Penny Mordaunt, U.K. secretary of state for international development. Photo by: Gareth Milner / CC BY

LONDON — The United Kingdom’s aid chief Penny Mordaunt has demanded action on sexual abuse in the aid sector, following allegations over the behaviour of Oxfam staff in Haiti and Chad, as she called a summit of aid leaders to discuss the issue before the end of the month.

Oxfam announces reforms, due to meet UK aid chief after sexual misconduct scandal

Oxfam has outlined a package of reforms after news broke of alleged sexual misconduct among its staff members, and is set to meet with the United Kingdom’s international development secretary on Monday to discuss the scandal.

The declaration comes after a chaotic four days for the charity, which has seen the resignation of a top official, the launch of a statutory investigation by the U.K.’s charity regulator, and threats of funding cuts from at least two major donors after newspaper reports of sexual exploitation and bullying among a small number of Oxfam staff in 2011.

After a day of meetings with Oxfam’s top brass, as well as with the Charity Commission and safeguarding experts, Mordaunt set out a list of demands and reforms the Department for International Development will implement in order to crack down on sexual abuse and exploitation within the aid sector. Some of the reforms are already in progress.

She also raised the possibility of a “global register” of aid workers to ensure that those who engage in misconduct at one organization cannot move on to work at another, after The Times newspaper alleged that some of the men who left Oxfam as a result the Haiti incident subsequently found employment elsewhere in the sector.

“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,” she wrote in a statement.

The DFID chief reiterated her threat to cut funding to organizations that fail to meet “the high standards on safeguarding and protection that we require,” but also acknowledged the “extraordinary work” done by U.K. charities.

That threat was echoed by the European Commission on Monday, which said it takes “a zero tolerance approach to any allegations of misconduct by organizations that receive our funding ... We expect Oxfam to fully clarify the allegations with maximum transparency as a matter of urgency, and we are ready to review and if needed cease funding any partner who is not living up to the required high ethical standards.”

Oxfam GB receives about 60 million British pounds ($83.4 million) annually from the U.K. government and European Commission combined.

The charity acknowledges the incidents in Haiti took place and that the behaviour of the staff involved was “totally unacceptable,” but says it has since introduced measures to prevent it from happening again and denies allegations that it attempted to cover up the abuse, having undertaken an internal investigation at the time.

DFID sets out its demands

In a statement published by DFID on Monday evening, Mordaunt outlined a number of reforms that will be undertaken by the department, including the establishment of a new safeguarding unit to “urgently review safeguarding across all parts of the aid sector.” The new unit will look at “how to guard against criminal and predatory individuals being re-employed by charities and abusing again.” That could include establishing the global register of development workers, Mordaunt said.

The minister also announced that DFID would co-convene a safeguarding summit later this month with the Charity Commission, which regulates charities in England and Wales. The summit will gather leaders from key international aid organizations to “agree a set of actions to strengthen safeguarding processes and mechanisms, including around staffing and recruitment,” she said. The Charity Commission added that the summit would “pave the way for a significant conference” on the subject.

Mordaunt said she has already written to all U.K. charities working overseas “to demand that they step up and do more,” and would soon be writing to foreign NGOs that receive U.K. aid with the same message. She urged charities to report any outstanding cases or individuals to the “relevant authorities,” including DFID’s counterfraud and whistleblowing unit.

Mordaunt said she will also turn her attention to the United Nations, and “step up” existing DFID work to “stop abuses under the U.N. flag.” Mordaunt’s predecessor, Priti Patel, made 30 percent of U.K. funding to the U.N. conditional on the institution carrying out reforms, after it emerged that U.N. staff were implicated in at least 145 cases of sexual exploitation in 2016.

Caroline Thomson, Oxfam GB’s chair of trustees, described the charity’s meeting with the minister on Monday as “very challenging but constructive,” and said the organization is in “total agreement with the secretary of state's further proposals.”

“We recognise that we have some way to go to persuade her that we have the right moral leadership to be fully entrusted with public money. But we are committed to working with her, DFID, and the Charity Commission to prove we can meet her expectations," Thomson said.

Mordaunt is expected to talk more about DFID’s plans, and call on other nations to follow suit, when she speaks alongside other donors and aid leaders at the End Violence Solutions Summit in Stockholm on Wednesday.

A week of turmoil for Oxfam

The announcement follows several days of turmoil for Oxfam, after The Times newspaper revealed the contents of an internal 2011 report into sexual misconduct among staff stationed in Haiti after the devastating Port-au-Prince earthquake. Four men were fired, and three “allowed to resign,” as a result of the investigation, according to The Times. On Sunday, The Observer newspaper reported on similar issues in Chad, where one of the men involved in the Haiti case had previously been stationed.

Senior Oxfam officials have apologised, with Oxfam GB Chief Executive Officer Mark Goldring acknowledging that the staff involved had “behaved in a way that was totally unacceptable and contrary to our values,” but insisting that Oxfam had subsequently taken steps to address the issues, including the establishment of a safeguarding team, improved reporting procedures, and a whistleblowing hotline. The charity also announced a slew of new reforms over the weekend aimed at tackling the problem further.

But officials were still summoned to meet Mordaunt, and Deputy Chief Executive Penny Lawrence resigned on Monday, saying the organization “had failed to adequately act upon” concerns that had been raised about the behaviour of staff, for which she accepted responsibility.

Also on Monday, the Charity Commission launched a statutory inquiry into Oxfam — the most serious action it can take — which gives it special investigative, protective, and remedial powers, although the scope of the inquiry has not yet been announced.

In a press release, the commission said it had concerns about Oxfam’s “handling of the incidents” and the impact that has had “on public trust and confidence.”

Helen Evans, Oxfam’s global head of safeguarding from 2012 to 2015, who was tasked with implementing new safeguarding procedures at the charity after the Haiti case, also issued a public statement on Monday evening. She said that as the new reporting mechanisms were put in place, “the allegations began to flood in and the scale of the problem emerged. Haiti wasn’t an isolated incident. There was a systemic issue.” But Evans said her unit was not given the resources or attention from leadership that was needed to address the scale of the problem, and she ultimately left the organization as a result.

However, she also stressed that the issue extends far beyond both Oxfam and the aid sector, saying that “sexual abuse is to be found wherever there are people in positions of trust and power … I continue to hold Oxfam’s mission and the vast majority of Oxfam’s staff in the highest of regard. This matter must not be used as an excuse to cut aid. If we do so, then we must turn to every sector where there is such abuse and look to cut their funding too.”

Former development secretary Patel, who was forced to resign at the end of last year for holding unofficial meetings with Israeli officials, has also waded into the debate, saying sexual abuse in the aid sector has been “well documented,” including in U.N. agencies. She said it is a “tragedy” that there has been “no international leadership about this,” pointing to a lack of political will.

Oxfam says it has committed to improvements in the aftermath of the reports, with Thomson saying in a statement that: “We will continue to address the underlying cultural issues that allowed this behaviour to happen. We also want to satisfy ourselves that we do now have a culture of openness and transparency and that we fully learn the lessons of events in 2011.” Reforms will include mandatory safeguarding training for staff, and including safeguarding as a mandatory part of the interview process for senior positions.

About the authors

  • 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.
  • 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.