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Britain

Oxfam chief Mark Goldring apologises to UK lawmakers over abuse of Haiti earthquake victims

He also said Roland van Hauwermeiren, who was forced to resign as a result of the scandal, should not have been allowed to resign

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 20 February, 2018, 9:42pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 20 February, 2018, 9:42pm

Mark Goldring, the head of Oxfam, has apologised to MPs for the actions of staff who sexually exploited female victims of the Haiti earthquake in 2010.

He acknowledged that the charity’s actions had damaged the whole aid community, as well as the people of Haiti. Goldring told the Commons international development committee on Tuesday that 7,000 people had cancelled their donations since the scandal broke.

He also apologised for his own comments that appeared to play down the seriousness of the scandal. In an interview last week in The Guardian, Goldring said the charity was being attacked as if “babies had been murdered in their cots”.

Asked about his comments, which led to calls for his resignation, the Oxfam executive said: “I do apologise. I was under stress. I’d given many interviews, I’d made many decisions to try to lead Oxfam’s response to this. I was thinking about amazing work I’ve seen Oxfam do around the world, most recently with refugees coming from Myanmar.”

He said it was wrong of him to talk about how he had not slept for six days, or make a comparison between what he was going through and what people in Haiti had suffered.

“I should not have said those things. It is not for Oxfam to judge issues of proportionality or motivation. I repeat Oxfam’s apology and my personal apology. I am, we are, sorry for the damage Oxfam has done both to the people of Haiti but also to the wider efforts for aid and development by possibly undermining public support.

“I wholeheartedly apologise for those comments and commit to work in that greater public interest so that Oxfam can make a powerful role in the world that we all believe in.”

Goldring, who took up his post in 2013, said Roland van Hauwermeiren, who was forced to resign as a result of the Haiti scandal, should not have been allowed to resign. The charity, which did not supply a reference when asked for one by another charity, should have been more proactive in warning them, he said.

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“We should have said, please call us, there’s cause for concern.”

The scandal has raised concerns about charity staff who have been dismissed for serious misconduct being able to move to other charities.

Asked how many further revelations had come to his notice since reports of the Haiti scandal emerged two weeks ago, Golding said there had been 26 reports, 16 of which related to international programmes.

If we were culpable – which we were – we should have been completely transparent
Mark Goldring

“Across Oxfam Great Britain we have had about 26 stories, reports come to us which were either new reports come out as a result of the stories, or earlier stories where people said, ‘I didn’t necessarily report this at the time’. Over an extended period of time. I am not talking about recent cases.

“We really want people to come forward wherever they are and whenever this happened. Some of those cases relate to the UK, some of them relate to our international programme.”

It emerged on Tuesday that Goldring was under investigation for his handling of a sexual assault case at the charity after a whistle-blower complaint. The case, which relates to the sacking of an Oxfam country director in Nigeria by a senior manager she had accused of sexually assaulting her, will be part of the Charity Commission’s inquiry into Oxfam announced last week after it emerged it had covered up allegations of sexual misconduct by senior staff in Haiti following the 2010 earthquake.

The international development committee called an urgent hearing last week to question Oxfam heads, following anger over the charity’s handling of allegations that staff in Haiti used prostitutes, including those who may have been underage.

A redacted version of an internal report from 2011, released by the charity on Monday, revealed that three of the men accused of sexual misconduct in Haiti physically threatened witnesses during an investigation.

Goldring told the committee that at the time of the original investigation into events in Haiti, Oxfam issued a press release revealing its findings of “serious misconduct” involving bullying, intimidation and breaches of the charity’s code of conduct. It did not go into details at the time about the fact that sexual exploitation was involved. He admitted, with hindsight, the charity should have been more transparent.

“We know now that that was not enough,” he said. “My colleagues at the time made a set of decisions about how public to go. With hindsight they made the wrong call. If we were culpable – which we were – we should have been completely transparent. At the time, I suspect there was a balance of saying: ‘Oxfam is delivering life-saving assistance to a million people in Haiti … We have got to keep that work going’.”

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Two other Oxfam officials questioned by MPs also issued apologies on behalf of the organisation. Winnie Byanyima, Oxfam’s international executive director, said she was ashamed.

“I have spent my life trying to stand up for women’s rights and to fight for people living in poverty. This is painful for me. Some hideous men came into our organisation 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.”

Caroline Thomson, the chair of trustees at Oxfam, said: “On behalf of the council for Oxfam, we are ashamed of what happened in Haiti. We don’t think it was well-handled and our task now is to make sure we report always with transparency and accountability. My task is to make sure we never again can be at the risk of being perceived to have put reputation over accountability.”

Oxfam has pledged to overhaul its recruitment and vetting procedures and submit to an independent commission to investigate allegations of sex abuse.

Stephen Twigg, the committee chairman, announced a wider inquiry into sexual exploitation in the aid sector.