Public toilets build by Oxfam in Haiti.

Charity workers have been exposed following orgies with prostitutes

It's impossible to overstate the importance of the public's trust when it comes to charitable organisations. Every year, in response to critical requests for aid, the public donates millions to various institutions who use that money to safeguard the less fortunate. Those who donate the money do not (for the most part) question where their cash goes. In most cases, they have faith that it will be spent wisely by those who know best. However, if the credibility of the charity is ever called into question then it can spell disaster.

This week, one of the world's most respected charities found itself embroiled in a damning sex scandal. The situation was unveiled by The Times, which investigated reports that certain workers employed by the institution had been seeing prostitutes in a rented guesthouse in the aftermath of the 2010 Haitian earthquake. According to the British newspaper, three members of Oxfam's personnel in Haiti were allowed to resign of their own consent, while another four were fired after it was discovered that they had been downloading pornography and using charitable funds to pay for the sexual services of local sex workers.

Public toilets build by Oxfam in Haiti. Credit: Getty

An anonymous source told investigative journalists: "These girls [were] wearing Oxfam T-shirts, running around half-naked, it was like a full-on Caligula orgy. It was unbelievable. It was crazy." Worse, an internal inquiry conducted by Oxfam concluded that "it cannot be ruled out that any of the prostitutes were under-aged." Oxfam apparently neglected to report the pornographic consumption and on-site "orgies", as well as alleged bullying and intimidation of locals, to the Haitian authorities. In the same report, Oxfam claimed that "it was extremely unlikely that any action would be taken" by Haitian law enforcement even if they had done so.

Oxfam's Belgian country director Roland Van Hauwermeiren was among those forced to resign after he admitted that he had used prostitutes at a villa where the rent was paid for via public donations. Dame Barbara Stocking, then Oxfam's chief executive, offered Hauwermeiren “a phased and dignified exit” out of fears that revealing his behaviour would be a public relations disaster. Van Hauwermeiren has additionally been accused of hiring sex workers while participating in aid work in Chad. As a result of the backlash provoked by the scandal, the European Commission has claimed that it is ready to "cease funding any partner not living up to high ethical standards," and has stated that it expects far more clarity from the organisation in future.

Matt Hancock, the British culture secretary in charge of the regulation of charities, stated: "These allegations are deeply shocking and Oxfam must now provide the Charity Commission with all the evidence they hold of events that happened in Haiti as a matter of urgency. The reported historic behaviour of senior aid workers is abhorrent and completely unacceptable. Charities must ensure that they have the highest standards of transparency and safeguarding procedures in place to protect vulnerable people and maintain the trust of the public."

Oxfam aid sent to Haiti in the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake. Credit: Getty

Caroline Thomson, Oxfam's chair of trustees, released the following statement: "It is clear that such behaviour is completely outside our values and should never be tolerated. Oxfam prides itself of being a transparent organisation that works to make life better for poor and vulnerable people, an organisation that puts women at the heart of everything we do ... My job as a new chair is now to look forward. Mark Goldring and I are working closely together to lead this. We will continue to address the underlying cultural issues that allowed this behaviour to happen. We also want to satisfy ourselves that we do now have a culture of openness and transparency and that we fully learn the lessons of events in 2011. Not only will we always be true to those we serve and those who support us, we will also be seen to be so."

She added, "Our board of trustees appointed an independent consultant to review how we can better promote and enforce a positive culture right through all of our workforce and drive out unacceptable behaviour. This builds on the work we have done since 2011 to tackle abuse, including setting up a dedicated whistleblowing line and a safeguarding team. We will now extend the review's remit to take a detailed look both at this case and our recruitment and management of staff in challenging environments and emergencies ... If that review brings about a safer environment for all, then the publicity of the last few days, painful as it has been, will also have been valuable."

xfam's chief executive Mark Goldring chair of trustees Caroline Thomson. Credit: Getty

Penny Lawrence, Oxfam's deputy chief executive (who joined the organisation in 2006), has now officially resigned over the scandal, denying a cover-up but claiming that she was "ashamed" of what had happened. Oxfam has informed the British government, its trustees, and major donors such as the EU and the World Health Organisation of its own investigation and the outcome. It has also created a whistleblower hotline to combat misconduct and corruption in the future.

Oxfam raised approximately $100 million in aid in the wake of the 2010 quake, which was intended to be used to rebuild Haiti’s devastated infrastructure. At the time of the incident, Oxfam had 230 staff members working on the Caribbean island. Estimates of the death toll range from anywhere between 100,000 to around 160,000, although the Haitian government alleges that as many as 316,000 perished as a result of the 7.0 magnitude quake. It remains to be seen whether or not Oxfam's reputation will be able to recover from this scandal, but it's important to note that the vast majority of Oxfam employees really are striving to make a positive difference.