UK inquiry finds Oxfam failed to act on child sex abuse claims
12 June 2019 at 5:26 pm
Oxfam GB put protecting its reputation above the need to protect children who were allegedly sexually abused by its workers, a damning report from the charity commission says.
The commission’s inquiry found the charity did not report allegations of sexual abuse by Oxfam staff in Haiti in 2011, failing to take alleged victims seriously enough.
The 150-page report said Oxfam also failed to properly follow-up reports that sexual misconduct victims in Haiti were girls as young as 12, despite the charity undertaking its own investigation into sexual abuse allegations in 2011.
This investigation comes after it emerged last year that Oxfam staff members, who were deployed in Haiti to provide aid, paid earthquake survivors for sex.
It also follows an independent review into sexual misconduct in the Australian aid sector, which found 76 alleged incidents of sexual misconduct by aid workers over a three year period, with children among the victims.
UK Charity Commission CEO Helen Stephenson said the regulator’s findings showed the incidents in Haiti were symptoms of a wider problem.
“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,” Stephenson said.
“The charity’s leadership may have been well-intentioned. But our report demonstrates that good intentions have limited value when they are not matched with resources, robust systems and… an organisational culture that prioritises keeping people safe.”
The commission found two emails sent to Oxfam senior staff in 2011 from a Haitian 13-year-old girl, which said she and a 12-year-old girl were physically abused by an Oxfam “boss” and used for prostitution.
It was suspected by Oxfam at the time – but not then proven – that the allegations were not genuine, the inquiry heard.
But the Charity Commission said Oxfam should have tried harder and taken more steps at the time to follow up the allegations – which last year were referred to the National Crime Agency by Oxfam and the commission.
“Oxfam GB should not have taken the risk with the safety of minors. It should have reported the possibility of two girls being at risk to the local law enforcement authorities… The risk to and impact on the victims appeared to take second place and was not taken seriously enough,” it said.
The commission also said it believed Oxfam’s handling of these matters was influenced by a desire to protect the charity’s reputation, and to protect its relationship with donors.
The inquiry concluded that some of the charity’s failings amounted to mismanagement, leading the commission to issue Oxfam with an official warning.
This requires Oxfam to submit an action plan for the commission’s approval by 30 June, outlining the steps it will take to improve the charity’s safeguarding processes.
Caroline Thomson, Oxfam’s chair of trustees, said the charity was deeply sorry for its failure to prevent sexual abuse by its former staff in Haiti.
“What happened in Haiti was shameful and we are deeply sorry. It was a terrible abuse of power, and an affront to the values that Oxfam holds dear,” Thomson said.
“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.”
Thomson added that since February 2018, Oxfam had significantly accelerated its efforts to tackle sexual abuse and reduce the risk of it occurring.
She said the charity has accepted the review’s 79 recommendations, and already taken action in many of the areas they cover.
“We should have acted more decisively to address resourcing concerns raised by our own safeguarding team, and been more proactive in our reporting of serious incidents,” she said.
“But I am confident that Oxfam GB is changing, and that the steps we are taking are putting Oxfam on the right path for the future.”