On February 9, 2018, The Times of London revealed that employees of global NGO giant, Oxfam International, had procured prostitutes while doing relief work in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake. Roland Van Hauwemeiren, who was then the Haiti Country Director for Oxfam, was chiefly implicated in the scandal. Unconfirmed allegations of sex parties on Oxfam premises and underage sex workers also emerged.
Since then, other news reports have detailed how Oxfam knew about the events for years, but did not warn other aid agencies about why certain staff left the organization (Van Hauwemeiren went on to work for another NGO in Bangladesh). Oxfam even rehired one of the dismissed employees.
News articles have also expose that the Swedish government was aware of allegations of Van Hauwemeiren’s involvement in sexual exploitation as far back as 2004 (while working in Liberia for an NGO named “Merlin”), but did not report him and continued to fund projects that he was managing. His behavior was so systematic, egregious, and normalized, that a female colleague expressed surprise upon discovering that not all NGO workers frequented prostitutes.
In the aftermath of the revelations, Oxfam released an internal memo from 2011 on the investigation into the allegations. Although most of the names have been redacted, the Oxfam investigation report describes a concerted effort at the highest levels to deal quietly with the abuse, as well as incompetence and mismanagement in human resource policies.
The alleged crimes, human rights violations, and other misbehavior by Oxfam staff in Haiti include:
- Use of prostitutes in Oxfam premises
- Sexual exploitation and abuse of employees
- Bullying, harassment, and intimidation
- Pornography on Oxfam computers
The cover up
The investigation report explains that Van Hauwermeiren was allowed to resign after one month, giving him a “phased and dignified exit.” Oxfam executives were primarily concerned about “potentially serious implications for the programme [and] affiliate relationships” if they were to fire him. In addition, Oxfam “took into consideration the significant contribution he had made in his time with Oxfam Great Britain.”
In addition, an unnamed employee received a “final written warning” for “leaking of a confidential report related to the investigation.” It was sent to “an unconnected member of staff.”
Until the scandal was made public in February 2018, Oxfam did not publish the findings of its investigation, and apparently did not share any information with Haitian authorities. A video statement by current Oxfam International Executive Director Winnie Byanyima implies that subsequent employers of the seven Oxfam perpetrators were not informed about the reason for their departures.
Perhaps the most distressing aspect of the investigation report is the total absence of victims. There is no discussion of assistance or compensation for victims, and none of the Lessons Learned Action Plan relates to helping victims.
What emerges from the document is gross incompetence and mismanagement from an organization with a £900 million budget (in 2011). Apparently, based on the Lessons Learned Action Plan, “basis HR practices/standards” were not followed across Oxfam. There were no “mandatory requirements for references…in the last job” before hiring employees. Employees who faced or were going to face “disciplinary actions” were not flagged to prevent further abuse. Any existing safeguards were laxly applied, if at all, in emergency response situations (i.e. Haiti).