Development secretary questions Oxfam’s ‘moral leadership’ ahead of meeting

12 Feb 2018 News

Penny Mordaunt, international development secretary, speaking to Andrew Marr

The international development secretary has criticised Oxfam’s “moral leadership” ahead of a crisis meeting with the charity later today.

Speaking to the BBC’s Andrew Marr yesterday, Penny Mordaunt questioned the charity’s handling of its 2011 investigation into allegations that senior staff used prostitutes while working for the charity in Haiti, after the earthquake which rocked the country in 2010.

Mordaunt said: “I’m very clear, it doesn’t matter if you’ve got a whistleblowing hotline. It doesn’t matter if you’ve got good safeguarding practices in place. If the moral leadership at the top of the organisation isn’t there then we cannot have you as a partner.”

Mordaunt also said that many of the staff at Oxfam “who are doing good work” have also been “betrayed” by the revelations.

Oxfam has denied it tried to cover up the reasons why four staff members were sacked, and a further three resigned, including the charity’s country director for Haiti. Mordaunt, however, told Marr that the charity’s funding partnership with the government is now at risk.

Mordaunt has invited representatives from Oxfam to meet with her later today. According to the BBC; Michelle Russell, director of investigations, monitoring and enforcement at the Charity Commission, will also be in attendance.

The scandal begun on Friday, when The Times newspaper published a story accusing the charity of covering up the use of sex workers by senior members of its Haiti team.

Over the weekend, the Times made further allegations of sexual misconduct by Oxfam staff in Chad and claimed that Oxfam "failed to warn" other aid agencies about the behaviour of those dismissed when they applied for new jobs in the sector. 

Charity Commission says full details of Oxfam investigation not given 

In a statement issued over the weekend, the Charity Commission was also critical of Oxfam, saying the charity did not disclose allegations and evidence of “abuse of beneficiaries” or of any “potential crimes involving minors”.

The Commission said that, had Oxfam provided “the full details” of the allegations, its response at the time “would have been different”.

It has also called on all charities to “engage with the regulator frankly and openly” and said it must “fully understand the allegations that have been made to ensure that we have confidence in the charity’s approach” in the event of an investigation.

The Charity Commission statement in full reads: "The allegations reported in the media have absolutely no place in society, and are made all the more shocking by the alleged involvement of charity workers. Charities are rightly held to the highest standards.

“In August 2011, Oxfam made a report to the Commission about an ongoing internal investigation into allegations of misconduct by staff members involved in their Haiti programme. It explained 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.

“We have written to the charity as a matter of urgency to request further information regarding the events in Haiti in 2011 to establish greater clarity on this matter. This includes a timeline of events, information about when the charity was made aware of specific allegations and the detail of the investigation’s findings and conclusions. This information will be considered as part of an ongoing case regarding the charity’s approach to safeguarding.

“It is important that charities engage with the regulator frankly and openly. We must fully understand the allegations that have been made to ensure that we have confidence in the charity’s approach to safeguarding now and in the future."

Oxfam’s chair yesterday announced the charity would be launching a “package of measures to strengthen the prevention and handling of sexual abuse cases” in the wake of the news. The announcement can be read in full here.

Bond ‘important that lessons are learned’

Bond, the umbrella body for international development charities, has made a statement on the issue over the weekend. It said it is working with its members and the Charity Commission. 

Tamsyn Barton, chief executive of Bond, said: "The reported behaviour and conduct of NGO employees in Haiti is completely deplorable and contrary to the values and high standards the development and humanitarian sector is rightly expected to adhere to. It is very important that we learn the lessons from this as a sector to ensure that we have the best preventative mechanisms in place.

“However, we cannot allow the actions of a few undermine the incredible work charities do to provide shelter, food and healthcare in some of the most difficult environments in the world, and often at desperate times for the world's poorest people. These organisations are often the only lifeline for people facing conflict, climate change and extreme poverty.

“Bond is coordinating with members and linking up with the Charity Commission to ensure that vulnerable people are protected by robust safeguarding and whistle-blowing policies and practices."

NCVO has said it will support this effort. 

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