On January 12, 2010, a devastating earthquake with a magnitude of 7.3 struck Haiti. More than 220,000 people were killed and over 300,000 injured. The Disasters Emergency Commission, the UK umbrella of 14 registered humanitarian aid agencies launched an emergency appeal and raised £107million. Oxfam, one of the 14 members of the DEC, responded immediately by sending a team of 100 aid workers to the beleaguered island.
Eighteen months later, the charity received an email claiming various members of staff had breached Oxfam's code of conduct in Haiti relating to sexual exploitation, fraud, negligence and nepotism.
Roland Van Hauwermeiren, who was Oxfam’s Country Director in Haiti at the time, resigned from his post, stating that he had failed to exercise sufficient control over staff accused of sexual misconduct. He denied any wrongdoing himself but said he had a brief sexual relationship at his Oxfam house with a local woman.
The woman, Mikelange Gabou was 16 when she started the relationship with Mr Van Hauwermeiren. The age of consent in Haiti is 18. Mr Van Hauwermeiren was 61 and was presumably aware that having a sexual relationship with a minor constituted statutory rape.
In total, seven staff members either resigned or were dismissed as a result of the investigation which uncovered the use of prostitutes, downloading of pornography onto Oxfam computers, bullying and intimidation.
The revelations were of course shocking in and of themselves. But the way in which Oxfam chose to respond to the situation has caused serious and very public concern about the organisation’s safeguarding procedures. As Penny Mordaunt, Secretary for International Development stated in her address to Parliament on 20th February:
"They did not provide a full report to the Charity Commission. They did not provide a full report to their donors. They did not provide any report to prosecuting authorities.
In my view Mr Speaker they misled, quite possibly deliberately. Even as their report concluded that their investigation could not rule out the allegation that some of the women involved were actually children.
They did not think it was necessary to report to the police in either Haiti or the country of origin for those accountable.
I believe their motivation appears to be just the protection of the organisation’s reputation. They put that before those they were there to help and protect – a complete betrayal of trust."
Since ‘The Times’ blew the lid on this story on 9th February, Oxfam has reported losing 7,000 donors. A Parliamentary Committee has been told by Oxfam CEO Mark Goldring that there have been an additional 26 allegations of Sexual Misconduct since the scandal broke.
Meanwhile Justin Forsyth, Deputy Executive Director of UNICEF, has apologized for causing hurt and offence to three women during his time as CEO of ‘Save The Children’, Brendan Cox has resigned from two charities set up in his late wife’s memory following allegations of sexual assault which he denies, and in the past 24 hours ‘Save The Children’ have come forward to say that they have dealt with 193 child protection and 35 sexual harassment cases involving allegations against its staff in 120 countries, in the last year alone. Their investigations have led to the dismissal of 30 members of staff.
The problem is not only Oxfam’s. It is the sector of large international aid agencies as a whole.
Those of us who have worked in humanitarian aid may be disgusted. But we are not surprised.
The Recycling of Aid Workers
In 2004, Van Hauwermeiren was working as the Liberia Country Director for Merlin. Swedish civil servant and former aid worker Amira Malik Miller made a formal complaint to Merlin’s head office in London, after witnessing a colleague fondling a young local woman in the charity’s guesthouse. An internal investigation found that the management team, consisting offour men, were all paying for sex. The investigation also found they had been using Merlin cars to drive sex workers to and from parties at the charity’s guest house. Van Hauwermeiren denied the findings, but agreed to resign.
Four years later in 2008, Miller was working for the Swedish Government’s Aid Department. After reading a funding application from Oxfam in Chad, Miller noticed that Van Hauwermeiren was now the Country Director there. She alerted the Humanitarian director of the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida), Per Byman. Sida, made a grant of $748,537 to Oxfam for their work Chad in the same year.
Then followed the now infamous mission to Haiti. After his resignation from Oxfam in 2011, Van Hauwermeiren went on to work for French NGO Action Against Hunger as its Bangladesh Country Director. The French NGO allegedly received a reference from Oxfam regarding Van Hauwermeiren. Oxfam say they never wrote a reference.
Miller says “He just goes around the system … from Liberia to Chad, to Haiti, to Bangladesh. Someone should have checked properly”
Which begs the question, why didn’t they? Why are Aid organisations enabling people like this to go into environments where they are able to prey on the most vulnerable, seemingly with impunity? What procedures are in Place? Why are they not working? And What can be done about it?
Code of Conduct: Logistical Challenges
Oxfam have a clear code of conduct. Employees must each sign the code when they start working for the organisation. The Code is designed to “provide guidance in the face of ethical dilemmas (employees) may experience ….(and) to ensure that employees avoid using possible unequal power relationships for their own benefit. “ ‘Save The Children’, and many other organisations operate on similar lines.
Amidst the backdrop of these revelations, it is important to remember that organisations such as Oxfam, Save The Children and UNICEF do vital work in some of the world’s most challenging places. The overwhelming majority of Aid Workers are deeply committed, hard working, courageous people of enormous integrity. They routinely operate in extremely challenging environments where they find themselves in unthinkable situations, witnessing the worst of human suffering. They could be caught up in civil violence or be providing support during post-earthquake recovery, as the Oxfam team were in Haiti.
But of course, there are the exceptions and procedures must be strengthened to ensure that there are mechanisms in place to protect the vulnerable from them.
There must be a sector wide approach to vetting and recruitment. Human resources and safeguarding practices must be strengthened.
How can such procedures be fortified and implemented in fast paced, cross border environments where large numbers of people are deployed on short term contracts within 24 hours of an emergency occurring. This against a backdrop where organisations are perpetually being told that they must decrease their administrative expenditure.
The British Government has floated the idea of a global registry of aid workers designed to prevent those implicated in misconduct from moving, undetected from one NGO to another. Critics suggest that this could open up a Pandora’s Box of defamation lawsuits where allegations of misconduct are made but no legal guilt has been found.
Others call for larger investment in Human Resource departments to enable more thorough vetting of current and potential employees. However this too comes with its pitfalls.
As ‘Action Against Hunger’ has learned, references can be faked, previous postings can be removed from CV’s and reasons for departure from previous roles do not need to be disclosed. The decentralization of aid poses another challenge. It is one thing to have a safeguarding policy. It is quite another to implement it.
One former aid worker, speaking of his experience of working for Oxfam in 2014 noted that while the organisation had carefully selected and deployed water and shelter experts to the country office in which he was working, no HR or safeguarding professionals were sent to the local office. He continued “If you had professional HR people there, even just traveling on and off to those locations, they would be able to pick up on the attitudes of the staff and any abnormal behaviour.”
A possible solution to this would be to create safeguarding response teams who, like emergency response teams, could be deployed quickly, and sent into emergency settings to spot warning signs of exploitation or abuse. These teams could be independent to ensure absolute impartiality.
Finally, ‘Save The Children’, who are already working with Interpol to improve international criminal record checks, last year suggested using block chain technology to create individual “Humanitarian Passports” for Aid Workers. The “passport” would detail previous background checks as well as prior conduct.
‘Save The Children’ explain that “the passport will represent an unbreakable ‘chain’ of information — for example, criminal records checks, official references from HR departments of other NGOs, certification of relevant training and experience — that individual NGO workers cannot tamper with. It creates a robust, truthful digital identity for NGO staff that will allow different NGOs to ensure they can rapidly send the right people to emergency responses around the world, and reduce the risk of NGOs re-hiring people who might abuse or harm others.”
The organization is currently researching how the system might best be managed, whether by a coalition of NGOs or by an external, independent entity.
Critics of the proposal suggest that the system could lead to defamation of character, rumour mongering, abuse of power and that the inability to prove either guilt or innocence. It could however vastly strengthen the sector, improve safe-guarding measures and motivate donors to prioritise human resources in their grant-making, which would ultimately, keep beneficiaries safe.
Coupled with the deployment of safeguarding teams, Humanitarian Passports seem at the very least, a sensible option for large International Aid agencies to consider as a means to protect and deliver aid to those in need. They would empower an overwhelmingly dedicated population of Aid Workers to focus on doing their job and enable beneficiaries to be helped secure in the knowledge that the people helping them are there to do one thing. Deliver aid.