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Haiti sex scandal at Oxfam adds to anti-aid pressures in Britain

by Reuters
Monday, 12 February 2018 14:08 GMT

An Oxfam shop is seen, in London, Britain, February 11, 2018. REUTERS/Peter Nicholls

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By Estelle Shirbon

LONDON, Feb 12 (Reuters) - British charity Oxfam was fighting to save its government funding on Monday following revelations about sexual misconduct by staff working in Haiti after a devastating earthquake in 2010.

Senior managers were summoned to a meeting with Britain's aid minister Penny Mordaunt during which she was expected to demand the full facts, with 32 million pounds ($44 million) of government funding to Oxfam hanging in the balance.

The scandal was fast escalating into a broader crisis for Britain's aid sector by bolstering critics in the ruling Conservative Party who have argued that the government should reduce spending on aid in favour of domestic priorities.

Founded in 1942, Oxfam is one of Britain's best-known charities, running humanitarian and aid operations across the globe. Its 650 shops selling second hand clothes and books to raise funds are a familiar sight on high streets across Britain.

While the government funds that Mordaunt has threatened to withdraw represent only about 8 percent of Oxfam's overall income of 409 million pounds in 2016/17, according to its annual report, the risk for Oxfam is that private donations also drop as a result of the bad publicity.

The scandal broke last week when the Times newspaper reported that some of the charity's staff had paid for sex with prostitutes in Haiti in 2011, in the months after the earthquake.

Oxfam has neither confirmed nor denied that allegation and made no further comment on Monday when contacted by Reuters.

It has said that following an internal investigation into alleged misconduct in 2011 four members of staff had been dismissed and three others, including the Haiti country director, had resigned.

The charity has apologised and said it was ashamed of what had happened, without spelling out what that was. It has also pledged to improve its procedures.

"The misconduct findings related to offences including bullying, harassment, intimidation and failure to protect staff as well as sexual misconduct," Oxfam said in a statement on Friday.

Prime Minister Theresa May's spokesman said the government needed to do more to ensure charities strengthened safeguarding procedures to ensure the "horrific behaviour" seen in Haiti was not repeated.

AID BUDGET DEBATE

Britain is one of only six nations to hit the U.N. target of spending 0.7 percent of gross national income on aid - about 13 billion pounds a year - but there have been increasingly vitriolic attacks on that spending in recent years.

Meeting the U.N. target was a policy championed by former Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron as part of his efforts to re-brand his party as more compassionate. But with Cameron gone after campaigning on the losing side in the 2016 Brexit referendum, the political climate on aid has changed.

Priti Patel, an aid critic despite being Mordaunt's predecessor as international development minister, said the Haiti incidents were just "the tip of the iceberg" and there was a "culture of denial" in the sector.

Jacob Rees-Mogg, a prominent right-wing Conservative lawmaker, delivered to May's office on Friday a petition by readers of the Daily Express newspaper complaining that the aid budget was not well spent and should be cut.

Opposition Labour lawmaker Stephen Twigg, who chairs parliament's aid committee, expressed horror at the Haiti allegations but said he was worried that aid critics would seize on the scandal to further their own agenda.

"There will be some who may see an opportunity to say that this is somehow a consequence of our commitment to aid. This isn't, it's a consequence of individuals abusing their power," he told the BBC.

Several other charities sought to forestall criticism by volunteering information about incidents of sexual harassment in their own ranks, and by openly debating the issue.

"The issues raised by the Haiti episode fit a broader pattern. Our societies have a systemic problem associated with male abuse of power," said Kevin Watkins, chief executive officer of Save the Children, another well-known charity.

"Now the spotlight is on the aid sector," he wrote in a blog on Monday, adding that his own organisation had strengthened its internal procedures over the past few days.

Reuters could not independently verify the allegations contained in The Times report and was unable to reach any of the Oxfam staff who worked in Haiti at the time. ($1 = 0.7224 pounds) (Additional reporting by Elizabeth Piper; Editing by Alison Williams)

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