB told Devex.

The previous code made no mention of transactional sex but “prohibited sex with people in direct receipt of Oxfam aid,” the spokesperson explained, adding that “we deeply regret that it did not also forbid paying for sex.”

Oxfam’s current code of conduct states that staff cannot “exchange money, offers of employment, employment, goods or services for sex or sexual favours.” The spokesperson added that the change had been made “on the advice of our safeguarding team to bring us in line with U.N. standards.”

Sources with knowledge of the situation told Devex that Oxfam’s safeguarding team had been advocating for the change for several years but that there had been internal resistance over a concern about the personal rights and sexual needs of staff.

One source also said the change in policy may have been triggered by Oxfam's 2020 strategy under which the organization's 27 country offices were brought under the management of Oxfam International, which may have led the NGO to formalize its code of conduct around transactional sex. The code of conduct had also been revised in 2012, just a year after the Haiti case, to “harmonize practices across the [Oxfam] confederation following a global restructure,” the spokesperson said, but transactional sex was not prohibited at that time.

Oxfam’s previous position on the use of sex workers by staff put it at odds with other major NGOs, many of which had banned transactional sex in line with guidance issued by the United Nations secretary-general’s special measures bulletin. The guidance was introduced in 2003, after the West African “sex-for-food scandal,” in which staff members from a number of NGOs were reported to be using aid to exploit refugee children.

The Haiti scandal has rocked the development world and led to further revelations about the use of sex workers by aid professionals at various organizations, alongside other cases of sexual misconduct. The news also sparked an investigation by the U.K.’s Charity Commission into Oxfam GB, which is ongoing, and led to the charity withdrawing from bidding for U.K. aid contracts. The International Development Committee, the parliamentary group that scrutinizes U.K. aid, also launched an inquiry into sexual exploitation and abuse in the sector, publishing a damning report last week.

Oxfam insists it has made significant improvements to its safeguarding procedures since the incidents in Haiti. Aid workers and industry insiders told Devex the charity has been leading the way when it comes to encouraging reports of sexual harassment and abuse within its own ranks, including through a whistleblowing hotline. It also recently introduced further measures, such as mandatory safeguarding training for all staff.

DFID has vowed to clean up the aid sector and an international summit on the issue is set for October 18 in London.

Jessica Abrahams and Molly Anders contributed reporting to this article.

Update, Aug. 6, 2018: This article has been updated to clarify details on Oxfam Great Britain's contracts with aid agencies.

About the author

  • Sophie Edwards

    Sophie Edwards is a Reporter for Devex based in London covering global development news including global education, water and sanitation, innovative financing, the environment along with other topics. She has previously worked for NGOs, the World Bank and spent a number of years as a journalist for a regional newspaper in the U.K. She has an MA from the Institute of Development Studies and a BA from Cambridge University.