Oxfam’s disgraced Haiti official left earlier post over ‘sex parties’

Roland van Hauwermeiren was forced out of Liberia role with charity Merlin over sex worker allegations in 2004, before working for Oxfam

Roland van Hauwermeiren was repeatedly able to find work in the aid sector despite twice agreeing to resign over sexual misconduct allegations.

Roland van Hauwermeiren was repeatedly able to find work in the aid sector despite twice agreeing to resign over sexual misconduct allegations.
Photograph: Peter Nicholls/Reuters

The aid official embroiled in a sexual misconduct scandal at the charity Oxfam had allegedly been forced out by another British charity seven years earlier, following an investigation into the use of sex workers.

Roland van Hauwermeiren agreed to leave his job working for the charity Merlin in Liberia in 2004, following an investigation into sex parties with local women, according to the humanitarian news website Irin. Merlin, a medical emergency relief charity, has since merged with Save the Children.

Van Hauwermeiren went on to work for Oxfam in Chad and Haiti, where the charity’s staff are alleged to have used sex workers. An investigation by the Times found van Hauwermeiren resigned from his role as the head of mission in Haiti in 2011, after admitting that prostitutes had visited his villa there. He later worked for the French charity Action Against Hunger as country director in Bangladesh.

The UK’s Charity Commission has since launched a statutory inquiry into Oxfam amid concerns it might not have “fully and frankly disclosed” all details about the Haiti allegations. The charity’s deputy chief executive, Penny Lawrence, has also resigned, saying she was “desperately sorry”.

According to a report by Irin, concerns relating to van Hauwermeiren and his colleagues were reported twice by the Swedish civil servant and former aid worker Amira Malik Miller. Miller alerted both Merlin and the Swedish government’s aid department, which went on to give almost $750,000 (£540,000) towards Oxfam’s Chad mission, under van Hauwermeiren’s management.

“He just goes around the system … from Liberia to Chad, to Haiti, to Bangladesh. Someone should have checked properly,” she told Irin.

In 2004, Miller made a formal complaint to Merlin’s head office in London, after witnessing a colleague fondling a young local woman in the charity’s guesthouse, according to Irin. An internal investigation found that the management team, four men, were all paying for sex. The investigation also found they had been using Merlin cars to drive sex workers to and from parties at the charity’s guest house. Van Hauwermeiren denied the findings, but agreed to resign.

Miller told Irin that she felt the disciplinary action taken could have been stronger. One employee who had paid for sex was told to apologise and allowed to keep his job.

Miller reported concerns about van Hauwermeiren’s behaviour again four years later, in 2008, when working for the Swedish government’s aid department. After reading a funding application from Oxfam in Chad, she saw that van Hauwermeiren was listed as country director, and alerted the then humanitarian director of the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida), Per Byman. Sida gave a $748,537 grant to Oxfam for Chad in the same year.

In response to the allegations, Oxfam said the sheer numbers of NGOs operating meant that it was not possible to prevent those found guilty of exploitation from finding jobs elsewhere. The chairwoman of Oxfam Great Britain’s council of trustees, Caroline Thomson, said: “As recent events have shown, sexual abuse is a blight on society and Oxfam is not immune. Indeed, NGOs that work in often fragile and unstable environments can become targets for abusers.

“We have made significant improvements since 2011 in our efforts to expose and eliminate sexual abuse but we know we have to be vigilant and to continue to improve if we are to constantly live up to the high standards rightly expected of us. It is not sufficient to be appalled by the behaviour of our former staff – we must and will learn from it and use it as a spur to improvement.”

Save the Children said that it is unable to comment on the case, adding that it merged with Merlin in 2013, nine years after the incident.

The Charity Commission of England and Wales told Irin it had no records for Merlin in 2004, so it couldn’t comment on whether it was alerted to the case. Last year, the regulator asked charities to report any previously withheld cases of abuse.