London — Britain warned on Wednesday it would cut ties with foreign aid charities that cover up sex scandals after revelations involving Oxfam, which has seen a spate in cancellations of donations.
"Unless you report every serious incident or allegation, no matter how damaging to your reputation, we cannot be partners," Britain’s International Development Secretary Penny Mordaunt told a conference in Stockholm, according to extracts of her speech released by her ministry.
"The same message goes out to any organisation or partner which receives UK aid. We want procedures to change. We want leaders to lead with moral authority and we want staff to be held accountable," she said.
Mordaunt called allegations about the use of prostitutes by some Oxfam staff in Haiti in 2011 "horrifying". Oxfam has denied covering up the scandal but admitted it should have been more transparent.
"Sexual abuse and exploitation is an issue the entire development sector needs to confront," Mordaunt said, calling for a culture that "ensures victims and whistleblowers can come forward without fear".
When abuse is carried out "by people in positions of power, people we entrust to help and protect, it rightly sickens and disgusts and compels us to take action", she said.
The scandal has led to the resignation of Oxfam’s deputy head and has thrown into question government funding for the charity, which amounted to about £32m last year.
Actress and rights worker Minnie Driver quit as Oxfam’s global ambassador after the sex scandal allegations surfaced.
A charity spokeswoman on Wednesday said it had received 1,270 cancellations of donations by direct debit between Saturday and Monday — compared to a normal monthly average of 600 cancellations.
The allegations revolve around Oxfam’s then head of mission in Haiti, Belgian national Roland van Hauwermeiren, whose behaviour had already led to complaints when he worked for the charity in Chad.
After resigning from Oxfam, he went on to work for French charity Action Against Hunger in Bangladesh.
There were reports on Wednesday that there had already been complaints about Van Hauwermeiren and his use of prostitutes when he was working for the British medical charity Merlin in Liberia, before joining Oxfam.
Swedish former aid worker Amira Malik Miller told the humanitarian news agency IRIN that she had made a complaint about him in 2004 when she worked him in Liberia. When she saw a report about Van Hauwermeiren in The Times last week, she remembered thinking: "Oh my God, he’s been doing this for 14 years".
Malik Miller was quoted as saying: "He just goes around the system … from Liberia to Chad, to Haiti, to Bangladesh. Someone should have checked."
She said Van Hauwermeiren and other staff members were "shameless" and she suspected that some of the sex workers had been underage, adding: "They acted like it was the most normal thing in the world."
Oxfam’s internal investigation into the use of prostitutes in Haiti led to the dismissal of four employees and three others being allowed to resign, including Van Hauwermeiren.
"They let perpetrators go. They did not inform donors, their regulator or prosecuting authorities. It was not just the processes and procedures of that organisation that were lacking but moral leadership," Mordaunt said.
British actress Minnie Driver quit her role as an Oxfam ambassador late Tuesday, saying she was "devastated" by its response to the scandal.
Several sponsors and partners of Oxfam, including retail chain Marks & Spencer and Visa, have said they are examining the situation.