"In the humanitarian world, this (behavior) happens"
By Sebastien Malo
NEW YORK, Feb 14 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - British charity Oxfam, rocked by a sex scandal in Haiti, should not be made a scapegoat for a problem that can occur anywhere among humanitarian groups working in the island nation, charity officials said on Wednesday.
Oxfam aid workers are accused of paying for sex, a crime in Haiti, leaving the charity at risk of losing its right to operate in the disaster-stricken country.
The accusations also put the charity in danger of losing its British government funding.
Haitian refugee advocate Colette Lespinasse said she blamed "a lack of vigilance" by the organization.
But she warned against singling out one among the thousands of humanitarian groups whose workers flocked to Haiti after its devastating earthquake in 2010.
"We shouldn't turn Oxfam into a scapegoat," Lespinasse told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by telephone.
"Oxfam isn't the only organization. No one is shielded from this type of situation," said Lespinasse, the former coordinator for the Support Group for Refugees and Repatriated Persons (GARR).
"These are problems that we encounter in private institutions, in public institutions and in humanitarian circles," she said.
The scandal over Oxfam, one of the best-known international charities with aid programs around the globe, erupted following sexual misconduct allegations first reported by the Times newspaper last week.
The Times said some Oxfam staff in Haiti after the earthquake had paid for sex with prostitutes. Oxfam has not confirmed nor denied the specific account but has said an internal investigation in 2011 confirmed sexual misconduct occurred.
Women's rights group Solidarité Fanm Ayisyen, based in Port-au-Prince, in the past cut ties with groups when it disapproved of their handling of sexual misconduct rumors, said its head Sabine Lamour.
Among them was MINUSTAH, a United Nations-backed mission that left Haiti last year dogged by controversies, including allegations of sexual abuse, she said.
"In the humanitarian world, this (behavior) happens," she said.
This focus should prompt aid groups to look at their hiring practices and weed out workers with records of misconduct, said Nene Mathurin, spokesman for the Research and Support Group to the Rural Environment, a Haitian anti-poverty nonprofit.
"It is a great injustice when people, Haitians or foreigners, use their position of power to sexual harass or assault someone," Mathurin told the Foundation.
"Relations between nonprofits and Haiti must change."
Britain will stop funding overseas aid agencies if they fail to learn the lessons from Oxfam's scandal, and the government will discuss possible prosecutions with law enforcement, the British development minister said on Wednesday.
Oxfam receives around 32 million pounds ($44 million) of British government funding a year.
The deputy head of Oxfam resigned on Monday, saying it had failed to respond adequately to past allegations of sexual misconduct by some staff in Haiti and in Chad.
(Reporting by Sebastien Malo @sebastienmalo, Editing by Ellen Wulfhorst. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit http://news.trust.org)
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