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12 February 2018updated 24 Jun 2021 12:26pm

Oxfam’s Haiti scandal may have big consequences for Britain’s foreign aid target

It's a particularly vulnerable time for an aid charity to make itself politically damaging to the government.

By Stephen Bush

What are the political repercussions of Oxfam’s Haiti scandal?

(In case you missed it: it has been alleged that during Haiti earthquake crisis, Oxfam’s Haiti programme chief Roland van Hauwermeiren hired and encouraged earthquake victims into prostitution, a violation of UN codes of ethics for aid workers and Haiti’s own laws.)

The consequences for Oxfam could be devastating: Penny Mordaunt, the Secretary of State for International Development, has said that her department will pull £32m worth of funding from the charity if it doesn’t show that it has put its house in order. The extent of the damage from charitable donors is as yet unknown, as today is the first banking day since the scandal was uncovered. In the wider aid sector, there is a huge amount of anger towards the sector, particularly in light of further revelations in today’sTimes that Oxfam did not inform van Hauwermeiren’s subsequent employers, Action Against Hunger, about the circumstances in which his employment at Oxfam ended.

It’s a particularly vulnerable time for an aid charity to make itself politically damaging to the government as Mordaunt wants to increase the amount of aid spending given as direct cash transfers.  Studies show direct cash transfers to be the most effective way not only of alleviating poverty temporarily but of reducing it permanently, as people use the cash to clear debts and invest in their futures, from goats to clean water to secondary and tertiary education for their children. The problem however is that it is the least popular form of aid spending. The expectation in Whitehall is that direct cash transfers will largely be handled by Dfid in-house in any case, reducing the amount that the department hands out to aid agencies in any case.

It would be surprising in the extreme if the excesses of sexual harassment and abuses of power that are present in workplaces across the country, in Hollywood, and in Westminster miraculously stopped at the doors of the international development organisations. But the particular problem is that a man who tries to take advantage of the vulnerabilities of junior female staff – complaints were also made about van Hauwermeiren by women working at Oxfam – is put in an even greater position of power and opportunity when working in a country hit by natural disaster, war or both.

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The danger for supporters of international aid is that the new mood of greater accountability and justice for the victims of social abuse comes at a time when British aid spending is a subject of fierce political debate. The opponents of the UK’s foreign aid target, including Mordaunt’s predecessor, Priti Patel have taken no time in widening the issue to the wider question of the UK’s aid commitment, with Patel writing in the Telegraph that Dfid officials ignored her warnings that sexual abuse was occurring in the aid sector.

At the same time, as Henry Zeffman details also in today’s Times, it appears that Boris Johnson is winning his battle to re-establish the Foreign Office’s mastery over Dfid. That matters because in the long-term it increases the chances that the department, which is a world-leader for transparency in how and why it spends aid money, will be folded back into the Foreign Office.  That transparency isn’t a hallmark of departments that are being given increasingly large wodges of the UK’s development spend, including the FCO itself and the Ministry of Defence.

You can see a perfect storm for opponents of the UK’s aid commitment: the post-Weinstein tide of revelations hits the UK’s NGOs, at the same time as the Dfid Secretary is moving more of Dfid’s spending into areas that command increasingly small levels of public support, while the government as a whole ceases to argue for the 0.7 per cent target as David Cameron’s did. The inconclusive election result helped to preserve the 0.7 per cent target in law. But events could still hand its opponents in the Conservative Party a decisive advantage.

This article was amended on 12 February to remove a reference to van Hauwermeiren being employed by Cafod.