Canadian aid agencies say Oxfam's sex scandal symptomatic of sector-wide abuse

In the wake of the allegations of sexual abuse in Haiti, humanitarians say the industry lacks the necessary oversight needed to stop predators from bouncing between agencies.
As the Oxfam controversy continues to unfold, humanitarians speak out against a systematic failure to achieve transparency in their industry, and protect vulnerable people from exploitation. (Nick Ansell/Associated Press)

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Humanitarian aid organizations across the world are scrambling in the wake of Oxfam Great Britain's sexual misconduct scandal in Haiti as new information continues to surface.

Helen Evans, Oxfam's former global head of safeguarding, told Chanel 4 her department found over 10 per cent of Oxfam staff had either witnessed or experienced sexual assault — and more than a quarter of those allegations involved children.

This isn't an issue of Oxfam, it's an issue of the entire sector.- Julie Delahanty, executive director of Oxfam Canada

This follows last week's reporting by the Times of London that senior Oxfam G.B. staffers in Haiti for the 2010 earthquake allegedly turned their villa into a makeshift brothel, and employed prostitutes — who wore only Oxfam t-shirts.

Oxfam investigated these accusations back in 2011, which led to the firing of four staffers and three resignations.

Britain's International Development Secretary Penny Mordaunt threatened to pull Oxfam's public funding unless the charity reveals everything it knows about allegations. (Nick Ansell/Associated Press)

Julie Delahanty, executive director of Oxfam Canada, said there was a "clear moral failure" on behalf of how Oxfam's leadership dealt with the scandal in 2011 — particularly by not disclosing the sexual nature of the crimes, and allowing their country director to resign instead of being fired.

"We're still shocked and horrified by what happened," Delahanty told The Current's guest host Laura Lynch.

But Delahanty said Oxfam made changes after the scandal in 2011 which improved how the organization responds to abuse. According to Delahanty, these changes include a hotline for issuing complaints, better training, and the global safeguarding team — which investigates allegations.

"The fact that we have seen so many more complaints and so many more people coming forward on these issues is really a testament to how some of these things are working," she said. 

Delahanty is not under the impression the work is over. Just the opposite, she told The Current barriers to transparency and reporting mechanisms are an industry-wide problem.

"This isn't an issue of Oxfam, it's an issue of the entire sector. You have vulnerable people. You have people who are preying on those people moving into those areas."

Industry-wide exploitation 

Bill Chambers, president and CEO of Save The Children Canada, agrees abuse is systemic to the sector, and believes a lack of oversight is largely to blame.

He told The Current that although his organization has periodic backgrounds checks and mandatory safeguarding training, without communication between agencies, abusers can bounce easily from agency to agency.

"People come into a humanitarian circumstance, they're there for six months — and then go off. If they're dismissed, it's not always known. We need to build systems across the whole sector, around the globe, to ensure that those people can't just disappear back into the system."

In order to improve co-ordination and consistency between agencies, Chambers suggests a humanitarian passport that details aid-workers' track records, an independent regulatory body to ensure agencies report dismissals, and a rapid response task force ready when instances of abuse may occur.

We need to build systems across the whole sector, around the globe, to ensure that those people can't just disappear back into the system.- Bill Chambers, president and CEO of Save The Children Canada

"Imagine 650,000 Rohingya arriving in southern Bangladesh in the last four months with none of their points of reference, none of their neighbours. Everything is new, everything is foreign. That is a circumstance in which a predator will try to find their way in."

Nathaniel Raymond, founding director of the Pignal Program on Human Security and Technology at the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative, thinks power imbalances in aid-organizations themselves are also part of the problem. 

"The aid field is very male dominated and very white male dominated in many cases … I've seen, in the environments I've operated in, what can only be called sexism. That is a fact," said Raymond.

"More women and women of colour are from different backgrounds are moving into senior leadership positions. That can't just be a gradual evolution. It has to be an intentional one."

Raymond believes, going forward, transparency and preserving positive relationships with is host communities is of primary importance for the safety of both the aid-workers, and the people they are tasked to help. 

"Our most important asset — in many cases are only asset — is trust … It was my safety and protection as well as the safety and protection of the folks on the ground. So, at the end of the day if we cannot restore trust — then we can't do aid work."

Raymond told The Current humanitarian organizations need use this moment of public attention to make some much needed changes to the way they aid agencies operate independently — and with each other.

"My concern here is that will be reactionary rather than proactive. That this will happen, it will become a blip, and then we go back to business as usual. This is an inflection point. If we use it right it is not only a crisis it's an opportunity."

Listen to the full conversation at the top of this page.

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This segment was produced by The Current's Kristin Nelson, Julie Crysler and Alison Masemann.


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