An ugly scandal facing one of the world’s best known humanitarian NGOs has sparked fears of a backlash against the entire sector but has also led to soul-searching in the humanitarian and development community on how to prevent such incidents from happening in the first place, say members of the Canadian NGO community.
Julia Sanchez, president and CEO of the Canadian Council for International Co-operation (CCIC), an umbrella group that brings together Canadian-based international development and humanitarian organizations, said she was heartbroken when she heard about allegations of sexual misconduct and inappropriate behavior that has rocked Oxfam Britain in recent days.
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The deputy head of Oxfam Britain Penny Lawrence resigned on Monday over what she said was the charity’s failure to adequately respond to past allegations of sexual misconduct by some of its staff in Haiti and Chad.
“It is now clear that these allegations – involving the use of prostitutes and which related to behavior of both the country director and members of his team in Chad – were raised before he moved to Haiti,” she said.
“As program director at the time, I am ashamed that this happened on my watch and I take full responsibility.”
But the scandal, which comes on the heels of the #MeToo movement and a similar allegations of sexual misconduct involving UN personnel and peacekeepers deployed to various conflict zones, especially in Africa, is reverberating all over the world, including in Canada, said Sanchez.
“We’ve been all watching with horror at times the different revelations in different sectors, starting in Hollywood and politics, and here in Canada,” Sanchez said in a phone interview from Ottawa. “This really struck very close to home, it was devastating.”
‘Dismay and shock’
Denise Byrnes, executive director of Oxfam Quebec, which is part of the global Oxfam confederation but is an independent organization, said she was quite shocked and dismayed when she first learned of the behavior that involved Oxfam Britain staff in Haiti through an internal communique in 2011.
“We put a lot of trust in our staff and to have people betray that trust when they are given such an important mission is really hard for us to take,” Byrnes said in a phone interview from Montreal.
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The new revelations about the conduct of Oxfam staff in Chad have only added to that dismay and shock, Byrnes said.
At the same time Sanchez admitted that she wasn’t really “terribly surprised” by these allegations.
“These are ordinary people and unfortunately for too long I think in our societies we have accepted or turned a blind to sexual misconduct and exploitation in varying degrees,” Sanchez said. “I think the moment we’re living now we’re turning a corner, we’re reacting differently.
“When this happened in 2010-2011, I can see why people who knew must have been shocked and devastated and outraged, but as a society I think we were not where we are now.”
Sanchez said she expects even more accusations of misconduct by members of other NGOs to surface in coming days and weeks.
“This moment that we’re living in now is encouraging women to speak up,” Sanchez said. “I would be very surprised if this is the only isolated case… I would be fearful that we’re going to hear more even if it happened five, six, ten years ago.”
Funding loss fears
These revelations could have repercussions on how the public perceives the entire humanitarian sector, on funding, Sanchez said.
One of the best-known international NGOs, with aid programs running across the globe, Oxfam is under threat of losing its British government funding over the sexual misconduct allegations.
The scandal is escalating into a broader crisis for Britain’s aid sector by bolstering critics in the ruling Conservative Party who have argued that the government should reduce spending on aid in favor of domestic priorities.
Byrnes admitted that about 20 donors have already cancelled their donations to Oxfam Quebec. The situation in Europe is more dire she said.
Canada won’t pull funding, says minister
Both Oxfam Canada and Oxfam Quebec officials have discussed the situation with International Development Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau, Byrnes said.
In an interview with Radio Canada International Wednesday, Bibeau said Canada will only work with partners in humanitarian settings who meet the highest standards of ethical conduct and have explicit organizational principles against sexual abuse and exploitation.
“We strongly condemn all forms of exploitation and abuse in the conduct of international aid operations and we take the situation very seriously,” Bibeau said.
“Our humanitarian workers are doing a very good job and when one of them behaves inappropriately, it’s a shame for all of us and this why we condemn all forms of exploitation and abuse in a very strong manner.”
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Bibeau said she has already started conversations with partner humanitarian agencies, including Oxfam, to ensure that the highest standards of ethics are respected and policies are in place to deal with abuses and misconduct when they do occur.
Oxfam Canada and Oxfam Quebec confirmed to her that no employee or Canadian funds are connected to “unacceptable situation” in Haiti, Bibeau said.
Bibeau said she has full confidence in Oxfam Canada and Oxfam Quebec and that the federal government will continue funding both organizations.
Bibeau said she also discussed the issue with her British counterpart.
“I also want to stress that the vast majority of our humanitarian workers have good intentions, have shown incredible dedication towards the most vulnerable and they continue to earn my respect,” the minister added.
Common standards and policies
Sanchez said she hopes the scandal will also force the humanitarian and development NGO sector to re-examine its tools, safeguards and policies for preventing sexual misconduct and other abuses by staff members and to immediately address cases that come to light.
“I don’t think we can avoid going through that exercise as a sector,” Sanchez said.
Byrnes said the scandal has already forced Oxfam to re-examine its policies and guidelines, but also warned that no organization can guarantee that such incidents will never happen again.
“We’ve seen recently with the movement #MeToo around the world that every sector will be touched by this,” Byrnes said. “It’s good that this is coming out and I think it allows us to have a good discussion in our sector to make things better and to hopefully be a leader in the humanitarian sector in having the best practices.”
With files from Reuters