13 Feb 2018 - 20:13
UK's Oxfam faces more pressure after new report of sex abuse by aid workers
By Alistair Smout / Reuters
LONDON: British aid organisation Oxfam faced fresh pressure on Tuesday after a former senior member of staff said her concerns about "a culture of sexual abuse" involving aid workers were not taken seriously by the charity's bosses.
Helen Evans' statement deepened the scandal around one of the best-known international NGOs, with aid programmes running across the globe.
It came the same day as the chairman of Oxfam's international umbrella group, Juan Alberto Fuentes, was arrested in his home country Guatemala as part of a separate corruption investigation unrelated to the charity's work.
Evans, who was in charge of investigating allegations against Oxfam staff members between 2012 and 2015, told Channel 4 television that abuse cases she had heard of included a woman who had been coerced to have sex in exchange for aid.
Another involved an assault on a teenage volunteer by a staff member in an Oxfam charity shop in Britain, she said.
Oxfam is already under threat of losing its British government funding over sexual misconduct accusations in Haiti and Chad.
Evans, who headed a "safeguarding" section responsible for protecting staff and the people Oxfam works with, spoke of frustration that her calls for more support for her team were not taken seriously enough.
"I felt that our failure to adequately resource was putting people at risk," she said. "I struggle to understand why they didn't respond immediately to that call for additional resource."
Asked about Evans's statement, Oxfam said her work had spurred the organisation into taking concrete steps to improve the way it deals with safeguarding issues.
"We regret that we did not act on Helen's concerns much quicker and with more resources," the statement said, adding it was now expanding the safeguarding team.
The deputy head of the charity resigned on Monday over what she said was Oxfam's failure to adequately respond to past allegations of sexual misconduct by some of its staff in Chad and Haiti.
The Times newspaper reported on Friday that some staff who were in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake there had paid for sex with prostitutes. Oxfam has neither confirmed nor denied that specific account but has said an internal investigation in 2011 had confirmed sexual misconduct had occurred.
Haiti's President Jovenel Moise said that "what transpired is a violation of basic human decency" and added he would not tolerate support from charities whose staff exploited communities.
"There is nothing more shameful than a sexual predator using the veil of catastrophe as a means to exploit the vulnerable in their most defenceless moments," he said in a statement.
Oxfam International's chairman, Juan Alberto Fuentes - who is also Guatemala's former finance minister - was arrested on Tuesday as part of a local corruption investigation, the public prosecutor's office there said.
Prosecutors said the inquiry was linked to the management of a large public transport programme and they made no mention of Oxfam's work.
Oxfam International Executive Director Winnie Byanyima said Fuentes had assured the organisation that he was cooperating with the investigation "in the confidence he did not knowingly transgress rules or procedures".
The scandals are escalating into a broader crisis for Britain's aid sector by bolstering critics in the ruling Conservative Party who believe the government should reduce spending on aid in favour of domestic priorities.
Aid minister Penny Mordaunt threatened on Sunday to withdraw government funding from Oxfam unless it gave the full facts about events in Haiti.
After meeting Oxfam officials on Monday, Mordaunt said she had written to all British charities working overseas to demand that "they step up and do more, so that we have absolute assurance that the moral leadership, the systems, the culture and the transparency that are needed."
Britain's Charity Commission launched a statutory inquiry on Monday, saying it had concerns that Oxfam "may not have fully and frankly disclosed material details about the allegations at the time in 2011, its handling of the incidents since, and the impact that these have both had on public trust and confidence".
(Reporting by Alistair Smout; Writing by William Schomberg; Editing by Richard Balmforth and Andrew Heavens)