Oxfam working hard to regain trust following sex scandal, says director
Winnie Byanyima describes ‘tough time’ as charity accused of covering up exploitation
Winnie Byanyima, executive director of Oxfam International: ‘I think we are in a better place, although we still have a journey.’ Photograph: Oxfam International
In February 2018 Oxfam was accused of covering up an investigation into allegations of sexual exploitation by staff members working in Haiti during the humanitarian response to the 2010 earthquake.
Responding to the allegations, the charity released a redacted version of a 2011 confidential internal report on the investigation. It revealed that a number of Oxfam Great Britain workers – including senior members of staff – had used sex workers in Haiti and engaged in bullying and intimidation of colleagues.
The Haiti government subsequently withdrew Oxfam Great Britain’s permission to work in the country and the charity lost a number of high-profile ambassadors including the actor Minnie Driver and South African ambassador Desmond Tutu.
Speaking to The Irish Times Women’s Podcast during a recent visit to Dublin, Ms Byanyima said the scandal was “a very, very painful experience” and Oxfam had lost the trust of many of its supporters.
It started with acknowledging that we had failed and then taking real steps to change ourselves
“We had to work hard, and we are still working hard, to restore that trust and that meant that we needed to take a hard look at ourselves and say, ‘Why did this happen?’” she said “the Government of Ireland, for example, has been one of the governments that trusted us and asked us to take the actions that are needed to recover, but didn’t walk away from us.”
There were weaknesses in how Oxfam handled the investigation and the individuals involved were not dealt with as they should have been, said Ms Byanyima, who was appointed executive director in 2013. “It was a tough, tough time but it started with acknowledging that we had failed and then taking real steps to change ourselves.”
Ms Byanyima said she had commissioned a group of human rights leaders to look at how Oxfam operates internally, which had been reporting back to her for the past year.
“We’ve trained investigators, we’ve put in place systems for capturing, reporting and investigating, but we know that ultimately it’s not policing people that will make us the organisation that we want, it is a culture of the staff.”
Born in Uganda, Ms Byanyima was recently appointed executive director of Oxfam International for a second term
Cost-cutting measures had also had to be introduced after a drop in donations, and some work considered non-essential was stopped, but “we kept the show on the road”, she said. “Our work to save lives, our humanitarian work, was even more this year than the year before. So that, I think, has made many people see that we are a strong and resilient organisation, and we can recover.
“I think we are in a better place, although we still have a journey,” she said.
Born in Uganda, Ms Byanyima was recently appointed executive director of Oxfam International for a second term. Educated by Irish Catholic nuns in Uganda as a child, she studied engineering at Manchester University and joined the British Labour Party there, working for MP Gerald Kaufman.
She is a signatory to Uganda’s 1985 peace agreement and was elected to parliament for three terms, leading the first parliamentary women’s caucus and championing groundbreaking gender equality provisions in the country’s 1995 post-conflict constitution.
I’m excited to see that there is a growing consensus against extreme inequality. But we are not seeing enough action
She has also served as director of gender and development at the United Nations Development Programme.
Speaking about her work at Oxfam International, Ms Byanyima said tackling extreme inequality is the organisation’s priority. “I’m excited to see that there is a growing consensus against extreme inequality, from Pope Francis to presidents like Obama who did a whole conference on it, to leaders like the World Bank. But we are not seeing enough action,” she said.
Ireland ranks at 99 out of 157 nations on Oxfam’s most recent global index of governments’ commitment to tackling inequality. Ms Byanyima said she would not lecture the Irish Government, but that it could do more. “First of all, [Ireland] could remove those incentives that make rich companies and rich people stash their money here, because they are avoiding paying their fair share of taxes where they’ve earned their money,” she said.