Oxfam suspends staff over new abuse claims

06 Apr 2021 News

Oxfam has suspended two members of staff as it investigates allegations of bullying and sexual misconduct.

The charity has taken action against the employees, who work in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), as part of an investigation which started in November. The Charity Commission confirmed that it was notified as soon as the investigation began.

The Times newspaper reported last week that some Oxfam staff believe there is “a culture of bullying and impunity” in the charity’s work in DRC.

A ban on Oxfam bidding for government funding, imposed after previous allegations of abuse by the charity’s staff working overseas, was lifted in March.

Abuse allegations

The Times said that 22 current and former Oxfam staff wrote to the charity’s leadership team last month, raising frustration about the length of time being taken over the investigation. 

The letter also alleged that no action had been taken on previous complaints about misconduct in the DRC, dating back to 2015.

It claimed that the charity’s work in the country had been impacted by corruption, sexual harassment, exploitation, threats and intimidation, and that there was “a culture of bullying and impunity for senior managers abusing their power”.

External investigation opened

An Oxfam spokesperson said: “We can confirm we have suspended two members of Oxfam staff in the Democratic Republic of Congo as part of an ongoing external investigation, which we set up last November, into allegations of abuses of power, including bullying and sexual misconduct. 

“The Charity Commission were notified at the start of the investigation and we have kept them informed about its progress.    

“We are acutely aware of our duty to survivors, including in supporting them to speak out safely. We are working hard to conclude the investigation fairly, safely and effectively.”

Charity Commission: We are liaising with Oxfam

In 2018, reports of abuse by Oxfam staff working in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake led to a Charity Commission inquiry.

The Charity Commission said: “Since our 2019 inquiry called for ‘significant systemic and cultural’ change to keep people safe from harm, we have been holding Oxfam to account for its progress in improving safeguarding. 

“As part of this, we have been actively liaising with the charity on its investigations into concerning allegations of misconduct in the DRC and have been receiving regular updates and assurances on the steps it is taking to address the concerns, including to ensure that the wellbeing and safety of those who reported them is protected.”

The Commission was already investigating eight allegations of serious abuse by UK aid charities in the DRC in October last year, according to evidence the regulator gave to parliament last year.

In the course of that evidence, Helen Stephenson, the chief executive of the Charity Commission, said: “I think, particularly for charities working internationally, that if charities cannot keep people safe then they should not be in receipt of overseas aid. It is that fundamental to me.”   

Public funds

The charity was barred from applying for government funding while the Commission’s inquiry into the Haiti scandal was ongoing.

Oxfam was praised by the regulator in February for the progress it had made on safeguarding procedures since 2018, and the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office announced last month that the ban had been lifted.

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