Finger-Pointing Oxfam Now Embroiled in Sex Scandal
One might breathe a sigh of sadness but more probably will relish the deflation of self-claimed virtuous organizations and individuals. It is gratifying rather than poignant when the sanctimonious mighty are accused of misconduct rather than praised for benevolence and become the center of scandal. It is particularly pleasing in the case of Oxfam International, which never ceases to publicize itself as relentlessly carrying out vital humanitarian work in conflict and disaster areas of the world, but which is now accused of allowing sexual misconduct and sexual harassment of female employees.
Oxfam, which was started by a small group, mainly Quakers, in 1942, is now a multinational corporation, with 10,000 staff, 27,000 volunteers, and 1,200 shops around the world. Whatever the beneficial activities of Oxfam, concerns have belatedly emerged in public about the behavior of members of the staff that demonstrates lack of moral conduct, possible criminality, pedophilia, and culpability for lying and misleading.
Those concerns stem from the reality that members of the Oxfam staff were engaged in improper sexual activity, in "Caligula orgies," paying for sex with earthquake survivors, and hiring prostitutes, some aged 14-16, at Oxfam organization headquarters in Haiti 2011, and also earlier in its mission in Chad. The staff were present in Haiti because of the 7.0 earthquake in Port-au-Prince in 2010 that killed 220,000, injured 300,000, and left 1.5 million homeless. The Oxfam team was among the 10,000 NGOs and governmental bodies sent to Haiti, the poorest country in the Americas, to provide help.
On February 12, 2018, Penny Lawrence, the deputy chief executive of Oxfam, resigned because the organization, she said, had failed to deal adequately with concerns about the behavior of the staff. It concealed information about that behavior, and did not give the official Charities Commission true, full details.
The central figure in the scandal, Richard Van Hauwermeiren, the director of the mission in Haiti, whose attitude and behavior toward women were documented, confessed that women including prostitutes visited him in his Oxfam rented villa, the Eagle's Nest. He was allowed or forced to resign in 2011, as were two others, and four were fired for gross misconduct. Further allegations have been made that Hauwermeiren in 2006, who headed the Oxfam mission in Chad, had used prostitutes there. Interestingly, after his resignation from Oxfam, Hauwermeiren was employed for two years by the French charity "Action against Hunger" in Bangladesh. This charity has now said it did not receive any information from Oxfam about his inappropriate and unethical behavior. Similarly, other charity organizations employed people dismissed from Oxfam, which provided no critical information on them.
There is a culture of denial by Oxfam. The organization stated that it carried out a thorough review of charges made about its staff. In its report to the Charities Commission about its internal investigation into allegations of misconduct in Haiti, it concluded that there was no evidence of any abuse, even though Hauwermeiren resigned at the time. When the problem came to light, Oxfam failed to do the right thing. Its determination was to keep the issue out of the public domain. Its dismal record continues: it reported 87 other sexual incidents in 2016-17. Yet in February 2018, Mark Goldring, presently chief executive, still denied that Oxfam had covered up any wrongdoing connected with the 2011 relief effort in Haiti, probably fearing that true closure might reduce donations.
Oxfam does not stand alone. Abuse continues in the aid sector in Britain. Estimates are that 120 workers in U.K. charities were accused of sexual misconduct in 2017. They include Save the Children (31 cases), British Red Cross ("a small number"), and Christian Aid.
The British government is understandably concerned about Oxfam, to which it gives funds: in 2017, it gave £32 million. The British minister for international development, Penny Mordaunt, stated that Oxfam had betrayed both the people it was there to help and the people who sent them to Haiti to do a job, and that the British government will end funding to Oxfam unless its higher-ups demonstrate "moral leadership." Oxfam is not at present the most deserving recipient of public money, nor can it be regarded as merely a humanitarian community.
Oxfam may be slow to admit its internal delinquency, but it is quick at external criticism. The main character, Hauwermeiren, in the scandal did not hesitate to make such pronouncements in 2011. He reported that Haiti, together with the international community, was making little progress in reconstruction.
Charity organizations are supposed to be politically neutral, but Oxfam has defied this principle by its political partiality. It proclaims that the rich 1% in the world got 82% of wealth in 2017, while the poorest half of humanity got nothing. It blames the capitalist system for creating global poverty.
That political partiality is evident regarding the U.S. and Israel. The president of Oxfam America, Abby Maxman, lost no time in criticizing the U.S. and the Trump administration regarding the U.S. response to the crisis in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria in September 2017, now seen as the worst natural disaster hitting the island. On October 2, 2017, with the insolence of office, she issued a statement that borders on the impertinent. "We are outraged at the slow and inadequate response the U.S. Government has mounted[.] ... We have decided to step in. The U.S. has more than enough resources to mobilize an emergency response, but has failed to do so in a swift and robust manner." She continued, "We are hearing excuses and criticism from the administration instead of a cohesive and compassionate response." Again on October 19, 2017, Oxfam called the situation in Puerto Rico unacceptable and called for a more robust and efficient response from the U.S. government.
One can legitimately argue that U.S. aid was slow in arriving to Puerto Rico, with its high poverty rate and $120-billion deficit. But Oxfam has not yet commented on the fact that P.R. will receive $16 billion in U.S. federal aid under the disaster recovery package signed by President Trump. The aid is intended to fix the electrical grid and medical systems and provide basic amenities. Difficulties over the situation in P.R. will remain. The governor of P.R. declares that the island requires at least $94 billion to recover from the damage sustained during Maria. Oxfam, busy with its sex scandals, has not yet said how much of this it will contribute.
Oxfam's main target has been the State of Israel. It condemns Israel's "occupation of the Palestinian territory that had permeated into every facet of everyday life for the 4.8 million Palestinians living in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem and Gaza." The burden of the conflict and the ongoing occupation, it holds, are causing debilitating hardship for Palestinian communities. The "illegal Israeli blockade" of Gaza has devastated Gaza's economy and caused widespread destruction. Oxfam's partiality is displayed in its assertion that millions of Palestinians are denied the right to movement and are separated from their families and "opportunities."
The reality is that Oxfam is a card-carrying member of BDS. It has severed all relations with Israeli settlements, which it regards as illegal. In a semi-comic incident in 2014, actress Scarlett Johansson, who spent eight years as one of Oxfam's global ambassadors, resigned from this post when she decided to take part, against Oxfam's wishes, in ads promoting SodaStream, the Israel-based company making soda kits. The issue was that SodaStream, whose headquarters was in Tel-Aviv, also had a factory in the West Bank settlement Ma'ale Adumim, which, in fact, at the time employed 550 Palestinians.
Similarly, another actress, Kristin Davis, also an Oxfam global ambassador, had her ties with Oxfam severed when she took a job for a short time as spokesperson for Ahava Dead Sea Laboratories.
Oxfam has caused harm and distress to its supporters. It is also causing complications for British foreign policy. In view of the scandal, a number of British politicians have argued that the U.K. government should reduce spending on aid in favor of domestic priorities. Oxfam may not be able to exemplify "moral leadership," but it is time for it to end its political partiality and attend to its own internal problems.