The unacceptable behaviour by a number of Oxfam GB staff in Haiti in 2011, and the charity’s subsequent response, has attracted an unprecedented amount of media, parliamentary and regulatory attention since The Times first broke the story 18 months ago.
Oxfam’s former trustees and senior staff have been heavily criticised, with a number of personal reputations seriously damaged. The Charity Commission’s inquiry report, published in June, was particularly uncompromising in its criticism. In this article I ask whether the facts of the case justify the treatment – one could fairly say vilification – that Oxfam and its former leaders have received.
In my view the answer to that question is a clear no. Let me explain.
The charge sheet against Oxfam
In February 2018 The Times published a front-page story under the headline ‘Top Oxfam staff paid Haiti survivors for sex’. A succession of stories followed on The Times front page every day for more than a week. At the end of this period, Oxfam stood accused of the following:
- Some of Oxfam’s international (expatriate) staff in Haiti paid ‘beneficiaries’ for sex;
- Some of the women may have been under-age, including widely reported allegations that two girls aged 12 and 13 may have been involved;
- The director of Oxfam’s Haiti programme had been allowed to resign, despite admitting to having used prostitutes;
- Oxfam “covered up” the accusations by failing to report them to the authorities in Haiti and by not fully sharing all the details with the Charity Commission; and
- The charity failed to warn other aid agencies of the unacceptable behaviour of staff who had resigned or been dismissed, and some went on to work for other NGOs.
Additional criticisms made by the Charity Commission in its inquiry report included that:
- There were warning signs in 2010 of sexual misconduct by Oxfam staff in Haiti to which the charity failed to respond; and
- The director of Oxfam’s Haiti programme was treated more leniently than other staff accused of similar misbehaviour, and this constituted “mismanagement in the administration of the charity”.
The Charity Commission concluded that Oxfam’s response to the events in Haiti was “mishandled” and “flawed”; that the charity’s approach to disclosure and reporting was marked “by a desire to protect the charity’s reputation and donor relationships”; and that “Oxfam’s internal culture tolerated poor behaviour” and “lost sight of the values it stands for”.
In a widely publicised foreword to the inquiry report, the Commission’s chair highlighted what she described as Oxfam’s “failings”. The charity, she asserted, had “put its own reputation ahead of the dignity and wellbeing of those it exists to protect”.
There can be no greater condemnation of the competence, motivation and ethical values of a charity’s trustees and executive management than this statement by the chair of the regulator. And yet when I read through the 143-page report I cannot see how the facts established by the Commission in its inquiry come anywhere near justifying such a forthright and damning set of conclusions.
In my view Oxfam’s leaders got far more right than they got wrong, and many of the media allegations made against the charity just don’t stack up when objectively assessed against the underlying facts.
Oxfam’s trustees and senior managers have been given little opportunity to defend their actions in the face of a media and regulatory onslaught. Now that a few months have passed since the publication of the Commission’s inquiry report I think it’s important to present an alternative perspective on the events in Haiti and how Oxfam responded to them.
In undertaking this analysis I have not had any contact with Oxfam staff or trustees, past or present. I have simply used the facts outlined in the Commission’s report and other data in the public domain. What follows is a personal view.
Let’s look at the main allegations in turn.
Warning signs of sexual misconduct in Haiti in 2010 were not addressed
To properly evaluate the way Oxfam and its senior leaders responded to the events in Haiti one has to fully understand the operational context of the matters under discussion.
The horrific earthquake of January 2010 killed 200,000 people in a country with a population of around 10 million. To respond to this humanitarian disaster, the number of staff in Oxfam GB’s existing programme in Haiti increased seven-fold in a very short period, with 550 staff involved in the emergency response. The Commission’s inquiry report notes that even “18 months after the earthquake had taken place, the environment in Haiti was still destabilised with no definable infrastructure, including many public services”.
One can only imagine how challenging it would have been to run a well-structured aid programme with high-quality control systems in all areas under these extremely challenging conditions. But, quite rightly, Oxfam’s leaders never sought to use the fact that they were working in such difficult conditions as an excuse for lowering their safeguarding standards. The evidence is that they did their utmost to ensure their required processes and controls were followed, despite all the challenges the charity faced on the ground.
In August 2010, only seven months after the earthquake, the Oxfam GB internal audit team conducted an audit into the control framework over the Haiti programme. It is to the organisation’s credit that this review took place so quickly after the emergency aid programme had been established.
In line with good governance practice, their report was discussed at a meeting of the Trustee Audit and Finance Group (TAFG) – a key subcommittee of the Oxfam GB board of trustees – back at the charity’s Oxford HQ. The Commission says that internal audit’s main recommendations “related to the overall programme strategy, management and funding” of the Haiti emergency response programme. No mention is made of any allegations of sexual misconduct being raised with the internal audit team.
A second review team was sent from Oxford in November 2010, this time it was Oxfam GB’s Accountability Team, which included a physical and sexual exploitation and abuse-trained (PSEA) investigator. The review focused on assessing the systems for dealing with “safeguarding issues in the field with beneficiaries”. The Team recorded that ten sexual exploitation and abuse cases in the field had been reported, involving local volunteer community mobilisers, but – crucially – “no [international] Oxfam GB staff were involved”. A plan was established to “enhance in-country staff awareness of PSEA issues” and generally tighten up local HR and safeguarding systems.
The Commission’s inquiry report also records that, separately, in June 2010 the Haiti country director was made aware that a male member of international staff was sexually harassing female staff colleagues. He received a final written warning for misconduct from the country director, and staff back in Oxford were informed. We also learn in the inquiry report that the Haiti country director was aware of allegations that three members of international staff were using prostitutes but “these allegations do not appear to have been reported in 2010 outside of the in-country managers at the time.”
Apart from the isolated incident described in the first sentence of the paragraph above, I see no evidence in the inquiry report of any early warning signs of sexual misconduct among international staff in Haiti that the leadership in Oxford could reasonably have been expected to identify. Senior managers in Oxford were not aware of the allegations until they were first reported to them in July 2011. The Commission’s inquiry report itself confirms that it was only then that the allegations “were first brought to the attention of Oxfam GB’s leadership and management”.
So to suggest, as the inquiry report does, that there were early warning signs in 2010 which should have alerted Oxfam GB’s leaders back in Oxford to the sexual misconduct of international staff in Haiti is, in my opinion, inaccurate.
The response of Oxfam’s leaders to events in Haiti was 'flawed' and they 'tolerated poor behaviour'
Allegations about the use of prostitutes by some international staff in Haiti, and other complaints about their behaviour, were first reported to Oxfam GB’s senior management on 12 July, 2011. Senior figures in Oxfam were appalled by the behaviour reported to them and immediately launched an investigation. In a little over a week, on 23 July, an investigation team arrived in Haiti. During the next few days some 40 witnesses were interviewed and by early September eight disciplinary hearings had been held. Four members of staff were dismissed, and three – including the Haiti country director – resigned.
The final investigation report, including lessons learnt and recommendations for action, was tabled with Oxfam GB’s Trustee Audit and Finance Group on 30 September 2011. Members of the committee were briefed by the head of internal audit about the investigation process and its findings. By 17 October, all members of the full Oxfam board of trustees had been sent the investigation report, the list of planned actions and who within Oxfam GB would be responsible for progressing those matters to completion.
So within only three months of the allegations first being made, Oxfam had carried out a full investigation, seven international staff had left the Haiti programme, lessons from these unacceptable incidents had been identified, an action plan of changes to be made for the future was in place, and trustees had been fully briefed. It is hard to imagine any other leading charity – whether working in the UK or internationally – dealing with such an incident in a more determined and efficient manner.
It is not surprising that the Charity Commission finds fault with some relatively minor aspects of the way the investigation was conducted, as is always going to be the case when an investigation is carried out quickly, and in difficult circumstances.
But any fair-minded overview of the response of Oxfam’s leadership, when they became aware of the allegations, must surely conclude that the charity moved promptly and decisively to deal with staff who were not working in accordance with Oxfam’s values and policies. It was the absolute antithesis of a charity which “tolerated poor behaviour”.
In being allowed to resign, the Haiti director was treated more leniently than other staff and this was 'mismanagement in the administration of the charity'
Much has been made, by both the Commission and by journalists, about the Haiti director being ‘allowed to resign’, despite admitting to the use of prostitutes in his Oxfam-funded residence. The inference being that Oxfam ‘read the riot act’ to more junior members of international staff and dismissed them, while the director was treated more favourably despite similar accusations being made against him.
Were that true, I agree that it would be a serious charge against Oxfam’s leaders at the time. Inconsistent application of a charity’s staffing policies and procedures is never acceptable, and if nepotism is allowed to creep in to decision making it undermines trust in the whole management process.
However, the underlying facts do not support the headline conclusion that seems to have become received wisdom.
To understand why Oxfam GB’s senior management did not summarily dismiss the Haiti director we need to examine the various factors that led them to that decision. Let’s start by looking at what he did, and ask whether or not his actions clearly breached the staff code of conduct which was in place at the time.
Firstly, what did the Oxfam code of conduct say back in 2011? The Commission’s inquiry report confirms that, “unlike some other organisations at the time”, Oxfam GB did have a staff code of conduct and PSEA policy in place. In summary, staff were required to:
- Refrain from any form of harassment, discrimination, physical or verbal abuse, intimidation or exploitation;
- Observe all local laws and be sensitive to local customs;
- Seek to ensure that any sexual conduct does not bring Oxfam GB into ill-repute;
- Not enter into any “commercial sex transactions with beneficiaries”; and
- Not engage in “sexual behaviour with children under the age of 18, regardless of local custom”.
Oxfam GB’s PSEA policy in place at the time further stated that “If prostitution is illegal in a country in which we are working…then in any case it is prohibited under the code of conduct”. The PSEA policy gave discretion to local management about whether they could go further and ban staff using prostitutes when it did not involve beneficiaries and was not an illegal activity in country. The inquiry report states that “there was no evidence to show whether such a ban had been imposed in Haiti.”
On that basis, Oxfam GB management would have had to proceed on the basis that the use of prostitutes over the age of 18 was not contrary to the code of conduct for staff in Haiti at the time, providing that this did not contravene local law. Research of the legal position was undertaken by managers back in Oxford. They concluded that “being a prostitute [in Haiti] was illegal but using the services of prostitutes was not illegal”. Management’s subsequent decision about how to deal with the Haiti director would have been informed by that carefully considered, overall assessment.
Next we have to consider what the Haiti director stood accused of. He admitted to the use of prostitutes in his residence but evidence obtained by the investigation team suggested that “the conduct of concern had been conducted discreetly and that unlike other [international staff], it did not involve sexually harassing female members of staff”. Further, there is no suggestion anywhere in the Commission’s inquiry report that the Haiti director was engaged in sexual conduct with girls under the age of 18.
In the light of those facts, and having taken HR advice, the Commission’s report states that senior staff back in Oxford “were of the view that, based on the information available to them, the [Haiti director] had not committed any breach of the code of conduct.” Given that conclusion, senior managers decided that “the only way we could ensure he was removed from Oxfam was to accept his resignation”.
We do not know the content of the HR advice, but it seems to me entirely possible that the view taken was that the Haiti director had been discreet about his behaviour, it was therefore not clear that he had (at that point) “brought Oxfam into ill-repute” and consequently it was debateable whether he had breached bullet three from the extract of the code of conduct above. Of course, it all looks very different when viewed with the benefit of hindsight in 2019, given everything that has occurred in the intervening eight years.
But the fact that Oxfam GB’s senior leaders were not completely sure that the Haiti director had breached the code of conduct in place at the time was not the only reason they sought his resignation, rather than dismissing him. A number of other factors were taken into account in reaching that decision, including that his full cooperation with the rest of the investigation was vital. If he had been summarily dismissed this cooperation was unlikely to have been forthcoming. Without his input it may not have been possible to secure the removal from Haiti and from Oxfam of the six other international staff who were dismissed or who resigned as a result of the internal investigation.
The Commission disagrees with Oxfam management’s judgement on this. The inquiry report says we “find it difficult to accept that what was admitted [by the Haiti director]…should not have been treated as a potential breach of the code and been formally dealt with”. But the Commission fails to indicate in what respect it believes the HR advice was flawed, and does not appear to place any weight on management needing to ensure the Haiti director cooperated fully with the internal investigation. It would have been helpful if the Commission could have pointed out exactly where it thought management got this decision wrong.
Staffing policies applied inconsistently
The Commission also criticises Oxfam for what it says was the unequal treatment of two other members of staff facing similar allegations to the Haiti director but which were treated differently – as potential gross misconduct. The report records that Oxfam GB’s senior management “do not accept that the allegations and conduct were similar”.
Although no details are given in the inquiry report to unpack why management took that view, it is illuminating to note the content of the internal Haiti Investigation Report which Oxfam has published on its website. Although much is redacted, here one can read in an appendix that other members of staff accused of using prostitutes on Oxfam property were also facing other allegations, including bullying and intimidation of staff, which did not apply to the Haiti director.
So, there is evidence to suggest that there were justifiable reasons for Oxfam GB’s management to take the view that the Haiti director’s case was different from those other members of international staff who were subjected to disciplinary processes.
Had it chosen to look at a bottle half-full, rather than one half-empty, this part of the Commission’s inquiry could fairly have concluded that – based on the information they had at the time – there were reasonable grounds for Oxfam’s leaders to take the decision they did about the Haiti director and that every effort was made to apply disciplinary processes to all international staff in a consistent manner.
To conclude that this was “mismanagement in the administration of the charity”, for which an Official Warning has been issued, is in my opinion an excessive and unfair regulatory response which fails to take properly into account the full basis on which Oxfam GB managers took decisions in good faith eight years ago.
Some of Oxfam’s international staff in Haiti paid ‘beneficiaries’ for sex
When The Times first broke the Oxfam story, its headline was ‘Top Oxfam staff paid Haiti survivors for sex’ – the clear inference being that these women were direct beneficiaries of Oxfam’s aid programme in Haiti.
The Charity Commission’s inquiry report confirms that allegations of using prostitutes on Oxfam residential premises were substantiated against the director and two other members of Oxfam’s international staff in Haiti (fewer than press coverage would have readers believe). Nowhere in its report does the Commission suggest that these women had any direct involvement with the charity’s aid programme. They were not charity beneficiaries, in the widely understood meaning of that term.
Oxfam used the term ‘beneficiary’ to mean those in direct receipt of Oxfam assistance, whereas the Commission took the view that the term should include ‘wider’ beneficiaries, encompassing the entire earthquake-affected population of Haiti.
Many would argue that all prostitution is exploitative, and I do not condone the use of prostitutes by some of Oxfam’s international staff in Haiti. The fact that the women were not direct beneficiaries doesn’t make the behaviour of the men involved any more acceptable. However, in the context of the inquiry into Oxfam it is a critical distinction which needs to be understood, given the provisions of the staff code of conduct at the time.
Under-age girls may have been involved and this was not properly investigated
The 2011 internal Oxfam investigation could not categorically confirm that minors were not involved in some of the incidents investigated. The investigation report stated: “None of the initial allegations concerning…use of under-age prostitutes was substantiated during the investigation, although it cannot be ruled out that any of the prostitutes were under-age.”
The Commission believes these allegations should have been “investigated to a firm conclusion” and were “not taken seriously enough”. In respect of a particular email received in Oxford alleging that two girls aged 12 and 13 were involved ¬– the authenticity of which was seriously questioned at the time – the report says “Oxfam GB should have tried harder…to identify the source of the concerns” and “should have reported the possibility of two girls being at risk to the local law enforcement authorities”.
Oxfam’s handling of the matter amounted to a second example of mismanagement in the administration of charity, concluded the Commission, and forms part of the Official Warning issued to the charity in June 2019.
Oxfam’s managers at the time explain in the inquiry report that the allegations were taken seriously and how they were handled: “Following a detailed investigation several statements were made by individuals which confirmed that the women involved were not minors and some of the information received about the possible use of minors was found to be without foundation…The [investigation] team in Haiti concluded that in relation to the involvement of minors none of the evidence was substantiated. It could be argued that we should have engaged with the women more thoroughly to find out whether there were minors…but I think all of us concerned felt…we had enough information and evidence to ensure that the staff involved were removed from Oxfam and from Haiti.” This, the managers said, was “the best way of ensuring that any ongoing abuse was immediately curtailed”.
In respect of the email purporting to be from two girls age 12 and 13, suspicions were aroused about this in Oxford from the moment it was received. Grounds for suspicion included that it was only sent to the Oxfam GB CEO and a little-known email address used by the Oxfam GB media team; that it was in English, when the complainants would have been expected to use their native language; and that it was sent from an anonymous Gmail address.
Despite this the email was treated as genuine and the CEO responded to the complainants, seeking more information. Subsequently it was discovered that the email was fake.
So here we have another example of the Commission criticising decisions taken by Oxfam’s leaders at the time without specifying precisely what they think should have been done instead, other than saying that the allegations should have been “investigated to a firm conclusion”. No doubt Oxfam’s managers at the time wished they could have done that, but would have soon realised that it was very difficult - if not impossible - to action in practice.
Investigators would have had great difficulty in identifying the girls allegedly involved, and even if they managed to do that what chance was there that any of these young women would have voluntarily admitted to doing something which was illegal under local law?
In truth, it was never going to be possible to conclude with certainty whether minors were involved, which is why the internal investigation report had to conclude that the involvement of under-age girls could not be ruled out. Instead, Oxfam understandably decided that the quickest way to protect the future safety of the women concerned was to identify the culprits, remove them from Haiti as soon as possible, and seek to learn the lessons for the future, in Haiti and elsewhere. In my opinion it’s hard to find fault with that approach.
Moreover, had the email allegedly sent by the 13-year-old girl been reported to the authorities there was nothing they could have realistically done to secure the future safety of the unidentified girls in question. Part of the calculation in deciding not to report would no doubt have been that that the very act of reporting would have increased – not reduced – the risk to the individuals concerned (if they existed), given that the alleged acts were illegal.
Oxfam ‘covered up’ the behaviour of its staff in Haiti
Following its internal investigation in 2011, Oxfam GB contacted a number of funders and other stakeholders about what had happened in Haiti, and also reported on the issues found to the Charity Commission and the Haitian government. Oxfam also voluntarily issued a press release at the time about the investigation and the fact that several members of staff had been dismissed.
The September 2011 letter to the Haitian government included the following disclosure: “The investigation found that six members of our staff had been involved in a number of breaches of our organisation's code of conduct. These breaches…included bringing Oxfam's name into disrepute, abuse of power and bullying within Oxfam.”
“Although serious in nature, none of these instances of misconduct involved beneficiaries or the misuse of any funds intended for post-earthquake reconstruction efforts in Haiti. As a result of this investigation, disciplinary action has been taken, and all six individuals involved in this misconduct have left the organisation and the country. None of the individuals involved are Haitian nationals. The country director of Oxfam GB in Haiti resigned last month, taking overall managerial responsibility for matters that occurred during his tenure in office.”
The letter invited the Haitian government to raise any questions or concerns about the outcome of the internal investigation, but no questions were raised when the government replied to the letter a week later.
Previously, in late August 2011, Oxfam had submitted a Serious Incident Report to the Charity Commission, which reported on the internal investigation and referenced sexual misconduct. The Report said: “Nine members of staff have been subject to disciplinary procedures. Some of these staff have been dismissed for gross misconduct. The cases of misconduct relate to inappropriate sexual behaviour, bullying, harassment and intimidation of employees. I am pleased to report that there have been no allegations, or evidence, of any abuse of beneficiaries or any instances of fraud or financial malpractice.
There was no ‘cover up’
In its inquiry report, the Charity Commission explicitly states: “The inquiry found no record of a ‘cover up’”.
The inquiry report does, however, say that there should have been a fuller and franker disclosure to donors and the regulator, particularly that the misconduct being investigated involved the use of prostitutes and that the involvement of minors had not been substantiated but could not be ruled out. Oxfam has accepted this criticism and no doubt – like every other charity – would leave no stone unturned in reporting a similar incident to the Commission in 2019, given the expectations which now prevail.
It seems clear to me that there was no intent to mislead the Commission or underplay the seriousness of the allegations.
The truth, I imagine, is that Oxfam GB’s leaders at the time were grappling with the immense challenge which confronts all charity leadership teams. How, they must have been thinking, do we most appropriately balance the simultaneous need to be transparent with the public; properly accountable to our regulator and donors; provide a duty of care to our staff; safeguard service users; and protect our charity’s reputation. All of these form part of the duties of a charity’s board and senior executive team, not least the last.
The assertion by the Commission’s chair that Oxfam “put its own reputation ahead of the dignity and wellbeing of those it exists to protect” provides a powerful headline but does a grave disservice to trustees and senior managers of Oxfam who acted professionally and with integrity throughout.
Some of the staff dismissed by Oxfam went on to work for other NGOs
The media reported in February 2018 that three of the individuals dismissed by Oxfam for gross misconduct in Haiti had been re-employed by other aid agencies. It was suggested that Oxfam had failed to warn other NGOs of the unacceptable behaviour of the staff involved.
The Commission’s inquiry looked into these allegations and found that, in two cases, the recruiting organisation had not obtained official references from Oxfam but had taken personal references from serving or former Oxfam staff members. In the third case the individual had secured employment with another NGO without that organisation seeking a reference from Oxfam.
The inquiry found that Oxfam GB had taken “responsible and reasonable steps to protect other charities from being exposed to risks posed by those employees formally disciplined by Oxfam GB in Haiti. This included informing prospective employers factually of what happened when asked and recommending that in relation to requests for references they contact Oxfam GB HQ.” The inquiry also stated that “Oxfam GB is not responsible for the actions of staff members who provided personal references unbeknown to Oxfam GB”.
Nevertheless, the Haiti Oxfam case has highlighted the need for a comprehensive database which all NGOs can access, giving full disclosure of individuals in any aid organisation worldwide who have been dismissed for reasons of sexual exploitation and other serious misdemeanours. The Department for International Development (DfID) is now leading on this.
In writing this article I want to inject a sense of proportion into our understanding of what happened in Haiti and how Oxfam GB dealt with it. The Charity Commission says the charity “lost sight of the values it stands for” and former DfID Secretary of State, Penny Mordaunt, has said that trustees and senior executives demonstrated “an utter lack of moral compass”.
As I have shown above, the reality was very different. Oxfam GB’s leaders took decisive action to deal with the issues in Haiti as soon as they became aware of them. The Haiti director did not receive favourable treatment and there was no cover up.
Oxfam GB’s trustees and senior staff were experienced individuals who made reasonable decisions to resolve the issues in Haiti in good faith, and in the context of the charity’s staffing policies at the time. The way that they have been treated by the media and the regulator has sent shockwaves through the charity sector. This will have repercussions which extend way beyond Oxfam. Why, after the unjustified vilification of Oxfam’s trustees and senior staff, would similarly talented individuals be willing to fill such positions in UK charities in future?
Looking forward, Oxfam GB continues to face significant challenges. The independent commission (IC) established by Oxfam International to review the global federation’s safeguarding and accountability practices has made it clear that there is much further work to do. But the IC is also clear that this is not just a problem confronting Oxfam, saying “sexual harassment, exploitation, and abuse are found throughout the aid sector; they are symptoms of wider power abuses that exist in all public and private spheres”.
So let’s all move forward determined to improve our own safeguarding practices. And, in doing so, spare a thought for the former trustees and senior staff of Oxfam who did little wrong, but still found themselves on the wrong end of a media, parliamentary and regulatory onslaught.
Andrew Hind was chief executive of the Charity Commission between 2004 and 2010. He was at one time deputy chief executive of ActionAid UK and has been a trustee of VSO and Unicef UK