News & Politics

'Orgies While People Are Dying': How Charity Oxfam Allowed Sex Abuse in Ailing Countries Like Haiti

Staff hired prostitutes at aid sites and tried to cover it up.

The Red Cross promised to build hundreds of new homes in Campeche but none have been built. Many residents still live in crude shacks.
Photo Credit: Marie Arago, special to ProPublica

Oxfam has been hit with dozens more misconduct allegations in the days since The Times of London revealed Oxfam tried to cover up sex crimes by senior aid workers in Haiti after the devastating 2010 earthquake. On Tuesday, Oxfam’s leadership was questioned by British lawmakers, and apologized for its failure to report sexual misconduct to Haitian authorities. Prostitution is illegal in Haiti, but Oxfam refused to report the activity of its aid workers to Haitian police. Haiti has threatened to expel Oxfam from the country over the scandal. For more, we speak with Sean O’Neill, chief reporter at The Times newspaper in London, which broke the story of the scandal.

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

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AMY GOODMAN: We begin today’s show with the sexual abuse scandal engulfing the British charity Oxfam. Oxfam has been hit with dozens more misconduct allegations involving a slew of countries in the days since The Times of London revealed Oxfam tried to cover up sex crimes by senior aid workers in Haiti after the devastating 2010 earthquake. On Tuesday, Oxfam’s leadership was questioned by British lawmakers in the Parliament, and Oxfam apologized for its failure to report sexual misconduct to Haitian authorities. Prostitution is illegal in Haiti, but Oxfam refused to report the activity of its aid workers to Haitian police. This is the British Parliament’s International Development Committee questioning Oxfam’s chief executive, Mark Goldring.

PAULINE LATHAM: Prostitution is illegal in Haiti. Shouldn’t Oxfam have reported the matter anyway?

MARK GOLDRING: Oxfam should have reported the matter to the Haitian authorities. It wasn’t for Oxfam to decide whether a crime had been committed or not, but something that was serious and undermined the rule of law and public confidence in Haiti, should have been reported to the relevant Haitian authorities. I make—I can only apologize that Oxfam did not do that.

AMY GOODMAN: On Monday, Oxfam released its own internal report into the sex scandal. It concluded senior aid workers at Oxfam, including the country director in Haiti, hired prostitutes at Oxfam properties in Haiti and then tried to cover it up. Oxfam’s internal report includes claims three Oxfam staff members physically threatened a witness during the charity’s internal investigation. Haiti has threatened to expel Oxfam from the country. This is Haiti’s external cooperation minister, Aviol Fleurant.

AVIOL FLEURANT: [translated] They admitted that there is evidence that Oxfam U.K. was informed that these crimes occurred. What hurt me is that they admitted that Haitian authorities had at no time been informed by Oxfam Haiti.

AMY GOODMAN: Roughly 7,000 people have canceled their donations to Oxfam since the scandal broke.

This comes as another well-known charity, Save the Children, is also facing a growing scandal. The charity has told British authorities it has fired 30 employees after 120 misconduct complaints. Save the Children has also apologized to female employees who complained about the former head of the organization, Justin Forsyth.

Well, for more, we’re joined now by three guests. From London, via Democracy Now!video stream, Sean O’Neill is with us, the chief reporter at The Times newspaper in London, which broke the story of the Oxfam and Save the Children scandals. In Miami, Florida, we’re joined by the great Haitian-American novelist Edwidge Danticat, author of a number of books, including The Farming of Bones, which won an American Book Award. Danticat’s new book is The Art of Death: Writing the Final Story. She has just returned from Haiti. And here in New York, Taina Bien-Aimé is with us, executive director of the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women.

We welcome you all to Democracy Now! Let’s go to London, where this story was exposed by Sean O’Neill and the team at The Times of London. Can you talk about the chronology of what you found out and what—of what you found out and when you found it out?

SEAN O’NEILL: This story took quite a long time to piece together. We—well, I had been working on it for approximately 10 months, starting with a very nervous contact approaching me, telling me that all is not right with Oxfam and its behavior around the world, and took quite a long time to persuade that person to give me more detail.

And in October last year, we ran a story about the treatment of Oxfam’s country director in Nigeria, a woman called Lesley Agams, who was sexually assaulted while attending a conference in Oxford in 2010. It was her first time in Britain. She reported the sexual assault to her managers at Oxfam. The assault was allegedly carried out by one of her senior managers. She was not told to go to the police. She was not told to make a formal complaint. She was asked or advised to try and settle that informally. Three months later, she was sacked by the man she alleges had sexually assaulted her.

When we ran that story and Oxfam admitted they had got things wrong, that kind of opened the door to other people to come forward to us with more information. And one of the first things that came out was quite a lot of concern about what happened in Haiti in 2011, when—at the time, Oxfam had put out a statement saying that seven people had been—seven men had been either dismissed or allowed to resign for gross misconduct and bringing Oxfam into disrepute. But they did not go into the detail of what happened. And we managed to track down several people who knew exactly what had happened, had blown the whistle at the time and were still extremely angry about the way Oxfam had handled that, but also extremely angry that—extremely nervous, sorry, about speaking. So, it took a long time, again, to persuade them to speak even off the record to us. But their accounts were bolstered; you know, they verified each other, even though these people were not in touch with one another. Some of them were able to supply documents, including the investigation report. And sort of by the end of January, we were fairly confident we had the story in place.

But then we had a long period of to and fro with Oxfam about what they wanted to say, how they wanted to respond to it. We gave them a long time to respond. And really, for the first—you know, for the first week—for the week before the story and the three or four days after the story, they were still in denial. They were saying, “We didn’t hide anything. We had been totally transparent back in 2011.” And really, the unraveling of this, over the past week, and the unraveling of their reputation, their global reputation, I think, has been quite shocking. And I think that’s why it’s still having ramifications today, you know, almost a fortnight after we broke the story.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, let me go to Oxfam International Executive Director Winnie Byanyima, who said, quote, “hideous men” had “abused the trust” of the public and were not representative of Oxfam’s principles.

WINNIE BYANYIMA: Please allow me to begin by saying how sorry I am about what has happened. I’m ashamed. I’ve spent my life trying to stand up for women’s rights and to fight for people living in poverty, so this is painful for me.

So this is about aligning our people with the values of Oxfam. Some hideous men came into our organization and abused the trust of the British people, the supporters. But they were able to get away, to get a recommendation to leave. This was wrong. So we’re going to change the culture. And working on the culture costs money, and we’re going to put money on this.

The use of prostitutes, in conditions of poverty and helplessness and conflict, is exploitation. It is abuse. And it’s intolerable in our organization. What happened to let the country director go away with some dignity was wrong. This is something that wouldn’t happen today in Oxfam.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that is Oxfam International Executive Director Winnie Byanyima testifying before the British Parliament, somewhat undercut by Oxfam’s chief executive, Mark Goldring, who apologized for implying international outrage of Oxfam’s sex abuse scandal was overblown, saying it was not as if Oxfam, quote, “murdered babies in their cots.” He said this in an interview with The Guardian. This is Stephen Twigg, chair of the International Development Committee, questioning Goldring.

STEPHEN TWIGG: In your interview with The Guardian published on Saturday, you appeared to be downplaying this scandal, using the parallel with the murder of babies in their cots, which many people regarded as grossly inappropriate. Can I give you the opportunity to apologize?

MARK GOLDRING: Certainly, Chairman, I do apologize. I was thinking under stress. I had given many interviews. I had made many decisions to try and lead Oxfam’s response to this. I was thinking about amazing work I’d seen Oxfam do across the world, most recently for refugees in—coming from Myanmar. I should not have said those things. It is not for Oxfam to judge issues of proportionality or motivation. I repeat Oxfam’s broader apology and my personal apology. I am sorry, we are sorry, for the damage that Oxfam has done, both to the people of Haiti, but also to wider efforts for aid and development by possibly undermining public support. So, I wholeheartedly apologize for those comments and commit to work in that greater public interest, so that Oxfam can make a powerful role in the work that we all believe in.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Oxfam’s chief executive, Mark Goldring, apologizing for his comments that it’s not as if we were murdering babies in their cots. So, Sean O’Neill, if you can talk specifically about Haiti and the Haitian—and the director of Oxfam in Haiti, Roland Van Hauwermeiren, and what exactly he is accused of doing, what you wrote about in The Times of London?

SEAN O’NEILL: Van Hauwermeiren was the country director, appointed shortly after the earthquake in 2010. He had a history of suspected misconduct. He was allowed to resign from a charity called Merlin, which is now part of Save the Children, in Liberia in 2004. He joined Oxfam in 2006 in Chad. Again, there were concerns about what Oxfam calls, in its report, “gender issues,” which is kind of management speak for, I guess, misconduct towards women, either the beneficiaries or staff. And despite those issues, he was allowed to move on to the Congo and then eventually to Haiti, where the allegations against him and the allegations that were investigated and that he admitted to were that he was having sex with native women, paying them for sex.

And I’ve seen the transcript of his interview with the Oxfam investigation. And he admits in there that he had what he calls prostitutes visit him on two or three occasions at his home, which was, I believe, quite a luxurious villa known as the Eagle’s Nest, where he lived alone, surrounded by security guards. You know, he could live a very private and secluded life there. But he also talks, in that interview with the investigators, about young mothers coming to him and visiting him, and he’s giving them baby milk, diapers, goods—you know, basically essentials that they are living on—and implies that he’s doing that in return for sexual favors. And one of my colleagues is in Haiti at the moment, has been reporting from Haiti and has tracked down and interviewed one of the young women who slept with Van Hauwermeiren, who said, yes, he did trade aid for sex with her, and that she was very young at the time, 16, 17, and that although she now looks back on it, you know, with some distaste, she felt at the time it was saving her life and saving her baby’s life. So, hugely exploitative conduct on his part.

But quite separate from that, there was a group of aid workers who were staying in an apartment block, who—just a group of men, an all-male apartment block. And the allegations against them were that they were bringing in prostitutes, or their Haitian drivers were being sent out at night to bring in prostitutes, supplied by a local pimp, and that those women were being subjected to some pretty degrading treatment. A number of those men, I believe, were found guilty of gross misconduct. A number resigned will under investigation. A number were accused but were kind of acquitted. But we’re talking about, you know, an investigation that was essentially carried out by an Oxfam anti-fraud team, not by experienced law enforcement investigators or people experienced in sexual crimes. So, a lot of those people were subsequently dismissed for lesser matters, such as the bullying and intimidation of witnesses or, in one case, downloading pornography onto an Oxfam computer. So, there were a range of offenses, but the common thread running through all of them was some pretty nasty sexual exploitation of local women who were, you know, in desperate need after an earthquake that caused massive devastation in Haiti.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, on Monday, Oxfam released an internal investigation into the allegations of sexual misconduct that showed Oxfam’s country director in Haiti, Roland Van Hauwermeiren, admitted to using prostitutes in his residence during a humanitarian aid operation before his resignation in 2011. I mean, it’s amazing what you just pointed out, that he was fired from another charity years before and Oxfam then picked him up, not clear what they knew. Well, last week, Van Hauwermeiren dismissed the allegations of sexual misconduct.

ROLAND VAN HAUWERMEIREN: [translated] I don’t feel good about the people who, of course, are told, by perhaps less professional journalists, that Oxfam is an instrument to have sex orgies using the money from good civilians. That is absolutely not true.

AMY GOODMAN: So, again, that’s Roland Van Hauwermeiren. Sean O’Neill?

SEAN O’NEILL: He’s entitled to his say, but I’m very confident in my sources, both the human sources I’ve spoken to, who were there at the time, who know exactly what went on in that investigation, and very confident of the documents that we obtained, some of which are, you know, a transcript of his words.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to come back to this discussion. We’re talking to Sean O’Neill, who’s the chief reporter at The Times of London on this piece, this series of pieces, that is blowing open this scandal around Oxfam, as Oxfam tries to contain the damage. In addition, we’ll be joined by the Haitian-American writer Edwidge Danticat and Taina Bien-Aimé, who is the head of the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women. Stay with us.

[break]

AMY GOODMAN: “American Poor,” a new song by the band Dead Horses, debuting here on Democracy Now!

 

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Amy Goodman is the host of Democracy Now!, a daily international TV/radio news hour airing on more than 1,200 stations in North America. She is the co-author of The Silenced Majority, a New York Times best-seller.