Ramsay Jones: Oxfam case raises troubling questions for us all but vital, life-saving work must continue

Ramsay Jones

They are the words which greet an internet search for Oxfam.

“We will always act. We will speak out.”

But now, the charity is facing a charge sheet that it did not act, and did not speak out, when serious allegations surfaced that some of its aid workers used prostitutes in Haiti in 2011.

Its chief executive, Mark Goldring, has denied there was any cover-up, but Haiti’s age of consent is 18 and prostitution is illegal. Paying for sex is banned under Oxfam’s code of conduct and is against UN guidelines for aid workers.

And no wonder. To exploit people in disaster-torn countries, who are desperately trying to just survive for another day, is beyond the pale.

The charity did not call in the police because they thought it “extremely unlikely any action would be taken” and the local director, Roland Van Hauwermeiren was allowed to resign because he co-operated with Oxfam’s internal investigation.

At the time, the charity only referred to it as “serious misconduct”. It was reported to the Charities Commission, but not to the police or the governments either in Haiti or in the UK.

Oxfam’s chief executive has admitted: “With hindsight, I would much prefer that we had talked about sexual misconduct.

“But I don’t think it was in anyone’s best interest to be describing the details of the behaviour in a way that was actually going to draw extreme attention to it when what we wanted to do was get on and deliver an aid programme.”

In other words, they did not act and they did not speak out.

And now more facts are emerging and a catalogue of allegations is growing which suggests stomach-churning and sickening international sexual exploitation. And not just at Oxfam.

There are concerns that paedophiles are drawn to working for aid agencies and a string of international charities could have attracted people for all the wrong reasons.

Silence in 2011 might have seemed sensible then. But truth delayed, as we saw with other blind eyes in other scandals such as the BBC and Jimmy Savile, is wrong.

However, let’s pause for a moment. The work which Oxfam and their sister charities do is vital. They save lives. They give hope. They are beacons of light in the darkest corners of the globe.

Here in the UK, they run 750 shops, have 20,000 volunteers and are a force for good. The Department for International Development, gave Oxfam nearly £32m last year.

So here’s the conundrum. How should the UK Government, and how should we, react to this issue?

We, the taxpayers and shoppers, are the source of their funds.

Of the 750 Oxfam charity shops around the UK, around 100 are specialist bookshops or book and music shops. We’ve all seen them on our high streets.

Most of us have shopped there. Our bargain buys raise tens of millions of pounds a year and saves lives around the world. Over half a million people in the UK make a regular financial contribution towards its work.

Should we stop? Should the government turn off the tap? Should our moral outrage make us pull the plug on funds?

Oxfam messed up in its handling of the 2011 scandal in Haiti. And that incident may or may not be the tip of an ugly iceberg involving them and other charities. Is it time to call time on them all? But who would suffer? Unless the programmes being run were seamlessly taken over by others, it would be the poorest and most vulnerable who would pay the price to satisfy our moral sensitivities. And if other charities become embroiled, who would take over the work?

So we need a pause for breath. We need a root-and-branch review of all the agencies working in international aid and a light shone into the murky corners to reveal any and all abusers.

They – the charities – need to be open and transparent. The time for cover-up is over.

Crucially, we, the public, need to remember that the majority – the vast majority – of those who give of their time or their money do so because they care about those who have nothing but the faintest glimmer of hope. Hope that charities such as Oxfam will be there.

So whatever depravities fester in a few sick souls, we cannot let that poison the good of the many. We cannot let a clumsy, well-intentioned but misguided cover-up in 2011 harm millions of people desperate for help today.

But we must lance this boil. We must expose all and any who would abuse the most vulnerable in disaster torn communities. They must be named. And shamed. And prosecuted.

But the vital, life-saving work must continue.

We must keep aid budget

Even before the Oxfam revelations surfaced, I had planned to write about our International Aid budget.

Once again, there are some senior politicians casting doubt on it. The sickening Haiti scandal has added fuel to their fires. I fear some might politicise and weaponise the situation.

The “Charity begins at Home” Brigade will be in full voice. They will argue taxpayers’ money should go to our NHS, or our social care, or our education, or less should be taken in tax in the first place.

It’s a point of view. But not one I agree with.

Let me be blunt: I am proud that the UK is meeting its pledge. Even the economics stack up.

Building new economies means new markets for our goods and services. Which means jobs in the UK. And more tax revenues. And more funds for the NHS, and social care, and education.

Helping to bring peace and stability to other countries is in our national interest. They are the best antidotes to extremism and war. Which means more safety and security for us, here in the UK.

But above all, as human beings sharing this planet, we have a moral obligation. We cannot be outraged about the exploitation of teenagers in Haiti and use that as an excuse to leave them in an even more perilous plight. If mankind cannot be kind to our fellow man, what hope is there for the world?