Oxfam scandal reveals ‘sinister world of aid’

In the dock: Oxfam’s chief said some critics were motivated by an anti-aid agenda. © Oxfam

Does aid do more harm than good? Oxfam, Britain’s most famous charity, is in meltdown after it was revealed to have covered up sexual abuse in disaster zones. Donations have plummeted.

In 2010 an earthquake devastated the Caribbean nation of Haiti, the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. Around 160,000 people died. Far more lost everything they owned.

As distressing images of flattened shanty towns spread around the world, billions of pounds worth of aid poured in. Prominent among these organisations was Oxfam.

Now Oxfam is in turmoil after an investigation by The Times revealed that it covered up the use of prostitutes by senior aid workers in Haiti. Children as young as six were being coerced into sex in exchange for food and necessities, according to a report by Save the Children.

One 15-year-old girl in Haiti told how “humanitarian men” offered her £2 to perform a sex act. “They do this with all of us young girls,” said another.

Oxfam’s deputy chief executive, Penny Lawrence, has resigned.

Now sex scandals are spreading to other charities. On Saturday Brendan Cox, the widower of murdered MP Jo Cox, quit two charities he set up in her memory after admitting to "inappropriate" behaviour while working for Save the Children. However, he denies an allegation of sexual assault.

Andrew Macleod, a former UN worker, contends that paedophiles and sex abusers use the “halo of charity work” to get close to desperate women and children. “It is endemic across the aid industry and across the world.” He estimated that 60,000 rapes had been carried out by UN staff in the past decade.

Writing in The Spectator, Harriet Sargent calls this “a scandal for our time”. Oxfam, an “upholder of modern-day virtue, unassailable in its righteousness” blamed capitalism for world poverty. It set up deck chairs in Trafalgar Square to protest against tax havens, but has been shown to be terribly flawed.

For some, the scandal has brought the morality of aid itself into question.

Dambisa Moyo, a Zambian economist, says it has been and continues to be “an unmitigated political, economic and humanitarian disaster for the developing world”.

Should we withhold our donations in future?

Aided and abetted

We should not give another penny, say some. The charity sector has become a bloated racket of iniquity. The system is wracked with corruption, and it does not even work. As Allison Pearson writes in The Telegraph: “A few bad apples is not the problem. A crime against humanity committed by hypocritical humanitarians is.”

Charity still does a lot of good, reply others. “Oxfam has a proud history of standing up for the rights of women and girls, and against sexual abuse around the world,” writes Lucy Lamble in The Guardian. This scandal is horrific, but it should not be used as an excuse to attack the very idea of charity. Keep giving, and keep pushing for change.

You Decide

  1. Does charity do more harm than good?
  2. Is it right for the government to spend taxpayers’ money on foreign aid?


  1. Split into groups. Imagine that you are the bosses of a charity with a budget of £1 million. How would you spend it?
  2. In her Telegraph article (see Become An Expert), Allison Pearson asks: “Are bad men attracted to jobs where they can exploit vulnerable people? Or are well-meaning people corrupted by the vast power they wield when they work with the powerless?” Write an essay answering this question.

Some People Say...

“A country relying on aid? Death is better than that. It stops you from achieving your potential.”

Imran Khan

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Oxfam has been thrown into turmoil by revelations that the charity hid the fact that their workers had abused people in disaster zones. Most of the allegations come from Haiti, where Oxfam took part in the relief work following a devastating earthquake. However, it has now been revealed that Aid agencies were warned that aid workers were sexually abusing children in Haiti a decade ago - before the earthquake.
What do we not know?
Whether Oxfam can survive this scandal. Charities rely heavily on donations from businesses, who might see it as bad PR to carry on giving money to a charity that is embroiled in such a damaging story.

Word Watch

Around 160,000 people died
This is the University of Michigan’s estimate after the original Haitian government figure of 316,000 was widely discredited as being deliberately inflated.
Oxfam began in Oxford in 1942 as the Oxford Committee for Famine Relief. It was started by a group of Quakers, social activists, and Oxford academics. Its current slogan is “The power of people against poverty”.
Haiti has not been the only country caught up in the scandal. Former staff who worked for Oxfam in Chad, a huge, war-torn country straddling Central Africa and the Sahara Desert, alleged that women believed to be prostitutes were repeatedly invited to the Oxfam team house there. Furthermore, it was revealed that a senior member of staff had been fired for his behaviour in 2006.
Jo Cox
The Labour MP was murdered in her constituency shortly before the EU referendum of 2016.
Blamed capitalism
“At the moment we have an extreme form of capitalism that only works for those at the top,” a statement from Oxfam said.

PDF Download

Please click on "Print view" at the top of the page to see a print friendly version of the article.