The British government is warning charities and humanitarian relief organizations that it will withdraw public funding if they fail to establish effective internal reviews to prevent and investigate sexual predatory behavior and abuse by their aid workers.
The warning came Sunday in the wake of disclosures that one of the country’s biggest charities, Oxfam, failed to disclose its dismissal in 2011 of senior aid workers who paid local prostitutes, some likely under-age, for sex parties in Haiti in the wake of a devastating earthquake that killed more than 200,000 people and left 300,000 injured and 1.5 million homeless.
Four men were fired and three were allowed to resign, including Oxfam's country director for Haiti. But they were also given references by Oxfam, enabling them to join other aid agencies, despite allegations of sexual exploitation of quake survivors and the downloading of pornography, as well as bullying and intimidation.
A 2011 internal report that wasn’t made public uncovered "a culture of impunity" and noted, "it cannot be ruled out that any of the prostitutes were under-aged."
Oxfam failed to provide full details to Britain’s Charity Commission, a regulatory body, about the probe and what the charity’s critics called an exercise of power over vulnerable people.
London's Haiti Ambassador demands apology
And it didn’t inform Haiti’s government — a disclosure that has prompted the Haitian ambassador in London to demand a formal public apology from the aid agency.
Penny Mordaunt, Britain’s international development minister, condemned Sunday what she described as "horrible behavior" by Oxfam staff in Haiti and said public funding of the charity is now in jeopardy. She has threatened to pull government funding not only from Oxfam but from any British charity that falls below expected standards.
"With regard to Oxfam and any organization that has safeguarding issues, we expect them to cooperate fully, and we will cease to fund any organization that does not," she said.
Oxfam received $45 million from the British government in 2017 and received more than $200 million in donations from the British public. Now, there are also questions about similar behavior by Oxfam aid workers in Chad more than a decade ago.
"I am affording them the opportunity to tell me in person what they did after these events, and I'm going to be looking to see if they are displaying the moral leadership that I think they need to now," Mordaunt said in a television interview. "If they do not hand over all the information that they have from their investigation and subsequently to the relevant authorities, including the Charity Commission and prosecuting authorities, then I cannot work with them any more as an aid delivery partner," she said.
The minister has informed all British charities that receive government funds that they must declare all "safeguarding concerns" or lose funding.
But Mordaunt’s predecessor, Priti Patel, said the government doesn’t have the moral high ground on the issue and fears the problem is more widespread.
"Predatory pedophiles" have been allowed to exploit the aid sector, she said Sunday. Patel said when she was international development minister, she faced obstruction from her ministerial staff and "internal pushback" when trying to probe exploitation claims against aid workers.
"I did my own research, and I have to say, I had a lot of pushback within my own department. I pushed hard — I had pushback internally, and that is the scandal. The scandal is within the industry, people know about this," the former minister said, wondering why there were no prosecutions.
Figures analyzed by Britain’s Sunday Times revealed that in the past year alone, more than 120 workers for Britain’s top charities have been accused of sexual abuse, harassment or predatory behavior, mostly while serving overseas.
Oxfam recorded 87 incidents in 2017, of which 53 cases were referred to police or civilian authorities. Save the Children had 31 cases, 10 of which were referred to authorities
Oxfam denies cover up
Oxfam has admitted it made an error in failing to make public the Haiti sex scandal and the details of its investigation. Oxfam’s chief executive, Mark Goldring, said the charity is ashamed but has denied it sought to cover up the scandal.
"What we wanted to do was get on and deliver an aid program," Golding said. In a radio interview Saturday, he expressed regret for not addressing the issue.
"With hindsight, I would much prefer we had talked about sexual misconduct," he said.
Paying for sex is in breach of not only Oxfam’s code of conduct but the United Nations’ codes for the aid workers it funds. Oxfam did announce publicly that there had been misconduct in Haiti and that some staff had been terminated, but it did not reveal the misbehavior to Britain's Charity Commission.
Oxfam isn’t alone in scandals involving Haiti. Last year, U.N. peacekeepers in the country were accused of participating in sex rings using food as a lure.
A Save the Children report in 2008 said sex exploitation by aid workers was underreported generally in countries hit by devastating disasters, man-made or natural.
"Children as young as six are trading sex with aid workers and peacekeepers for food, money, soap," the report said.