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Oxfam in 'culture change' after sex scandal, says chief

  • A 7.0 earthquake devastated Haiti in 2010. (Photo: Colin Crowley)

Earlier this year, the Times newspaper exposed a sex scandal involving Oxfam, one of the world's largest disaster relief charities, in the aftermath of the 2010 Haiti earthquake.

Reports Oxfam had covered up claims its aid workers paid for sex from the Haitians they were tasked to help, cost the agency major donor contracts and exposed similar cases of abuse in other NGOs.

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On Wednesday (6 June) at the European Development Days event in Brussels, the executive director of Oxfam International Winnie Byanyima told EUobserver the case in Haiti had created a sense of shame within the organisation.

"It put us in a deep crisis of our own identity and about questioning whether we truly believe our values," she said.

"There was deep hurt, deep pain, shame and then what do we do to really align ourselves with our values internally and rebuild the trust."

Around four months later and Byanyima says internal efforts are being made to detect and punish abusers and support victims.

The broader plan, she says, it to create a culture change in a charity that employs some 10,000 people. It means identifying and levelling out power imbalances within the organisation which she says, is among the root causes of sexual exploitation.

"We are asking every unit to do a deep power analysis, in our unit, who holds the power? Who makes the decisions on the budget, who does what, how do they exercise that, how much of this power is shared," she said.

It also means inviting in outside help to train staff on gender and women right issues, make it easier for whistleblowers to disclose abuse, punish violators, care for victims, and create tougher recruitment standards.

An independent commission on sexual misconduct was also set up in March to probe the issues within Oxfam and look into the conduct of staff in missions in Haiti and Chad. A report is expected in October.

An internal Oxfam investigation in 2011 found six staff guilty of breaching code conduct rules for buying sex. Byanyima said none of the girls in Haiti were minors.

"Before we finished the investigation, two went away and never returned. Three were fired and one was allowed to leave, he was the country director and he had helped the investigation so he was given a free pass," said Byanyima.

Another, who had been found guilty in Haiti, had also worked in Chad but Byanyima says there "are no reported cases from Chad that are part of this."

EU lifts Oxfam funding freeze

A separate inquiry from the UK regulator, the Charity Commission, is still ongoing with results expected before the end of the year.

The Charity Commission launched the probe in mid-February following the Times article and is demanding clarity from Oxfam.

Oxfam had in August 2011 given the Charity Commission a report about an ongoing internal investigation into allegations of misconduct by staff members involved in the Haiti programme.

According to the Charity Commission, the Oxfam report at the time had said "there had been no allegations or evidence of any abuse to beneficiaries".

The Charity Commission is expected to finalise its conclusions after August. The UK government will then decide, on the basis of the Charity Commission's report, on whether to renewing funding opportunities for Oxfam.

"I am optimistic that they are going to find that we are really much stronger than we were before and that our standards as good if not better than most in our sector," said Byanyima.

The European Commission already has. Earlier this week, it decided to start awarding Oxfam grants once again on a case-by-case basis.

A commission spokesperson, in an email, said Oxfam had "adequate mechanisms in place which should allow them to prevent, detect, and respond to cases of sexual misconduct."

He said the commission had visited the premises of Oxfam affiliates in the UK and the Netherlands as well as offices in the field, Lebanon and Uganda, as part of its review.

Oxfam UK had received some €1.7m in EU funds for the Haiti effort.

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