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Oxfam sex scandal: Charity had 'culture of tolerating bad behaviour', damning report finds

Oxfam sex scandal: Charity had 'culture of tolerating bad behaviour', damning report finds
Copyright REUTERS/Andres Martinez Casares
Copyright REUTERS/Andres Martinez Casares
By Alasdair Sandford
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A report into the sexual exploitation of earthquake victims by Oxfam workers in Haiti says the charity had a "culture of tolerating bad behaviour".


A report into the sexual exploitation of earthquake victims by Oxfam workers in Haiti says the charity had a "culture of tolerating bad behaviour".

The Charity Commission — the UK government department regulating charities — said it had also "failed to heed warnings" even from its own staff.

It concluded the charity's failings and shortcomings amounted to mismanagement and has issued an official warning.

The inquiry followed allegations — published in The Times last year — that senior staff had paid quake survivors for sex, including underage girls, and that Oxfam had covered up the scandal.

Oxfam apologised and said it abhors and has zero-tolerance of, abusive behaviour, sexual or otherwise.

What did the Charity Commission say?

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

"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 processes that are implemented on the ground, and more importantly, an organisational culture that prioritises keeping people safe.

"I would like to thank the whistleblowers in this case, who took the courageous decision to come to us with their concerns.

"Their contribution has made, and will continue to make, an important difference."

How did Oxfam respond?

"I underline Oxfam GB’s apologies and reaffirm our organisation’s abhorrence for, and zero-tolerance of, abusive behaviour, sexual or otherwise," said Winnie Byanyima, executive director of Oxfam International.

"It is a violation of everything Oxfam stands for. I would like to restate our confederation’s collective commitment to keep working hard to transform our work-place culture and improve our safeguarding systems.

"While this was the UK charity regulator’s report into Oxfam’s Great Britain affiliate, it is clear we can only challenge these abuses if we do it together as an international confederation."

What is the background?

The earthquake that struck Haiti on January 12, 2010, was the biggest to strike the Caribbean country in 200 years.

Measuring 7.3, it killed an estimated 220,000 people, injured another 300,000, left 1.5 million homeless and sparked a humanitarian crisis that made headlines worldwide.

Oxfam was among many charitable organisations to respond, sending a 100-strong team including 15 emergency specialists to support its workers already present in the country. Over the next few months they set about providing water, shelter and sanitation for the victims.

The first hint of wrongdoing came the following year. Oxfam’s report in 2011 said an inquiry had confirmed allegations of sexual misconduct by staff, including the use of prostitutes.

It led to several members of staff being dismissed, while others resigned – including the charity’s operations director in Haiti.

Then, in February 2018 came the bombshell with the allegations in The Times, suggesting that Oxfam had not told the whole story.


The British paper listed claims that senior staff working in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake had paid survivors for sex, and that some may have been underage. It also alleged that the charity had covered up the scandal – something that Oxfam denied.

Announcing its own inquiry at the time, the Charity Commission said that the report submitted by Oxfam in 2011 had not disclosed the full details – and that it would have acted differently, had it known.

In the wake of the sexual abuse claims, thousands of people cancelled their donations to Oxfam, reportedly forcing the charity to make cuts to its aid budgets worldwide.

It agreed to withdraw from UK government funding – its highest source of revenue – and Haiti later withdrew Oxfam’s right to operate in the country.

More reports followed, suggesting further cases of sexual abuse by Oxfam workers elsewhere.


Announcing an independent commission to investigate the abuse claims in 2018, Oxfam International’s executive director Winnie Byanyima said the events in Haiti and the aftermath were “a stain on Oxfam that will shame us for years, and rightly so”.

What other reaction has there been?

"It is both horrifying and wholly unacceptable that aid workers and peacekeepers are perpetrating abuse against those they are meant to protect," said Samantha Ferrell-Schweppenstedde, a programme officer at Equality Now.

"Development and aid agencies must enact effective zero-tolerance policies that hold perpetrators of sexual exploitation, harassment, and violence to account, and ensure justice for victims. This should hold true for any charity or organisation working with vulnerable people.

"Sexual abuse and exploitation within the aid and development sector are sustained through a lack of accountability for perpetrators. To tackle this problem, organisations must enact fundamental changes that address the widescale problem of under-reporting. This requires clear and effective leadership to ensure the implementation of best practice, including putting into place clear, effective policies that protect victims and whistle-blowers."

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