Oxfam deputy chief resigns over sex scandal

British charity Oxfam has announced the resignation of Deputy Chief Executive Penny Lawrence over misconduct by aid workers in Haiti and Chad, the charity said in a statement.

Posted: Feb 26, 2018 5:56 AM
Updated: Feb 26, 2018 5:56 AM

Haiti has suspended the international poverty charity Oxfam Great Britain from operating in the country after reports of sexual misconduct by some of its employees.

"The Haitian government has decided to suspend temporarily the authorization of Oxfam GB to operate in Haiti," Bocchit Edmond, the chief of mission at Embassy of the Republic of Haiti in London, tweeted directly to CNN's Max Foster and other UK media on Thursday.

Oxfam representatives met with the Haitian government after the suspension, the charity said.

Oxfam International Regional Director for Latin America Simon Ticehurst and Oxfam Intermon Executive Affiliate Unit head Margalida Massot met Haitian government officials and committed to cooperate with their investigation, the statement said.

The suspension will last two months, according to the aid group, while Haiti investigates how Oxfam GB handled the allegations of staff paying for sex during the agency's humanitarian response to the 2010 earthquake.

"Oxfam has apologized to the Haitian government and people for abuses by former staff that occurred in 2011. Oxfam is committed to putting in place a number of wide-sweeping initiatives to improve its global safeguarding policies and practices, including the establishment of an independent commission and putting more staff and resources into its safeguarding teams," the statement concluded.

Internal report made public

On Monday, the charity issued an apology to the Haitian government for a 2011 prostitution scandal. An internal report that was made public includes allegations that three staff members "physically threatened and intimidated" a witness during an internal investigation into the scandal.

Allegations first emerged last week that a number of staff members, including the country director, hired prostitutes at Oxfam properties while working in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake.

Four staffers were dismissed and three others resigned after the investigation, including Haiti country director Roland van Hauwermeiren.

Oxfam said it dispatched a team to Haiti to investigate the allegations and, during an interview with investigators, van Hauwermeiren admitted to hiring prostitutes on Oxfam property and agreed to resign.

The names of the other staff members involved in the scandal have been redacted in the publicly available version of the report.

According to the document released Monday, allegations of sexual misconduct were first reported to Oxfam in July 2011 after an email from a source whose name has been redacted.

In its report, Oxfam said allegations the sex workers were underage could not be substantiated nor ruled out.

The report didn't address claims that van Hauwermeiren and his team had been previously reported for alleged sexual misconduct while working in the African nation of Chad, but no action was taken at the time.

In an open letter, published by Belgian broadcaster VTM last week, van Hauwermeiren denied sleeping with a prostitute in the villa Oxfam had rented for him.

"I had up to three times intimate contact in my house. (She) was, in my opinion, a mature honorable lady, not an earthquake victim and no prostitute," he said in the letter.

UK Parliament looks into scandal

On Tuesday, the UK's secretary of international development, Penny Mordaunt, told Parliament that Oxfam put its reputation ahead of its responsibility to report incidents of sexual exploitation, resulting in a betrayal of the British people and the charity's staffers who do put people first.

"They did not provide a full report to the Charity Commission. They did not provide a full report to their donors. They did not provide any report to prosecuting authorities," Mordaunt said. "In my view Mr. Speaker they misled, quite possibly deliberately."

Winnie Byanyima, the executive director of Oxfam International, told Parliament that Oxfam has been improving but is not yet where it wants to be.

"This is about abuse of power. This is about abuse of women and girls because they are powerless, they are vulnerable, they are voiceless," she said. "Whether they have given them some money from an Oxfam program or from their pocket as their salary, it's still abhorrent, and we are ashamed and upset about it, and we're going to root it out of our organization."

Oxfam Great Britain Chief Executive Officer Mark Goldring apologized for what happened in 2011 and said: "At the time Oxfam conducted an investigation. It was wrong not to report that set of issues to the Haitian authorities and decide how they wanted to handle it."

The international charity, which has affiliates and offices around the world, has already been severely damaged by the allegations, which were first reported by the Times of London in early February.

The devastating earthquake in 2010 killed between 200,000 and 300,000 people in Haiti.

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