Oxfam’s deputy chief executive has resigned after it emerged that concerns about the behaviour of senior staff in Haiti and Chad were raised with the charity but not properly handled.
Penny Lawrence, who was the international programmes director when the concerns were reported, quit on Monday.
Oxfam’s chief executive, Mark Goldring, said: “Penny feels that happened on her watch and she takes responsibility.
“More stories have come out over the weekend, which have suggested people did report concerns in Chad and Haiti which were not properly acted on at the time.”
Her resignation came after a meeting between senior Oxfam staff and the international development secretary, Penny Mordaunt, who has threatened to remove the charity’s state funding.
Lawrence said: “It is now clear that these allegations, involving the use of prostitutes and which related to behaviour of both the country director and members of his team in Chad, were raised before he moved to Haiti. I am ashamed that this happened on my watch and I take full responsibility.
“I am desperately sorry for the harm and distress that this has caused to Oxfam’s supporters, the wider development sector and most of all, the vulnerable people who trusted us.”
Earlier, Haiti demanded Oxfam and the British government identify the aid workers who paid for sex in the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake, calling for them to be prosecuted “in the international system”, and said it was considering legal action against the charity. It is alleged that those who were paid by the staff may have been underage.
Bocchit Edmond, Haiti’s ambassador to the UK, said the country was “shocked and appalled” by the way Oxfam allowed the senior workers in question to leave the country without reporting them to the Haitian authorities.
“For the executive to know these crimes were committed and to allow those people to leave without informing the authorities is wrong,” he told the Guardian. “We might be dealing with a paedophile ring. Prostitution is illegal and we believe they may have been underage kids.”
On Sunday, Oxfam’s chief executive, Mark Goldring, said the charity did not report its workers to Haitian police because it feared this would endanger the women involved.
But Edmond described this as “wrong and really insulting”. “How do they know the women would have been endangered?” he said. “Oxfam should recognise they failed and showed a lack of leadership.”
An Oxfam spokesperson said: “Consideration was given at the time to contacting the police, but the legal advice we received in Haiti was that given the nature of the allegations, especially with the continued upheaval and chaos post the earthquake, it was extremely unlikely that any action would be taken.”
The former international development secretary Priti Patel claimed the Oxfam scandal was the “tip of the iceberg”. She told BBC Radio 5 Live that people in the Department for International Development knew about wider problems of sexual abuse in the aid sector.
Oxfam is also braced for an impact on donations from the public after days of escalating stories about the conduct of its workers.
Any hopes the charity’s leadership had that the scandal might quickly subside were dashed when it was reported in the Observer that Oxfam staff in Chad had also paid sex workers and when Oxfam’s annual report resurfaced, showing it dealt with 87 allegations of sexual abuse by staff in 2016-17.
It emerged on Monday that Oxfam managers were concerned about the behaviour of two of the men who were involved in the Haiti scandal while they were working in Chad.
An internal document about Roland van Hauwermeiren, who later became the Haiti director, reported by the Times, said “recruitment [process] identified some weaknesses in his management (eg gender issues)” and reportedly asked: “Were sufficient checks put in place to monitor this?”
Further documents showed Van Hauwermeiren handled at least four complaints of sexual harassment or misconduct against another worker, but allowed him to stay in his job, the newspaper reported. The concerns included the use of sex workers and sexual harassment of female colleagues. The two were among seven men dismissed or allowed to resign by Oxfam in 2011, following allegations including paying sex workers.
An Oxfam spokesperson said: “We are shocked and dismayed about the latest revelations from Chad.
“While we can’t corroborate the information at the moment, it highlights again unacceptable behaviour by a small number of people and the need for a sector-wide approach to tackle the problem.”
Oxfam has proposed changes including a new whistleblowing procedure and stronger vetting for staff.
Goldring said if funding were cut by the UK government, Oxfam would “carry on delivering as best we can, because that’s what the people of Yemen, Syria, Congo and indeed Haiti need and deserve”.
The charity is also facing a day of talks with the Charity Commission this week. The regulator’s director of investigations, Michelle Russell, said it had not been told the full story at the time Oxfam first investigated the misconduct allegations in 2011.
“We’ve made very clear that had the details of what has come out over the last few days been told to us, we would have dealt with this very differently,” she told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
“We were categorically told there was no abuse of beneficiaries involved in the allegations. Nor were we told that there were issues or possible issues around possible crimes, including those involving minors.”