The Aid Industry’s Fall From Grace


by Jeppe Damberg, UWCM
February 14th, 2018


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Oxfam is one of Britain’s most recognisable brands in the United Kingdom. The charity is the country’s fourth-largest, and the biggest working on overseas aid, with a presence in more than 90 countries. It is also one of the most respected, judging by the 23,000 volunteers who turn out to staff its 630 shops, raising around £100m a year in sales of second-hand books.
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Now, however, Oxfam has been hit by allegations of sexual misconduct, at home and abroad. The charity’s impeccable reputation has been severely discolored. Other aid organisations are also becoming involved in a story that adds fuel to a debate about Britain’s international-development works.
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Since the Harvey Weinstein scandal unveiled abuses in Hollywood, the whirlwind has swept through politics, business and now, it seems, the aid industry. The claims against Oxfam are grave. The first to emerge was that after the earthquake in Haiti in 2010, its staff in Port-au-Prince paid for sex, including a “full-on Caligula orgy”, as one witness told to the British newspaper the Times. Prostitution is illegal in Haiti, and some of the girls are said to have been under age (Oxfam says this claim has not been proven). Oxfam allowed three of the employees involved to resign and sacked four others for gross misconduct, but is alleged to have covered up the severity of their offences.
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Regarding the 2010 Haiti incident, Oxfam’s International Executive Director Winnie Byanyima said “You know it’s not within our power to return people who are not our staff to Haiti to face prosecution. But we will avail everything that we know from the investigation to whoever authority, whichever authority wants to have this.”

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Oxfam’s International Executive Director Winnie Byanyima. Credit: Reuters

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Helen Evans, an Oxfam employee-turned-whistleblower, says that she repeatedly warned managers of a “culture of sexual abuse” in the charity’s offices overseas and its shops at home, but was not taken seriously enough. She reports one instance of aid being offered in return for sex.
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Oxfam’s deputy chief executive, Penny Lawrence, who was in charge of the charity’s international programme when the Haiti behaviour was reported, resigned on February 12th. On the same day Mark Goldring, Oxfam’s boss, was told by the Department for International Development (DFID) that Oxfam could forfeit over £30m of government money if it did not explain itself. The European Union, which gives Oxfam £29m, also demanded “maximum transparency”. The next day several of Oxfam’s corporate partners, including Visa and Marks & Spencer, said they were reviewing their links.
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Similar allegations are now being made against other charities. Priti Patel, a former DFID secretary, has said the Oxfam case is the “tip of the iceberg.”  Benjamin Franklin said “It takes many good deeds to build a good reputation, and only one bad one to lose it.” It will be long before the aid industry recovers from this incident.

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