British charities are facing a government crackdown to combat the “horrific” sexual exploitation exposed at Oxfam, amid concerns about a wider culture of abuse.
All British charities working overseas have been ordered to provide “absolute assurances” that they are protecting vulnerable people and referring complaints to authorities.
Oxfam’s deputy chief executive resigned during crisis talks with the Government, saying she took “full responsibility” for the alleged use of prostitutes by senior staff in Haiti.
But aid workers told The Independent sexual misconduct against both locals and staff remains “widespread” in humanitarian agencies and called for wholesale reforms.
Penny Mordaunt, the International Development Secretary, has written a letter to all UK charities working overseas demanding “absolute assurance that the moral leadership, the systems, the culture and the transparency needed to fully protect vulnerable people are in place”.
“It is not only Oxfam that must improve,” she said. “My absolute priority is to keep the world’s poorest and most vulnerable people safe from harm. In the 21st century, it is utterly despicable that sexual exploitation and abuse continues to exist in the aid sector.”
The Department for International Development (Dfid) has created a new unit dedicated to reviewing safeguarding in the aid sector and stopping “criminal and predatory individuals” being employed by other charities.
Penny Mordaunt on Oxfam: If moral leadership isn’t there then we cannot have you as a partner
A global register of development workers may be established, as the UK, alongside the the United Nations, increases its efforts to combat sexual exploitation and prepares to host a summit on the issue later this month.
Ms Mordaunt said the UK will not work with any organisation that “does not live up to the high standards on safeguarding and protection that we require”, and told Oxfam that it must “demonstrate the moral leadership necessary to address this scandal, rebuild the trust of the British public, their staff and the people they aim to help”.
“Oxfam made a full and unqualified apology – to me, and to the people of Britain and Haiti – for the appalling behaviour of some of their staff in Haiti in 2011, and for the wider failings of their organisation’s response to it,” said Ms Mordaunt.
“They spoke of the deep sense of disgrace and shame that they and their organisation feel about what has happened, and set out the actions they will now take to put things right and prevent such horrific abuses happening in future.“
The charity, which received £31.7m in government funding in 2016/17, is passing the details of alleged perpetrators, who are not British, of sexual exploitation in Haiti to their home governments for prospective legal action.
Caroline Thomson, Oxfam’s chair of trustees, described the talks as “challenging but constructive” and welcomed Dfid’s proposals.
“We recognise that we have some way to go to persuade her that we have the right moral leadership to be fully entrusted with public money,” she added. “But we are committed to working to prove we can meet her expectations.”
Penny Lawrence, Oxfam’s deputy chief executive, announced her resignation as discussions continued on Monday.
The charity failed to act on concerns about a man accused of using prostitutes in Haiti and on a previous placement in Chad, she said, adding: “As programme director at the time, I am ashamed that this happened on my watch and I take full responsibility.