Scandal-Plagued Oxfam Suspends Two Staff Amidst Misconduct Accusations in Congo

Women carry sacks of food, airdropped by the World Food Programme and distributed by the NGO Oxfam in Padding, near Lankien, Jonglei, South Sudan, on July 3, 2017. Fighting between Government and opposition forces in April 2017 pushed thousands of civilians to be displaced in Padding and Lankien, both are …
ALBERT GONZALEZ FARRAN/AFP via Getty Images

British international charity Oxfam has confirmed it has suspended two staff amidst an independent investigation into intimidation, sexual misconduct, and abuse of power in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The non-governmental organisation had launched an investigation in November 2020 into claims that senior managers were engaged in fraud, nepotism, and bullying. However, whistleblowers have said they have been voicing their concerns about alleged misconduct by Oxfam staff on mission in the central African country since 2015.

The abuse allegations were detailed in a February letter signed by 22 former and current Oxfam staff and sent to the charity’s head office in Oxford, England. The letter, seen by The Times and reported on Friday, accused 11 people of misconduct. All 11 were allegedly still employed until the recent suspensions, according to the newspaper.

The claims detail that managers engaged in a “culture of bullying” as well as having sexually harassed female employees. Some were also allegedly having sexual relationships with junior members of staff.

Further claims involve the lack of confidentiality of the complaints system, meaning that managers had access to reports by whistleblowers, resulting in threats and intimidation if staff pursued complaints.

Whistleblowers claimed that they had been subject to “threats to their lives and their families’ lives”, including allegations of poisonings or attempted poisonings, according to The Times.

Corruption allegations were also made related to the awarding of contracts for consultants, accommodation, and travel.

Oxfam’s chief executive Danny Sriskandarajah received the letter two days before the UK’s Charity Commission had deemed that the Oxford-based NGO had deemed that “people served or employed by the charity are now better protected against abuse, exploitation, and other forms of harm” since the Haiti scandal was exposed three years ago — a ruling which “came as a surprise” to one source.

A spokesman for the charity confirmed that two staff were suspended, telling the newspaper: “We can confirm we have suspended two members of Oxfam staff in the DRC as part of an ongoing external investigation, which we set up last November, into allegations of abuses of power, including bullying and sexual misconduct.

“We are acutely aware of our duty to survivors, including in supporting them to speak out safely. We are working hard to conclude the investigation fairly, safely and effectively.”

The allegations come only one month after the British government approved Oxfam to apply for public funds since the 2018 Haiti scandal. In the 2017-2018 financial year, the government had given £31.7 million in taxpayers’ cash to the international charity.

In 2018, it was revealed that Oxfam aid workers had engaged in the sexual exploitation of vulnerable people in Haiti between 2010 and 2011 after the country had been devastated by an earthquake. The same year it faced fresh accusations of rape and sexual assault by its aid workers in South Sudan.

An October 2020 report by the Thomson Reuters Foundation, in partnership with The New Humanitarian, found that dozens of women in the Congo said that mainly foreign aid workers had demanded sex in exchange for jobs during the 2018 to 2020 Ebola crisis.

Victims had named Médecins Sans Frontières, Oxfam, the World Health Organization (WHO), the UN children’s agency UNICEF, and the UN’s related migration body the International Organization for Migration (IOM).

A January 2021 report by British MPs claimed that the international aid sector had become the “last safe haven” for sexual predators seeking to abuse vulnerable women and children in disaster zones.

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