Oxfam appoints former UN official to head independent commission on sexual abuse and exploitation

Charity announces new whistleblowing hotline and reference system to ensure staff guilty of misconduct cannot find work elsewhere in aid sector

Lizzie Dearden
Home Affairs Correspondent
Friday 16 March 2018 01:02 GMT
Oxfam executive director: 'I'm appointing a high-level commission'

Oxfam has appointed a former United Nations official to head an independent commission on sexual abuse and exploitation in the wake of a scandal over misconduct by its staff.

Zainab Bangura, a former under-secretary general of the UN and representative on sexual violence in conflict, will co-chair the body alongside former World Bank vice-president Katherine Sierra.

They are charged with reviewing Oxfam’s culture and the “safeguarding” systems in place to protect beneficiaries and staff.

Government funding for new Oxfam projects has been suspended and donors stopped more than 7,000 direct debits to the charity following revelations that staff used prostitutes in crisis-hit countries including Haiti and Chad.

In 2011, the Charity Commission received a report from Oxfam detailing an internal investigation into staff misconduct, but it claimed that beneficiaries were not abused.

A 2008 Save the Children report had also warned of aid workers from numerous agencies raping children and coercing them into sex in Haiti.

Mark Goldring, the embattled chief executive of Oxfam GB, said the new commission would help it prevent sexual abuse.

“Today’s announcement is about turning words into actions and delivering on our commitment to protect staff, volunteers and the people we help around the world from those who do not share our values,” he added.

“Any employee found guilty of gross misconduct will find it much harder to hold a similar position in the future. The additional resources and external whistleblowing line will make it easier for allegations to be reported and acted upon swiftly.”

Oxfam is introducing new standards for references to prevent former employees found guilty of gross misconduct from finding work elsewhere in the aid sector – as was the case with disgraced Chad country director Roland van Hauwermeiren.

It is creating a global hub for references from accredited staff to avoid falsified recommendations or ones drawn up by friends without central oversight, meaning any misconduct will be “spelt out”.

Oxfam GB has also launched an independent whistleblowing hotline and standardised the way safeguarding cases are recorded globally, while recruiting additional staff and tripling the annual budget for the area to £720,000.

Its new commission will include international experts from business, government and civil society, who will draw up findings to be made public within the coming year.

Ms Sierra said it was essential “to understand what went wrong in the past, whether or not actions taken by Oxfam since 2011 have been effective in reducing the risk of such incidents, and what more they can do now to minimise the chance of such things happening again”.

Ms Bangura added: “We will ensure that we put the survivors and victims of abuse at the heart of our enquiries as we work to understand how the aid sector can become a safer place for all.”

The scandal sparked reverberations throughout the aid industry, causing high-level resignations and action from the UK Government and Charity Commission.

The watchdog has received new reports of 80 serious incidents involving safeguarding, including allegations of child sexual abuse, from British charities that were ordered to provide assurances that their policies were up to scratch.

At a summit held by the Department for International Development (DfId) earlier this month, major charities agreed measures including an independent body on safeguarding, new standards for vetting and referencing, ensuring whistleblowers and survivors of exploitation and abuse receive support and addressing an “organisational culture” of power imbalances and poor reporting to ensure concerns are acted on.

DfId is implementing new standards for organisations receiving British funding, including new codes of conduct, rules and management practices.

It is also forming a taskforce that could be sent to investigate alleged abuses in foreign countries, with information passed to the National Crime Agency.

Oxfam has already been temporarily barred from requesting further money and the department said other charities should not bid unless they meet new standards.

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