Oxfam apologise for ‘shameful’ actions after damning Charity Commission report

Oxfam has apologised for its “shameful” actions after a report found allegations that staff working in disaster zones sexually abused children were not fully disclosed.

The Charity Commission for England and Wales also cited a “culture of poor behaviour” among Oxfam GB staff sent to help victims of the 2010 Haiti earthquake.

It said some of the organisation’s failings and shortcomings amounted to mismanagement, prompting the regulator to issue the charity with an official warning.

Allegations included that child prostitutes were used by staff, including at Oxfam premises on the crisis-hit Caribbean island, and that safeguarding measures to protect the vulnerable were inadequate.

The findings said Oxfam failed to adequately investigate allegations that children as young as 12 or 13 were victims of sexual misconduct against a charity “boss”, that it did not report allegations of child abuse by charity staff in Haiti, and that senior staff implicated in sexual misconduct claims were dealt with more leniently than junior figures.

The inquiry found that the focus of an Oxfam GB investigation, after allegations from a whistleblower in 2011, was on getting enough evidence to ensure the individuals of concern were removed from Haiti and the charity.

It said the risk to, and impact on, the victims appeared to take second place and was not taken seriously enough.

Details were also withheld from donors about the nature of the allegations, due to concerns it might have an impact on its revenue stream, the report found.

Charity Commission chief executive Helen Stephenson said: “What went wrong in Haiti did not happen in isolation.

“Our inquiry demonstrates that, over a period of years, Oxfam’s internal culture tolerated poor behaviour, and at times lost sight of the values it stands for.”

She said “significant further cultural and systemic change” was required at Oxfam, which has been under the leadership of new chief executive Dhananjayan Sriskandarajah since January, to address the failings and weaknesses.

Caroline Thomson, Oxfam GB’s chair of trustees, said: “What happened in Haiti was shameful and we are deeply sorry.

“It was a terrible abuse of power, and an affront to the values that Oxfam holds dear.”

“The Commission’s findings are very uncomfortable for Oxfam GB but we accept them.

“We now know that the 2011 investigation and reporting of what happened in Haiti was flawed – more should have been done to establish whether minors were involved.

“While the Commission makes clear that it found no record of a ‘cover-up,’ we accept that Oxfam GB should have been fuller and franker in its initial reporting of the allegations.”

The lengthy report, published on Tuesday after an 18-month investigation, found the charity failed to heed warnings, including from its own staff, that its culture and response to keeping people safe was inadequate, and that subsequent commitments to improve safeguarding were not backed up by actions.

Oxfam was plunged into crisis in February 2018 when it emerged that some of its workers engaged in “sex parties” with prostitutes after the humanitarian disaster in the Caribbean country.

The Charity Commission launched its inquiry amid concerns 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 these have had on public trust and confidence.

The report included the example of one Oxfam staff member who was known by bosses to harass, touch or make rude suggestions to female colleagues, particularly after drinking.

He ignored warnings to change his behaviour, and one morning entered the accommodation of the same female members of staff without permission, dressed only in a towel, and then during the day had “continually harassed” one of the females both “physically and orally”.

Neither of the victims subsequently made a complaint against him, although he was issued with a final written warning for misconduct against Oxfam GB’s code of conduct. He remained in post.

Separately, two allegations of physical abuse, made by email from a 12-year-old girl and a 13-year-old girl, were “suspected” not to be genuine by Oxfam at the time.

The Charity Commission said that despite there not being evidence to back up the allegations, Oxfam should have tried harder to substantiate the claims at the time.

The 142-page report, which involved 34 interviews and about 7,000 pieces of evidence, also investigated Oxfam’s conduct since 2012.

The Charity Commission said it had exercised its legal powers and issued an official warning under the Charities Act on the grounds “there has been some areas of mismanagement in relation to Haiti and its safeguarding governance prior to 2018”.

It also instructed Oxfam trustees to submit an action plan to the regulator on how it will address concerns about its previous conduct, in an effort to “repair public trust and confidence” in the charity.

The allegations were described by Prime Minister Theresa May in 2018 as “absolutely horrific” and resulted in celebrities including actor Minnie Driver and singer Tallia Storm quitting their involvement with the charity.

A final report by the Independent Commission on Sexual Misconduct, Accountability and Culture Change into allegations against Oxfam is due to be published on Wednesday.

Here are some of the report’s findings:

  • The incidents in Haiti identified in 2011 were not “one-offs”, with evidence of behavioural issues as early as June 2010.
  • Oxfam’s internal investigation, following allegations by a whistleblower in 2011, identified four staff who either did use, or were suspected of using, prostitutes, including on charity residential premises.
  • There appeared to be a discretion allowed at the time for senior Oxfam leaders on the ground in Haiti to consider “whether or not to specifically ban their staff” from having sex with prostitutes.
  • Charity staff, both in Haiti and at home, carried out internet research on the legality of prostitution on the Caribbean island, and on at least two separate occasions professional legal advice was sought by Oxfam about prostitution.
  • Evidence provided to the inquiry described some prostitutes as looking “young, under 18, scantily dressed”, while others were described as being in their 20s.
  • Oxfam should have tried harder and taken more steps at the time to identify the source of two emails from a 12-year-old and 13-year-old girl who complained that minors were being sexually abused by a charity “boss”.
  • The resignation of Oxfam’s country director in Haiti was encouraged and facilitated by Oxfam bosses so as to “manage the reputational risk” to the charity.
  • There were “systematic weaknesses” in Oxfam’s attitude to safeguarding, and there was no up-to-date safeguarding strategy in place as recently as 2018.
  • This included weaknesses in human resources practices, including on vetting, referencing, recruitment and induction.
  • There was also a failure to consistently hold people to account for poor behaviour and to ensure robust and consistent action was taken, resulting in a culture of tolerance of poor behaviour, the regulator’s investigation concluded.
  • This was likely to have resulted in putting victims off speaking up.
  • The report found the risk to and impact on victims “appeared to take second place at times” and was not taken seriously enough, and that victims, whistleblowers and staff who tried to raise concerns were let down.
  • Oxfam GB’s focus when reporting incidents from Haiti to donors, and to its regulator, was on financial issues; for example, frauds, misappropriation and/or bribery incidents.

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