Photo by: Gosia Malochleb / CC BY-NC

LONDON — Oxfam officials are set to meet with the United Kingdom’s international development secretary on Monday after a series of news articles detailed allegations of sexual misconduct among its staff members while on mission.

The charity outlined a series of reforms ahead of the meeting to discuss media claims it attempted to cover up the nature of the allegations, with development secretary Penny Mordaunt saying the government could cut Oxfam’s funding if it is unable to explain its handling of the case.

Appearing on the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show on Sunday, Mordaunt said she would be meeting with charity representatives in order to afford them “the opportunity to tell me in person what they did after these events, and I’m going to be looking to see if they are displaying the moral leadership that I think they need to now.”

Asked if she is reconsidering whether the organization should receive taxpayers’ money, she replied: “Yes … I’m very clear: It doesn’t matter whether you’ve got a whistleblowing hotline; it doesn’t matter if you’ve got good safeguarding practices in place. If the moral leadership at the top of the organization isn’t there, we [the Department for International Development] cannot have you as a partner.”

Oxfam has admitted that the behavior of some of its staff was “totally unacceptable” but denied an attempted cover-up.

The charity is reeling from a series of news stories that began on Friday, with The Times newspaper revealing the contents of an internal report from 2011 which had investigated claims of sexual exploitation and bullying, including paying women for sex, among Oxfam staff in Haiti in the aftermath of the Port-au-Prince earthquake. Four men were fired, and three “allowed to resign,” as a result of the investigation, according to The Times. A follow-up report carried on the newspaper’s front page on Saturday claimed the men had gone on to work at other development charities.

Chief executive officer Mark Goldring told ITV News he was “deeply ashamed about Oxfam’s behavior,” which he said compromised the charity’s staff, volunteers and supporters. But he stressed the actions had been limited to a small number of people, and that Oxfam had since taken steps to tackle the problem.

“Nine Oxfam staff behaved in a way that was totally unacceptable and contrary to our values and that then led much more responsible staff to make decisions which are now seen by some as marginal or inappropriate,” he said, for which he apologised.

“What we did afterwards was set up a safeguarding team that’s particularly responsible to improve the quality of reporting [and] investigation, a whistleblowing line too, and also to protect the affected people, because it’s to them we also need to apologise.”

On Sunday, the charity announced a slew of measures which it said would “strengthen the prevention and handling of sexual abuse cases.” Those measures would include an independent review of the case and of the organization’s recruitment practices in emergency settings. “If that review brings about a safer environment for all, then the publicity of the last few days, painful as it has been, will also have been valuable,” said Caroline Thomson, chair of trustees at Oxfam GB, in a press release.

The measures, which Thomson said they would be discussing with DFID, will also include mandatory safeguarding training for staff within the first few weeks of employment; steps to strengthen the vetting of staff; the establishment of a new, independent, and external whistleblowing helpline to encourage more staff to come forward; and collaboration with the rest of the sector to “overcome the legal difficulties which have so far prevented us from sharing intelligence among NGOs and other organizations about people who have been found guilty of sexual misconduct.”

“We have made big improvements since 2011, and today I commit that we will improve further,” said Thomson.

It is the second such scandal to hit the charity in recent months, after reports in October that seven senior Oxfam officials had been investigated over “safeguarding allegations” within a year. The charity’s own figures showed it had handled 87 allegations of sexual exploitation by staff during 2016 and 2017, up from 26 cases in 2014. But aid workers told Devex at the time that the rising numbers were largely a result of improved reporting procedures at the charity, and expressed concern that negative media attention would deter other organizations from following suit.

In a statement issued on the DFID website over the weekend, Mordaunt stressed that the majority of Oxfam staff had done no wrong, and continued that: “My absolute priority is to keep the world’s poorest and most vulnerable people safe from harm. In the 21st century, it is utterly despicable that sexual exploitation and abuse continues to exist in the aid sector. The horrific behaviour by some members of Oxfam staff in Haiti in 2011 is an example of a wider issue on which DFID is already taking action, both at home and with the international community via the U.N.”

She said she would be writing to all U.K. charities that receive U.K. aid, “insisting that they spell out the steps they are taking to ensure their safeguarding policies are fully in place and work properly, declare all safeguarding concerns they are aware of, and confirm they have referred all concerns they have about specific cases and individuals to the relevant authorities.”

She also said she would be encouraging other donors to take action on the issue at the End Violence Solutions Summit, which takes place in Stockholm this week.

Read more Devex coverage on sexual assault and harassment in the aid sector. 

About the author

  • Jessica Abrahams

    Jessica Abrahams is Editor of Devex Pro. Based in London, she helps to oversee news, features, data analysis, events, and newsletters for Devex subscribers. She previously served as Deputy News Editor and as an Associate Editor, with a particular focus on Europe. Before joining Devex, she worked as a writer, researcher, and editor for Prospect magazine, The Telegraph, and Bloomberg News, among other outlets. She holds graduate degrees in journalism from City University London and in international relations from Institut Barcelona d’Estudis Internacionals.