Oxfam: Deputy resigns over how sex claims were handled

Written By: BBC/Hunja Macharia
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Oxfam’s deputy chief executive has resigned over the handling of a sex scandal involving aid workers. Penny Lawrence said she was “ashamed” and takes full responsibility.

The British charity is accused of concealing the findings of an inquiry into claims staff used prostitutes while delivering aid in Haiti in 2011.

The Charity Commission has launched a statutory inquiry into Oxfam – which denies a cover-up – but details of its scope have not yet been released.

The watchdog says it has concerns the charity may not have “fully and frankly” disclosed everything it knew about the claims despite previous assurances from Oxfam.

Michelle Russell, director of investigations at the commission, said if details had been known it would have dealt with the situation “very differently”.

It comes after an earlier meeting with the International Development Secretary in an effort to protect Oxfam’s funding from being cut.

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Ms Lawrence joined Oxfam GB in 2006 as international programmes director, leading teams across 60 countries, according to the charity’s website.

“Concerns were raised about the behaviour of staff in Chad as well as Haiti that we failed to adequately act upon,” she said in a statement.

“It is now clear that these allegations – involving the use of prostitutes and which related to the behaviour of both the country director and members of his team in Chad – were raised before he moved to Haiti.”

A statutory inquiry is the most serious action the Charity Commission can take.

It gives the regulator new powers to investigate, demand information, suspend trustees and even freeze bank accounts.

So this shows how seriously the Commission is taking the sexual misconduct claims about Oxfam staff in Haiti. It also shows how unhappy the Commission is at not being given the full facts about what went on.

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International Development Secretary Penny Mordaunt is being equally tough on Oxfam, threatening to withdraw funding unless it gets its house in order and shows some moral leadership.

But like the Charity Commission, Ms Mordaunt is also keen to show that she is acting, by promising a new unit in her department to establish a global register of aid workers that might be able to stop predatory individuals being re-employed by charities.

She knows she will face tough questioning from MPs on the international development committee next week about what her department knew and what she has done since.

Reputations are on the line here and no organisation wants to be found wanting.

The allegations emerged in The Times on Friday, which said Oxfam’s country director for Haiti, Roland van Hauwermeiren, used prostitutes at a villa rented for him by Oxfam in the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake.

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According to the paper, Oxfam knew about concerns over the conduct of Mr van Hauwermeiren and another man when they worked in Chad before they were given senior roles in Haiti.

Oxfam said allegations that underage girls may have been involved were unproven.

BBC world affairs correspondent Will Grant said senior government sources feared the abuse allegations could be “the tip of the iceberg” and that all aid agencies operating in Haiti as well as Oxfam would be investigated.

He added locals expressed “real anger” at what they say is impunity by international aid agencies for the way they have behaved.

Widza Bryant, who worked in HR for Oxfam in Haiti from 2009 for three years, said she shared “ongoing rumours” about locals being exploited with management “on many occasions”.

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