Amid sex scandal, Oxfam faces reputational, existential crises

After explosive reports revealed aid workers paid for sex while delivering relief in Chad and Haiti, the resulting uproar has cast ominous clouds over the entire foreign aid industry.

The #MeToo moment has become a global phenomenon as organizations worldwide face tough questions about their respective histories of sexual misconduct.

Oxfam, a U.K.-based charity, is reeling from reports that emergency aid teams paid for sex while serving in Chad and Haiti—and that top officials have long known about the allegations.

Although Oxfam seemed to have dismissed the behavior, critics have pointed out that the optics suggest that charity workers were exchanging life-saving aid for sex. Now, the controversy threatens the existence of the storied institution—and has sent ripples throughout the humanitarian aid community.

NPR wrote:

Penny Lawrence, Oxfam’s deputy chief executive, said in a statement that she was “deeply sad” and “ashamed.” She acknowledged that allegations had been known that country director for Chad, Roland van Hauwermeiren, and members of his staff, had paid for sex while they were stationed in the African country in 2006 before the team was moved to Haiti four years later.

Lawrence has resigned, taking responsibility for the organizational failure to address allegations against Hauwermeiren when they first appeared.

In her full statement, she wrote:

“Over the last few days we have become aware that concerns were raised about the behaviour of staff in Chad as well as Haiti that we failed to adequately act upon. It is now clear that these allegations – involving the use of prostitutes and which related to behaviour of both the Country Director and members of his team in Chad – were raised before he moved to Haiti.

“As programme director at the time, I am ashamed that this happened on my watch and I take full responsibility.

“I am desperately sorry for the harm and distress that this has caused to Oxfam’s supporters, the wider development sector and most of all the vulnerable people who trusted us.

“It has been such a privilege to work for such an amazing organisation that has done and needs to continue to do such good in the world.”

Mark Goldring, Chief Executive of Oxfam GB, said: “I deeply respect Penny’s decision to accept personal responsibility. Like us, she is appalled at what happened and is determined to do what is best for Oxfam and the people we exist to help.

“I would like to place on record my sincere thanks for the years of dedicated service that Penny has given to Oxfam and the fight against poverty around the world.”

The president of Haiti tweeted his dismay over the reports:

NPR reported the tweet’s translation as there “is nothing more outrageous and dishonest than a sexual predator who uses his position as part of the humanitarian response to a natural disaster to exploit needy people in their moments of greatest vulnerability.”

Others spoke up to defend the organization’s work:

The beleaguered organization tweeted a promise to be more open and transparent and said it had “strengthened” protections against abuse and harassment.

Oxfam’s crisis could pose an existential threat to the charity as former executives are speaking out in opposition to the organization:

Some see the scandal as a crisis for the entire aid industry.

Writing for The Guardian, Kevin Watkins, chief executive for Save the Children, said:

[…] trust is at the heart of our contract with the UK public and the taxpayers who foot the bill for the Department for International Development (DfID). This trust is failing – and we have no hope of rebuilding it without tackling the issue at the heart of the current crisis.

An epidemic has affected institutions across our society, from political parties and the House of Commons, to broadcasters, football teams and private companies – and it is global in reach. This epidemic is rooted in the unequal power relationships that enable powerful and predatory men to exploit women and children through bullying, sexual harassment and outright violence. The only antidote is a culture of zero tolerance, backed by rules, recruitment practices, and leadership.

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