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Safeguarding & whistle-blowing – Haiti style

Published 14 February 2020

In July 2011 a whistle-blower sent written allegations to Oxfam’s GB leadership. Following the earthquake in Haiti, the charity was significantly engaged in humanitarian emergency relief work, with some 550 staff in the country. The allegations were principally that Oxfam staff had been having sex with prostitutes, some of whom may have been minors, including on Oxfam’s premises.

Oxfam responded by initiating an internal investigation. This extended to interviews in Haiti with 40 witnesses and a focus on 10 staff members. It led to various individual disciplinary hearings and the departure of 9 employees.

The investigation identified that 4 staff members were implicated in the use of prostitutes, including the Country Director, who was permitted to resign.

The Charity Commission subsequently initiated a statutory inquiry in February 2018 into both Oxfam’s handling of events in Haiti and also the charity’s wider record on safeguarding.

At the time that this was announced, Verita wrote a blog on the seven days that rocked Oxfam, which you can read here.

The report of this inquiry was delivered in July 2019.

The Commission expressed various concerns about the conduct of the internal investigation. It found that the investigators lacked experience in handling safeguarding allegations. Their conduct when interviewing witnesses was “worrying”. There were lapses in standards, such as poor record-keeping and report writing practices. Sensitive information was leaked which compromised the safety of a witness and led to intimidation of witnesses. Not all lines of enquiry about the use of prostitutes including minors were fully pursued. The Commission concluded that whether any of the prostitutes were under age “cannot be ruled out”.

Although Oxfam had a code of conduct in place at that time, the inquiry found that the charity:

  • had not followed up the allegation whether victims of sexual misconduct were minors
  • did not report these allegations of child abuse and failed to take the risks to alleged victims sufficiently seriously
  • dealt with staff implicated in sexual misconduct inconsistently, showing favour to senior staff
  • missed opportunities to respond to early warnings before these events.

Oxfam GB subsequently accepted that its investigation of the allegations was inadequate. Nor had it reported the allegations to the appropriate law enforcement agencies or to the Commission, its regulator.

The chief executive of the Charity Commission pointed out that what went wrong in Haiti did not happen in isolation. Oxfam had failed to heed warnings, including from its own staff, that its culture and responses around keeping people safe were inadequate. It had deployed insufficient resources to keep people safe from harm, bearing in mind the risks associated with the charity’s global reach and the nature of its work. Historical weaknesses in HR practice and problems around vetting, referencing and management oversight had resulted in a “culture of tolerance of poor behaviour”.

The inquiry was “extremely critical” of Oxfam’s safeguarding case work. Its approach was unstructured. Management was unable to identify the serious failures in case handling, including poor record keeping, due to the lack of adequate assurance and oversight mechanisms.

The Commission concluded that Oxfam’s limited actions taken to address the safeguarding issues raised were insufficient. “Significant further cultural and systemic change” was required to address fully the failings and weaknesses identified.

Whatever Oxfam may now achieve in safeguarding, it is difficult to discern whether its historical actions in safeguarding were adequate in any material respect. It appears that the events which occurred in Haiti were an “accident waiting to happen”. Issues had arisen previously in the context of the charity’s presence in Chad. Concerns were subsequently raised about the conduct of Oxfam staff in the Philippines. This pattern indicates both significant underlying problems and lost opportunities for improvement.

Perhaps the most important learning from this saga is in relation to the role of the whistle-blower. Where an organisation like Oxfam operates with a global footprint, often in remote locations, management oversight can often be limited and/or delayed. In such a context, whistleblowing will be vitally important. The ability to escalate concerns to head office if necessary, is critical. Potential whistle-blowers in Haiti did not feel empowered to escalate their concerns when they were unable to report them to the local HR personnel or Country Director.

Read more about the importance of whistle-blowing here. If you have any questions please get in touch by calling our team on 020 7494 5670

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