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U.K. regulator faults Oxfam staff in Haiti

Oxfam International vowed to improve after it was reprimanded by a U.K. watchdog for its toxic work culture that led to a sex abuse scandal in Haiti.

NAIROBI, Kenya (AN) — Oxfam International vowed to improve on Wednesday after it was sternly reprimanded by a British watchdog agency for having a toxic work culture that led to a sexual abuse and exploitation scandal in Haiti.

The Nairobi-based anti-poverty organization was cited for mismanagement and lack of accountability because of employees using prostitutes, downloading pornography, and bullying and intimidating others. It also was called out for potential child abuse and failing to use enough resources to protect its own staff.

The scandal surfaced in the aid work that Oxfam Great Britain, a member of Oxfam's international confederation, did for Haitians displaced by the magnitude 7.0 earthquake in January 2010 that killed more than 250,000 people and left 1.5 million people homeless.

“As an African woman, I encounter both sexism and racism in many places I go. I am pained and angered that some colleagues have done so within our organization," Oxfam International's executive director, Winnie Byanyima, said in a statement.

"We are forcefully challenging such unacceptable behaviors," she said. "I am determined to ensure that Oxfam’s internal culture lives up to the values we espouse in our work around the world."

In response to the scandal, Haiti's government decided last year to ban Oxfam GB from operating in the country, where it had been working since 1978. The government cited Oxfam GB's "violation of its laws and serious breach of the principle of human dignity."

The U.K. government's Charity Commission for England and Wales delivered an official reprimand to Oxfam GB. In a more than 200-page report the commission found that Oxfam GB's managers in Haiti had tolerated serious misconduct and failed to heed the warnings, including from their own staff.

The Times of London first reported the misconduct claims against seven former Oxfam GB staff in Haiti. The claims included using prostitutes, some possibly minors, and downloading pornography. Oxfam GB said it investigated the allegations internally as far back as 2011, then reported the results to the U.K commission.

The British newspaper also reported that the U.K. commission knew about the sexual misconduct claims against Oxfam GB aid workers in Haiti eight years ago, but agreed to keep it secret. In its statement, Oxfam International acknowledged it has a wider problem than just in Haiti when it comes to failing to safeguard people — a reflection of the #MeToo, or #AidToo, issues raised by the report.

The commission, however, reported that Oxfam GB let months pass before following up on claims of child abuse and sexual misconduct involving minors, and appeared to have let its more senior staff off the hook.

"These are very uncomfortable findings for Oxfam Great Britain. But we accept them," Caroline Thomson, chair of Oxfam GB's trustees, said in a statement.

"What happened in Haiti was shameful and we are deeply sorry," she said. "It was a terrible abuse of power that goes against everything we stand for. I want to again apologize to all those who personally suffered. To the people of Haiti, and to our donors and supporters here at home. We let you down."

The U.K. regulator's 13-month investigation was conducted after Oxfam GB carried out its own internal inquiry in 2011 that led to the departure of seven of its staff in Haiti over allegations of sexual exploitation and bullying. However, Helen Stephenson, the charity commission's chief executive, emphasized that the investigation showed the incidents in Haiti were symptoms of a wider problem.

"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 behavior, and at times lost sight of the values it stands for," Stephenson said in a statement that also thanked whistleblowers for their courage in coming forward.

"The charity’s leadership may have been well-intentioned," she said. "But our report demonstrates that good intentions have limited value when they are not matched with resources, robust systems and processes that are implemented on the ground, and more importantly, an organizational culture that prioritizes keeping people safe."

Delayed action

The official reprimand means that Oxfam GB will be held to account and must assure current and potential donors and funders that it will take action to improve. Oxfam GB's trustees are now required to submit an action plan for the regulator’s approval by the end of June, outlining the specific steps it will take. But the report did find Oxfam GB had made some significant improvements since the allegations surfaced.

The report also criticized Oxfam GB for allowing its former country director in Haiti, Roland van Hauwermeiren, to simply resign, even as other staff were being investigated for serious misconduct. His resignation was tied to his failure to prevent staff from using prostitutes, some possibly underage.

Last year, Van Hauwermeiren told the Belgian newspaper Het Nieuwsblad that some parts of the allegations that had been made public were true, but other parts were "lies and exaggerations," such as the reports of weekly parties and extravagant use of chic villas.

“Now everything appears exaggerated and that hurts, especially because my family does not want to see me any more," he was quoted as saying.

The commission also took aim at Oxfam GB's lack of follow-up when it received an email in July 2011 purportedly sent by two girls, ages 12 and 13, who claimed the organization's staff had physically abused them. Though the commission generally agreed with Oxfam GB's doubts about the veracity of the email, the commission's report said there still should have been more investigation into the welfare of children.

Oxfam is not the only international aid organization facing #MeToo, or #AidToo, allegations of sexual harassment.

Last December, an independent expert panel concluded that UNAIDS, the U.N. agency battling HIV and AIDS, was essentially run as an old boys’ club and suffered from a “failed” leadership and a “broken” work culture. It said after examining the agency’s handling of serious sexual harassment allegations that a toxic work environment existed in which sexual harassment, bullying and abuse of power were rampant, and this was made worse by a culture of impunity and “patriarchal” management that requires new leadership to fix.

The International Labor Organization, or ILO, said it identified workplace harassment and violence as an important issue in 2015 — well before the #MeToo movement emerged. Since then, the United Nations' labor agency has been considering ways to advance a legally binding international treaty or standard to strengthen worker protections against harassment and violence.

With a staff of 10,000 worldwide, Oxfam International reported that it had closed out 43 cases last year in which it dismissed staff for issues related to inadequate "safeguarding," which refers to the practice of ensuring that people's health, well-being and rights are protected in society.

“We will act on every case coming to our attention and take action against abuse wherever it occurs,” Byanyima said. Oxfam International also announced it was putting more than US$600,000 into a "Global Integrity Fund" to strengthen its safeguarding, and creating two new global senior leadership roles for ethics and culture.