Any organisation would struggle to recover from allegations that it covered up sexual misconduct among its staff. When that organisation is a publicly-funded charity that champions transparency and holds itself up as a moral voice on behalf of the world's most vulnerable, its very survival is instantly cast into doubt. That is the scale of the crisis now enveloping Oxfam, one of Britain's biggest aid outfits, amid claims that some of its employees procured girls and women for sex in Haiti in the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake.
Oxfam's head office was alerted to the allegations in 2011, but it made two serious errors of judgment. First, according to the UK's Charity Commission, which regulates the sector, Oxfam reported only in general terms that it was looking into "serious misconduct" related to abuse of power and bullying. The UK government says it was similarly misled. Second, the aid agency failed to sound the alarm so as to prevent the four men who were sacked and the three required to resign from working in the sector again.
The scandal has already led to the resignation of Penny Lawrence, Oxfam's deputy chief executive. The agency says it has tightened its reporting and whistleblowing procedures, but amid warnings that its UK government funding, which amounted to £32 million last year, could be in jeopardy, the fallout may not end there.
Oxfam’s actions fall far short of reasonable standards. It’s vital that the sector, in Britain and elsewhere, learns lessons from the scandal. At the same time, it’s worth remembering that the allegations concern seven individuals out of Oxfam’s 5,000 employees and 27,000 volunteers worldwide. The revelations will have devastated those Oxfam staff working to alleviate suffering in some of the world’s most hostile environments.
Unfortunately, the scandal is already being seized on by ideologues in the Conservative Party to press the case for sharp cuts to foreign aid, in particular the scrapping of a legally binding commitment to spend 0.7 per cent of national income on aid. Their arguments are flawed. The UK’s aid spending gives it incalculable leverage and amplifies the country’s voice. With Brexit looming, cutting back London’s commitment to the world’s poorest countries would only underline Britain’s isolation.
More importantly, to do so would be morally wrong. The world is on the brink of eradicating polio, tuberculosis infections have fallen 25 per cent and four million fewer children die from diarrheal diseases each year than three decades ago. These are just some of the ways in which development aid is saving lives. The charitable sector should not be immune from scrutiny or censure. But cutting aid would not only punish the sector; it would cut off a lifeline for some of the planet’s most vulnerable people.