As It Happens

'We are responsible': Oxfam responds to allegations of abuse by aid workers in Haiti

Winnie Byanyima, executive director of Oxfam International, says the organisation has reformed itself in the wake of allegations that aid workers engaged in sexual misconduct.
Winnie Byanyima, executive director of Oxfam International, says the organisation is working to improve their system so that a sexual misconduct scandal never happens again. (Keystone, Jean-Christophe Bott/Associated Press)

Story transcript

The executive director of Oxfam International says the organization takes responsibility for their aid workers in Haiti who allegedly used prostitutes and turned a home rented by Oxfam into a brothel, following the 2010 earthquake. 

The charity has been reeling since the Times of London report of sexual misconduct allegations against Oxfam Great Britain's country director for Haiti, Roland van Hauwermeiren, on Friday.

Penny Lawrence, the Oxfam program director at the time, resigned Monday for her handling of the allegations. And in an interview with As It HappensHaiti's ambassador to the U.K. said he was shocked the allegations were not reported to Haitian authorities at the time. Now, Oxfam could lose its European funding over the scandal. 

Winnie Byanyima spoke with As It Happens host Carol Off about the allegations. Here is part of their conversation. 

Oxfam is being forced to respond to allegations of sex abuse by their aid workers in Haiti following the 2010 earthquake. (Simon Dawson/Reuters)

Ms. Byanyima, what do you say to Canadians, or others, who may be thinking twice about giving money to Oxfam after what we've heard about going on in Haiti?

What happened in Haiti in 2011, done by some of our staff members there responding to an earthquake, was a betrayal. It was an abuse of the trust that was put in these people. They turned onto the very people they were supposed to protect.

I'm angry, I'm apologetic, and I've said sorry. And I continue to say sorry, first of all to the women themselves who were abused, the people of Haiti, whom we went there to help out of a horrible situation of an earthquake, and to all our supporters and people who believe in Oxfam's mission.

When you say "betrayal," who are you referring to when you say betrayal. Who are the people who betrayed and what did they betray? 

The people who abused. The predators. Those few staff members who we investigated. We fired three or four of them. Three walked away before we fired them. But they are the betrayers of the trust. And we are apologetic at Oxfam.

Our system was porous. It allowed them in. it gave them jobs, it gave them power, which they abused. And therefore we are responsible.

Haiti's president Jovenel Moise has condemned Oxfam for a sex abuse scandal in his country, describing the actions of some of its staff as a violation of basic human decency. (Dieu Nalio Chery/Associated Press)

What's been reported —  and you can tell us if this is true — that this one particular man who was the head of the mission in Haiti, Roland van Hauwermeiren, he had worked in Chad before he was posted in Haiti and he had the same kind of behaviour, similar allegations in Chad. That Oxfam knew about and still allowed this man to go on and run the mission in Haiti. How do you account for that?

As I've said, our way of handling the investigation in Haiti do not pass our tests today. We have since improved our system of investigation and we are not going to tolerate sexual misconduct in the future. We will not allow someone whom we have know to be a perpetrator to work for us again.

I cannot speak to the circumstances of how he got a second contract, but, let me tell you, in crisis we are always under pressure as humanitarians to hire very quickly and move operations to scale to save lives.

What happened in Haiti in 2011 ... was a betrayal.- Winnie Byanyima

This man has a serious position. This was a senior position that he was put in. This wasn't just someone on the ground.   

I'm not speaking to this particular case. I'm giving you the situations under which we recruit. When we are recruiting at speed to reach scale to save many lives, our systems have not proven to be effective to stop any abuser.

The Guardian newspaper is reporting an interview with Helen Evans, former head of your global safeguarding at Oxfam, who said she's told the media that between 2012 and 2015 she had so many allegations of women being coerced into sex ... of volunteers as young as 14 in Oxfam shops that alleged abuse. Countless cases where she raised this and nothing was done. So why should we trust you when you say Oxfam is working on these things? It seems that this keeps going on.

I would say that we have a dedicated safeguarding team that has been considered as one of the best in the sector. The experience of one member of that team cannot be the basis on which you judge the team and the work that they do.

A Haitian woman living in a tent camp for people affected by the January 2010 earthquake covers her face as she reacts after her tent home was destroyed by Tropical Storm Isaac. (Swoan Parker/Reuters)

But it sounds like it's widespread. It doesn't sound like these are isolated incidents. It sounds like this is a systemic problem within Oxfam.

I would not say that. I would say that we have, by and large, thousands of staff who do excellent work and a few who misbehave. We have to find a way to punish them and get them out of our system. We also have to work on the culture so that that kind of behaviour is never tolerated. 

With files from Associated Press. This has been edited for length and clarity. For more, listen to our interview with Winnie Byanyima.