The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Oxfam prostitution scandal widens to at least three countries

The executive director of Oxfam International said she was “heartbroken” by an unfolding sexual misconduct scandal linked to aid workers in Haiti. (Video: Reuters)

A confidence crisis spread through the international aid community Tuesday amid accusations that the charity Oxfam had buried reports that its workers had prostituted survivors of the Darfur genocide, a catastrophic earthquake in Haiti and possibly disasters beyond those.

Haitian President Jovenel Moïse condemned those involved in the scandal, saying on Twitter that “there is nothing more outrageous and dishonest than a sexual predator who uses his position as part of the humanitarian response to a natural disaster to exploit needy people in their moment of greatest vulnerability.”

His words echoed those of a spokesman for British Prime Minister Theresa May, who this week condemned the “horrific behavior” within Oxfam, as her government opened an official inquiry into the charity and a top executive resigned in shame.

But the scandal may not stay limited to Oxfam. The Guardian reported that British politicians are demanding an investigation “across the wider aid sector,” as new reports claim that vulnerable women were prostituted across multiple charities and countries, and that warnings went ignored for much of the 21st century.

Many of the allegations center on one man: Roland van Hauwermeiren, who led Oxfam's relief efforts in Chad in the mid-2000s, when a genocidal war in neighboring Sudan sent refugees and violence spilling across the border.

“Things are very, very desperate and are only likely to get worse. People are suffering; they are drinking dirty water and have nothing to eat,” van Hauwermeiren said in late 2006 in an Oxfam news release.

Citing a former aid worker, the Guardian reported Saturday that prostitutes were repeatedly invited to Oxfam's living quarters in Chad and that van Hauwermeiren was aware of the activity, if not also involved in it. Oxfam has since admitted that it knew about the allegations, but it continued to put van Hauwermeiren in charge of humanitarian missions.

A year later, the news agency IRIN reported, he served as the spokesman for a coalition of nonprofit agencies working in Chad — including Oxfam, Save the Children and Action Against Hunger. The community had been scandalized at the time by the arrest of six workers from a French-based aid group, Zoé's Ark, who were later convicted of trying to abduct dozens of children from Chad.

At the time, van Hauwermeiren urged the world not to lose confidence in the global aid community. “We continue delivering services as ever before,” he told IRIN. “The population is smart enough to make differences.”

As an Oxfam country director, van Hauwermeiren went on to lead missions in Congo and then in Haiti after a deadly earthquake destroyed much of the country's infrastructure and society in 2010.

About a year later, in late 2011, Oxfam cryptically announced that six workers had left the organization after an internal investigation revealed unspecified “misconduct” in Haiti — including “abuse of power and bullying” that brought the charity's “name into disrepute.”

Van Hauwermeiren also had resigned, the statement read, taking “managerial responsibility” for the misconduct, whatever it was.

Nearly seven years later, on Thursday, a report in the Times of London revealed that Oxfam's investigation had turned up much more than bullying in Haiti.

The Times reported that van Hauwermeiren and several male workers — a small fraction of the more than 200 Oxfam workers in Haiti — had been accused of turning their guesthouse into what they allegedly called “the whorehouse.”

“These girls wearing Oxfam T-shirts, running around half-naked, it was like a full-on 'Caligula' orgy,” a source told the paper.

After the report ran, Haiti's ambassador to Britain told the Guardian that the victims “may have been underage kids.” The Times alleged that Oxfam deliberately limited its investigation in the hope of hiding the scandal.

Oxfam has since admitted to knowing about the prostitution allegations involving the Haiti and Chad missions. The charity's deputy chief executive, Penny Lawrence, resigned on Monday. She was the program director at the time of the alleged wrongdoings. “I am ashamed that this happened on my watch and I take full responsibility,” Lawrence wrote in a statement.

The charity's chief executive, Mark Goldring, has denied a coverup attempt and defended Oxfam's misleading 2011 statements.

“With hindsight, I would much prefer that we had talked about sexual misconduct, but I don’t think it was in anyone’s best interest to be describing the details of the behavior in a way that was actually going to draw extreme attention to it,” he told BBC Radio 4 on Saturday, according to the Guardian.

The scandal keeps widening, with new reports of sex abuse involving charities other than Oxfam.

Before van Hauwermeiren joined Oxfam, IRIN reported Tuesday, he directed relief efforts for a charity that has since merged with Save the Children.

Van Hauwermeiren was accused of arranging sex parties in Liberia after its civil war in the early 2000s, IRIN wrote, and was sent home after an internal investigation.

“Oh, my God, he’s been doing this for 14 years,” a former aid worker who complained about his behavior at the time told the news service. “He just goes around the system … from Liberia to Chad, to Haiti, to Bangladesh,” she said, referring to reports that van Hauwermeiren continued to work in the aid sector with yet another nonprofit organization, Action Against Hunger, after he resigned from Oxfam.

Nor did Oxfam's problems end with van Hauwermeiren's departure, according to new reports. A former Oxfam investigator told reporters this week that “a culture of sexual abuse” festered in the organization at least until 2015, according to Reuters. The investigator said reports of a woman coerced into prostituting herself for aid went unheeded by executives, as did allegations of abuse at a charity shop in Britain.

Responding to the new allegations, Reuters wrote, Oxfam expressed “regret that we did not act on [them] much quicker and with more resources.”

This is by no means the first scandal in the global aid community, which some say is rife with sexual exploitation. Dozens of U.N. peacekeepers were accused of abusing civilians last year, for example, according to Al Jazeera.

But Oxfam — with about half a billion dollars in annual income from public and private sources — had been renowned worldwide for it relief efforts. It was also a vocal critic of government missteps, such as when the charity called out the Trump administration's “inadequate” response to last year's hurricane in Puerto Rico.

So its fall in stature has created an upheaval, with world leaders condemning Oxfam's failure and the British government considering whether to defund it.

“If the moral leadership at the top of the organization isn't there, then we can't have you as a partner,” Penny Mordaunt, Britain's secretary of international development, told the BBC in reference to Oxfam.

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