The Oxfam sex scandal was not a one-time news story.
The report on sexual misconduct by Oxfam workers in Haiti in 2011 made headlines last month. Since then, a number of other aid groups have come clean about similar problems — and revealed cases that victimized staffers as well.
This past week, U2 frontman Bono said he was “furious” over allegations against his ONE advocacy group — including an accusation that a female employee was demoted after refusing to have sex with a Tanzanian member of parliament.
Meanwhile, the aid world is scrambling to put solutions in place.
Here are some of the latest developments.
The cost for Oxfam Great Britain
Oxfam continues to deal with the fallout of the Oxfam Great Britain sex scandal.
A spokesperson said on March 9 that Oxfam, which has more than 9,000 staff in more than 90 countries, investigated 42 allegations of sexual misconduct in 2017.
Late last month, the Haitian government suspended Oxfam Great Britain for two months while it investigates how the charity handled the local case. Oxfam Great Britain’s future government funding is also at risk. “Oxfam has agreed to withdraw from bidding for any new UK Government funding until DFID is satisfied that they can meet the high standards we expect of our partners,” Britain’s international development secretary Penny Mordaunt said in a statement.
In the last financial year, Oxfam GB received $44 million in funding from the UK’s Department for International Development.
Revelations and resignations
But the Oxfam scandal is now just one in an ever-growing list.
The allegations of sexual abuse by humanitarian workers and U.N. peacekeepers include inappropriate conduct among staffers as well as toward local populations. But it’s the latter scandals that are raising the deepest sense of outrage.
“When we go to work in these countries where there is no infrastructure and we’re supposed to be there to help facilitate, the rule of law and order and instead we’re taking advantage of that vacuum — that to me is the absolute worst offense,” Dina Francesca Haynes, who has worked for the U.N. refugee agency in Croatia and for the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, told NPR.
Last month, 46 U.N. peacekeepers were recalled from their post in Wau, South Sudan, after allegations that some of them had engaged in transactional sex. “This is a clear breach of the U.N. and UNMISS Code of Conduct which prohibits sexual relationships with vulnerable individuals, including all beneficiaries of assistance,” the U.N. Mission in South Sudan said in a statement.
A U.N. Population Fund report published in November 2017 is getting renewed attention. It’s titled “Voices from Syria 2018” and includes descriptions of the sexual exploitation that some women and girls in Syria said they faced during aid distributions. During focus group discussions, some participants said aid workers would “make sexual advances on women and girls in exchange for goods or services necessary for survival.” As a result, some women and girls said they would only go to distribution sites with a chaperone, the report states.
The aid organization Plan International said on Feb. 21 that it had six confirmed cases of sexual abuse and exploitation of children by staff or associates from July 2016 to June 2017, as well as nine incidents of sexual harassment or sexual misconduct by staff involving adults.
In a statement, the group said it reports details of criminal instances to law enforcement agencies but would not reveal details to the public “due to the sensitive nature of the information.”
In the cases involving children, the organization says it “linked victims and families with local support networks including but not limited to medical and psychosocial support.”
The Red Cross director said in a statement Feb. 23 that since 2015, a total of 21 Red Cross employees have either been dismissed for paying for “sexual services” or resigned while an internal inquiry was in progress.
High-profile resignations are also in the news. Last month, Justin Forsyth resigned from his role as UNICEF’s deputy executive director after allegations arose of inappropriate behavior while he was working for Save the Children, which said in a statement: “In 2011 and 2015, concerns were raised about inappropriate behavior and comments” by Forsyth. Three female employees made complaints, the organization noted.
Also in February, Brendan Cox resigned from two charities he helped to start. One of them, the Jo Cox Foundation, announced on Feb. 17 that it had accepted his resignation. On Feb. 18, Save the Children said in a statement that Cox was accused of inappropriate behavior while working for that group in 2015. At the time, Cox was suspended and a disciplinary process began, but he resigned before it was completed, the organization said. Cox has also been accused of assaulting a woman at Harvard University in 2015. He tweeted an apology.
Fixing the problem
How do you stop such behavior?
That’s the question now facing aid organizations and development experts.
The operative word is “safeguarding” – the term used by the aid community. It means that groups should have systems in place to prevent abuse and misconduct.
At the safeguarding summit held on March 5 in London, Britain’s secretary for international development Penny Mordaunt said the government will put safeguarding standards in place that organizations must meet in order to be funded.
“These standards will include an assessment of codes of conduct, how organizations identify and respond to incidents and how their risk management places safeguarding and beneficiaries at the very core,” Mordaunt said. “Organizations should not bid for new funding unless they are prepared to meet these tough new standards.”
Lindsay Coates, president of InterAction, an alliance of nearly 200 U.S.-based nonprofits that do international work, is calling for three key areas of focus: taking complaints seriously and responding to the complainants, making sure these individuals have access to services, and pushing anyone who is “predatory” out of the system.
“We’re not fixing anything if someone who works for the U.N. goes to [a nongovernmental organization/aid group] and there’s no communication between the U.N. and the NGO,” Coates says.
Oxfam has developed a list of steps the organization plans to take in response to the “crisis.” On Thursday, it announced the leaders of its new Independent Commission on Sexual Misconduct, Accountability and Culture Change. Among other measures, Oxfam said it has “committed to work with others in the sector on a humanitarian passporting system that would stop offenders from moving from one organization to another.”
That idea of a “passport” issued to all aid workers is still very much a work in progress. Basically, all employees would have a permanent record of infractions.
Save the Children also included the passport on a list of proposed steps to address concerns about the aid sector, published on Feb. 12.
“Any staff members reprimanded or dismissed for sexual harassment, bullying and a failure of protection are identified and cannot disappear back into the system,” the organization writes. “Establishing a common registry and passport system would identify if all necessary background checks have been carried out and retain details of all previous conduct.”
The passport is just one of many proposals. Dorothea Hilhorst, a professor of humanitarian aid and reconstruction at Erasmus University in Rotterdam, published a commentary suggesting the revival of the idea of a humanitarian ombudsperson.
“An ombudsperson investigates, makes recommendations, and then it is up to the organization to act on those recommendations,” she says. “An ombudsperson works best if (s)he is independent, yet is installed by and funded by member organizations from the sector under scrutiny.”
Not everyone agrees. Dina Francesca Haynes, director of the Human Rights and Immigration Law Project at the New England School of Law, says there are too many variables.
“Who would fund this? Who would appoint? Would donors balk that money was directed here, rather than to supplies in the field?” she wrote in an email to NPR.
Meanwhile, the organization that brought this story into the headlines, Oxfam, is not just being criticized.
A group of 14 Honduran nonprofits teamed up for an expression of solidarity published on Feb. 22. “We recognize the great contributions Oxfam has provided in Honduras since 1998, with its humanitarian response to Hurricane Mitch,” the organizations wrote in Spanish.
And Oxfam is pledging to do better: “Oxfam is rightly under close scrutiny by many people today around the world. We hope that our apologies — but far more importantly our deeds and the steps we are taking — will begin to restore people’s trust in us,” Winnie Byanyima, Oxfam International’s executive director, said in a statement.
Courtney Columbus is a multimedia journalist who covers science, global health and consumer health. She has contributed to the Arizona Republic and Arizona PBS. Contact her @cmcolumbus11