THE Archbishop Emeritus of Cape Town, Dr Desmond Tutu, announced on Thursday that he would retire as an ambassador for Oxfam, because of “allegations of immorality and possible criminality” involving the charity’s aid workers.
The widening crisis over allegations of sexual abuse in the aid sector has led to the Charity Commission launching a formal inquiry and the Government threatening to remove millions of pounds of funding.
Allegations that Oxfam workers engaged prostitutes while working in the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake in Haiti have spread rapidly in recent days to cover other disaster zones and other agencies, calling into question the behaviour of aid workers and ability of charities to manage them.
A statement issued by Dr Tutu’s office on Thursday said: “Archbishop emeritus Desmond Tutu has supported Oxfam International’s good work for many years, most recently as one of its global ambassadors.
“The archbishop is deeply disappointed by allegations of immorality and possible criminality involving humanitarian workers linked to the charity. He is also saddened by the impact of the allegations on the many thousands of good people who have supported Oxfam’s righteous work.”
He had written to Oxfam “to inform them of his retirement as a global ambassador”.
On Sunday, Christian Aid admitted that twice in the past year it has acted after staff members overseas were found to have engaged in “sexual misconduct”. The charity said that it had investigated the two cases, neither of which involved anyone under age or the breaking of any national laws. It had dismissed one employee and disciplined another.
A report in The Times last Friday alleged that Oxfam had covered up the use of prostitutes by senior staff in Haiti, including the country director Raymond Van Hauwermeiren, in 2011. It quoted a “confidential report” by Oxfam, which said that there had been “a culture of impunity” among some staff in Haiti. “It cannot be ruled out that any of the prostitutes were under-aged,” the report was quoted as saying.
Oxfam replied that, after an internal investigation, four members of staff had been sacked, and three others, including the country director, had resigned. “Allegations that underage girls may have been involved were not proven,” it said.
The Charity Commission said on Saturday, however, that it had been led to believe by Oxfam that the misconduct related to “inappropriate sexual behaviour, bullying, harassment and the intimidation of staff.
“The report to us stated there had been no allegations, or evidence, of any abuse of beneficiaries. It also made no mention of any potential sexual crimes involving minors. Our approach to this matter would have been different had the full details that have been reported been disclosed to us at the time.”
The deputy chief executive of Oxfam, Penny Lawrence, resigned on Monday. “As programme director at the time, I am ashamed that this happened on my watch, and I take full responsibility,” she said. She also disclosed that complaints about the use of prostitutes had also been made against Mr van Hauwermeiren and his team in Chad, before he moved to Oxfam’s Haiti office.
On Monday morning, the International Development Secretary, Penny Mordaunt, met Oxfam’s chief executive, Mark Goldring, and its chair of trustees, Caroline Thomson. Ms Mordaunt said after the meeting that she had asked for assurance on “precisely how they will handle any forthcoming allegations around safeguarding — historic or live — in a way in which the public can have confidence. We expect this process to include an independent and external element of scrutiny.”
PADemands: the International Development Secretary, Penny Mordaunt
She had also written “to all UK charities working overseas — including Oxfam — to demand that they step up and do more, so that we have absolute assurance that the moral leadership, the systems, the culture and the transparency that are needed to fully protect vulnerable people are in place, all of the time, and wherever these charities work and with whichever partners they work with.”
The Department for International Development (DfID) had set up “a new unit to urgently review safeguarding across all parts of the aid sector to ensure everything is being done to protect people from harm, including sexual exploitation and abuse”, she said.
Ms Thomson agreed with the 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.” Oxfam had made “significant improvements” since 2011, she said, “including setting up a dedicated safeguarding team”.
Ms Mordaunt also met the chair of the Charity Commission, Helen Stephenson, on Monday. The Commission and DfID would host a “safeguarding summit” for the aid sector before the end of the month, Ms Mourdant said.
All the main players in the sector would be invited to a summit on the topic soon, the Commission said.
On Wednesday morning, speaking at a summit on child protection in Stockholm, Ms Mordaunt said that she would be meeting investigators from the National Crime Agency to discuss the Oxfam case. “No organisation is too big, or our work with them too complex, for me to hesitate to remove funding from them if we cannot trust them to put the beneficiaries of aid first,” she said.
On Monday evening, the Charity Commission announced that it had opened a statutory inquiry into Oxfam. “It is important that we take this urgent step to ensure that these matters are dealt with fully and robustly,” the deputy chief executive of the Commission, David Holdsworth said.
Later that evening, the former head of safeguarding at Oxfam, Helen Evans, told Channel 4 News that Oxfam’s leadership team, including Mr Goldring, had known about other claims of abuse and did not look into them properly.
Among the allegations Ms Evans discovered were that a female aid worker had been raped by a colleague in South Sudan, a teenage volunteer had been assaulted inside a high street charity shop by adult member of staff, and a woman had been coerced into having sex with an aid worker in return for humanitarian relief.
“Those in senior leadership positions who knew the scale of what we were dealing with and, in my view, did not adequately respond to that,” she said.
Both the DfID and the European Union — who have both donated millions to Oxfam’s programmes — have warned that funding to the charity could be cut. Last year, Oxfam received £32 million from the Government.
Other aid agencies have been re-examining their disciplinary records. The Churches’ Child Protection Advisory Service is reviewing Christian Aid’s safeguarding policies, and will be training managers on the issue.
“We continuously review and refresh our current policies and practices, to ensure that we take timely and corrective actions to prevent and censure such behaviour,” Christian Aid said in a statement.
Figures collated by a range of charities in the development sector have suggested that at least 120 aid workers have been accused of sexual misconduct in the past year alone.
As well as 87 allegations against Oxfam employees (of which 53 were reported to the police), there were also 31 cases at Save the Children (ten of which were passed on to the police), and the two at Christian Aid. The British Red Cross also reported that there had been a “small number of cases of harassment reported in the UK”, but no overseas staff had been fired because of abuse or misconduct.
Speaking on Radio 4’s Thought for the Day on Tuesday, the Bishop of Burnley, the Rt Revd Philip North, said: “If a charity claims to stand up for truth and justice and fairness, people understandably feel extremely shocked when staff are undermining those values through their moral choices.”
But he suggested that, if donations were stopped, it would not be the “reprehensible” aid workers who would suffer: “As so often, the poor will end up paying the cost of the sins of the rich because the victims will be Oxfam’s beneficiaries.”
reutersA woman walks past an Oxfam sign in Corail, a camp for people displaced by the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, on Tuesday