Oxfam International chairman arrested in Guatemala

  14 February 2018    Read: 962
Oxfam International chairman arrested in Guatemala

Oxfam has been plunged into further chaos after the chairman of its international arm was arrested as part of a corruption investigation.

Juan Alberto Fuentes Knight, chair of Oxfam International’s board of supervisors, was detained in Guatemala amid a widening scandal in the UK over the alleged use of prostitutes and sexual exploitation by staff.

Dr Fuentes Knight, a former finance minister in the country, was held alongside the country’s former president as part of an investigation into a public bus deal.

Oxfam International’s executive director, Winnie Byanyima, said that no formal charges had yet been announced. 

She added: “He has been entirely open with his Oxfam board and executive that he has been among former officials being investigated as part of a budgetary transaction made by the Guatemalan government while he was finance minister.

“He has assured us that he has cooperated fully with the investigation in the confidence he did not knowingly transgress rules or procedures.”

The investigation increased pressure on the charity as the British Government suggested it was considering pulling public funding over abuses by staff and Oxfam’s alleged failure to properly respond.

The International Development Secretary said she would be guided by the results of a statutory inquiry into the organisation. Oxfam received £31.7m from the Government in 2016-17.

“I know people will be worried about the charity, they’ll be worried about the money, but we need to be guided by what the Charity Commission are doing and also I have made it very clear to Oxfam what we expect to see from them,” Penny Mordauntsaid. “But these decisions shouldn't be taken hastily, but I am considering them.”

She was speaking after the former Foreign Secretary, Lord (William) Hague, warned against cutting the foreign aid budget in the wake of the scandal.

He said there was an “overwhelming strategic, as well as moral, imperative to deliver aid to the world’s poorest people”, adding: “A reduction in aid would be a strategic blunder, ultimately damaging our own national interest and our ability to deal with one of the biggest problems heading our way.” 

The Charity Commission was forced to defend its own investigations after Oxfam’s former head of safeguarding claimed she had told the watchdog of rape and sexual abuse long before last week’s revelations.

Helen Evans said she was “extremely concerned” by the response to concerns she raised while heading the charity’s global efforts to protect staff and beneficiaries between 2012 and 2015.

“There has been a lot of coverage about Oxfam and how shocking and surprising this is – it isn’t,” she told Channel 4 News.

“I went in 2015 to the Charity Commission, I went back again in 2017. Everything I’m saying today, the Charity Commission knew, so why is the Government saying this is a surprise?”

While appealing for more resources to deal with a rising number of allegations, Ms Evans recalled a single day where she was told of a woman being coerced into sex in exchange for aid, another aid worker having sex with a beneficiary and a member of staff being struck off for abuse.

Ms Evans had emailed Oxfam’s chief executive, Mark Goldring, warning that data “increasingly points to a culture of sexual abuse within some Oxfam offices” but a face-to-face meeting was cancelled in 2014.

Her reports also recorded alleged abuse and “inappropriate conduct” towards teenage volunteers working in Oxfam’s UK charity shops, which sparked expanded criminal record checks and new training.

A spokesperson for the Charity Commission said it took Ms Evans’s concerns “very seriously” and was told by Oxfam that the charity’s safeguarding processes were improving and developing. 

“Recent revelations make clear that the charity has not been sufficiently open with us about safeguarding incidents,” she added.

The watchdog launched a new statutory inquiry into Oxfam earlier this week, saying it may not have “fully and frankly disclosed material details” about allegations of staff using prostitutes in Haiti in 2011.

Oxfam’s deputy chief executive, Penny Lawrence, resigned during crisis talks between the charity and Government, saying she took “full responsibility” for the alleged use of prostitutes by senior staff in Haiti and on a previous placement in Chad.

Jovenel Moise, the President of Haiti, said “basic human decency” was violated in the wake of a devastating earthquake that left more than 100,000 people dead in 2010.

“There is nothing more shameful than a sexual predator using the veil of catastrophe as a means to exploit the vulnerable in their most defenceless moments,” he said.

“This case also is disheartening because the funds enabling these crimes were given in the name of the British people and with altruistic intent.”

Mr Moise said Haiti had both “wonderful” and “very troubling” experiences with international organisations, adding: “Let this be well understood by all agencies: if your staff exploits or harms our communities while ‘aiding’ them, we will not tolerate your particular brand of support.”

The Government has written to all British charities working overseas demanding “absolute assurances” that they are protecting vulnerable people and referring complaints to authorities in the wake of the Oxfam scandal.

The Department for International Development has created a new unit dedicated to reviewing safeguarding in the aid sector and stopping “criminal and predatory individuals” being employed by other charities. 

A global register of development workers may be established, as the UK increases work against sexual exploitation with the United Nations and prepares to host a summit on the issue later this month.

 

The Independent

 


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