Oxfam 'mismanaged' sexual abuse claims in wake of Haiti earthquake, Charity Commission concludes

There was a "culture of poor behaviour" among Oxfam staff sent to help victims of the 2010 Haiti earthquake, with serious allegations of wrongdoing including sexual abuse of children which were not fully disclosed, a Charity Commission inquiry has found.

Oxfam was found guilty of mismanagement in the wake of sexual misconduct allegations that engulfed the charity following the devastating quake.

An exhaustive 18-month inquiry by the Charity Commission has concluded that Oxfam was more interested in its reputation than dealing frankly and openly with the issue some of its workers engaged in “sex parties” with prostitutes on the Caribbean island in 2011.

While stopping short of accusing the charity of a cover-up, the commission says Oxfam did not investigate properly other reports of serious abuse or report openly to the charity commission, government departments or the Disasters Emergency Committee.

The commission has also warned Oxfam has not done enough to ensure the safeguarding of its army of charity workers and gave it 30 days to submit an action plan to show improvement.

  • Charity Commission chair Baroness Stowell explains how Oxfam will have to provide answers

It identifies “weaknesses to managing safeguarding in its chain of charity shops” - encompassing some 22,000 workers.

The lengthy report found the charity failed to heed warnings - including from its own staff - that its culture and response to keeping people safe was inadequate, and that subsequent commitments to improve safeguarding were not backed up by actions.

Caroline Thomson, Oxfam GB's chair of trustees, described what happened in Haiti as "shameful" and said the charity was "deeply sorry".

The Commission reported:

  • Oxfam failed to adequately investigate allegations that children as young as 12 or 13 were victims of sexual misconduct against a charity "boss"

  • It also did not report allegations of child abuse by charity staff in Haiti

  • And that senior staff implicated in sexual misconduct claims were dealt with more leniently than junior figures

Former Oxfam director Roland van Hauwermeiren. Credit: ITV News

More than 200,000 people died in the earthquake and more than 1.5 million Haitians were left homeless.

It's been established, well before the Commission began its inquiry, that senior aid workers, including the then-country director Roland van Hauwermeiren, paid for sex in Haiti in the wake of the quake while the charity was delivering aid.

Sex is believed to have taken place in a villa paid for by the charity.

Several Oxfam bosses were called to give evidence before MPs over the revelations.

Oxfam aid boxes await delivery to Port au Prince, capital of Haiti. Credit: PA

Charity Commission chief executive Helen Stephenson said: "What went wrong in Haiti did not happen in isolation.

"Our inquiry demonstrates that, over a period of years, Oxfam's internal culture tolerated poor behaviour, and at times lost sight of the values it stands for."

She said "significant further cultural and systemic change" is required at Oxfam - which has been under the leadership of new chief executive Dhananjayan Sriskandarajah since January - to address the failings and weaknesses.

Oxfam chiefs Caroline Thomson, Mark Goldring and Winnie Byanyima gave evidence before MPs. Credit: PA

Oxfam's internal investigation, following allegations by a whistleblower in 2011, identified four staff who either did or were suspected of using prostitutes, including on charity residential premises.

The charity could not conclude whether minors were involved in some of the incidents, something the regulator said should have been looked into more closely.

Separately, two allegations of physical abuse, made by email from a 12-year-old and a 13-year-old girl, were "suspected" not to be genuine by Oxfam at the time.

The Charity Commission said that despite there not being evidence to back up the allegations, Oxfam should have tried harder to substantiate the claims at the time.

The cathedral in Port au Prince on Haiti was reduced to rubble. Credit: AP

Caroline Thomson, Oxfam GB's chair of trustees, described what happened in Haiti as "shameful" and said the charity was "deeply sorry".

She added: "It was a terrible abuse of power, and an affront to the values that Oxfam holds dear.

"The Commission's findings are very uncomfortable for Oxfam GB but we accept them.

"We now know that the 2011 investigation and reporting of what happened in Haiti was flawed - more should have been done to establish whether minors were involved.

"While the Commission makes clear that it found no record of a 'cover-up,' we accept that Oxfam GB should have been fuller and franker in its initial reporting of the allegations."

  • What are the main conclusions of the Commission?

- The incidents in Haiti identified in 2011 were not "one-offs", with evidence of behavioural issues as early as June 2010.

- Oxfam's internal investigation, following allegations by a whistleblower in 2011, identified four staff who either did use, or were suspected of using, prostitutes, including on charity residential premises.

- There appeared to be a discretion allowed at the time for senior Oxfam leaders on the ground in Haiti to consider "whether or not to specifically ban their staff" from having sex with prostitutes.

- Charity staff, both in Haiti and at home, carried out internet research on the legality of prostitution on the Caribbean island, and on at least two separate occasions professional legal advice was sought by Oxfam about prostitution.

- Evidence provided to the inquiry described some prostitutes as looking "young, under 18, scantily dressed", while others were described as being in their 20s.

Oxfam's own inquiries identified four staff who either did use, or were suspected of using, prostitutes in Haiti. Credit: PA

- Oxfam should have tried harder and taken more steps at the time to identify the source of two emails from a 12-year-old and 13-year-old girl who complained that minors were being sexually abused by a charity "boss".

- The resignation of Oxfam's country director in Haiti was encouraged and facilitated by Oxfam bosses so as to "manage the reputational risk" to the charity.

- There were "systematic weaknesses" in Oxfam's attitude to safeguarding, and there was no up-to-date safeguarding strategy in place as recently as 2018.

- This included weaknesses in human resources practices, including on vetting, referencing, recruitment and induction.

- There was also a failure to consistently hold people to account for poor behaviour and to ensure robust and consistent action was taken, resulting in a culture of tolerance of poor behaviour. This was likely to have resulted in putting victims off speaking up.

- The report found the risk to and impact on victims "appeared to take second place at times" and was not taken seriously enough, and that victims, whistleblowers and staff who tried to raise concerns were let down.

- Oxfam GB's focus when reporting incidents from Haiti to donors, and to its regulator, was on financial issues; for example, frauds, misappropriation and/or bribery incidents.