First, it was Hollywood. Then it was politicians. Now the #MeToo movement has reached one of the biggest charities in the United Kingdom in a tale of sex, money, and abuse of power. The fallout has been as spectacular as the revelations have been shocking. Oxfam, a confederation of nearly twenty charitable organizations, has been caught up in the midst of a sex scandal with many legal and political ramifications.
To make a sordid story short, Oxfam’s Haiti programme chief Roland van Hauwermeiren paid to have sex with women while in Haiti during the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake, sometimes hiring and encouraging earthquake victims into prostitution. This is not only a violation of UN codes of ethics for aid workers but also a violation of Haiti’s laws as the country outlaws prostitution. Roland van Hauwermeiren was never reprimanded or disciplined for the incident and was allowed to leave without punishment, even being employed with other aid agencies.
However, as the facts were developing, it has become clear that this act is just the tip of the iceberg. Many women are now coming forward to complain about sexual harassment in the workplace along with casual racism, sexual abused, bullying, and intimidation in what one worker called ‘a “bro” culture’. Reports of such actions were never investigated or acted upon and more troubling allegations are still emerging such as a similar sex scandal in the region of Chad.
Oxfam has been quick to point out that the worst offenders are a small minority and that the majority of their staff were hard-working and dedicated. That has not mollified the Haiti authorities who are outraged that the actions of Roland van Hauwermeiren were not reported at the time and that no actions against him were taken. The European Union has threatened to cut vital funding from Oxfam unless they get their house in order and show moral leadership over the scandal.
The allegations could not have come at a worse time for Oxfam. Despite their charitable works, they have attracted political enemies by calling out the vast wealth disparity while also trying to defend Britain’s commitment to foreign aid. That commitment has become a political hot potato, a sticking point for many who feel any money put into foreign aid is wasted. This new scandal may embolden Oxfam’s critics into a new line of attack.
There is no sign that Britain will back away from its commitment, but it does serve to highlight how serious this situation is. At the time of writing, Oxfam has seen one resignation so far-Penny Lawrence, Oxfam’s deputy chief executive- and it is likely that more will follow. It would be very surprising if they didn’t as the UK government has signaled these revelations as a betrayal, a sign that the once-close relationship is in danger.
#MeToo has been long overdue for charities and aid organizations which have been a law unto themselves and have ultimately shot themselves in the foot by letting their employees get away with such actions. All the good Oxfam and others have done, and those good deeds are numerous, mean nothing because of those who abused their power. Mistrust in charities and foreign aid will grow stronger, especially if there is no sign of change.
Reform is desperately needed. Action must be taken. But caution is advised, lest these revelations become an excuse to curtail the vital work that many other aid organizations do. Oxfam is clearly at fault, but it is easy to lump others into the mix and call for their funding cut because of the disgusting actions of one.
If it does happen, Oxfam has only themselves to blame. For them, their time is well and truly up.