The man at the centre of a sexual exploitation scandal at aid agency Oxfam was dismissed by another British NGO seven years earlier for similar misconduct, IRIN has found.
A former colleague reveals that Roland van Hauwermeiren was sent home from his job in Liberia in 2004 after her complaints prompted an investigation into sex parties there with young local women. Despite this, van Hauwermeiren was recruited by Oxfam in Chad less than two years later and went on to work for them in Haiti, and then in Bangladesh for Action contre la Faim.
The Swedish government’s aid department, alerted in 2008, also missed an opportunity to bring his behaviour to light and even went ahead that year to fund Oxfam’s Chad project, under his management, to the tune of almost $750,000.
Last week, The Times reported that van Hauwermeiren was ousted from Oxfam for sexual exploitation and abuse when he worked in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake. Oxfam’s deputy CEO, Penny Lawrence, has since resigned, and the charity has faced a deluge of criticism, both for the abuse itself and its handling of the staff member. It now faces an enquiry by the charity regulator.
Agencies in the humanitarian sector face serious challenges in tackling sexual exploitation and abuse, and some argue, at least today, that Oxfam’s safeguarding procedures are stronger than those of many other aid agencies.
Seeing the Times article about van Hauwermeiren, Swedish civil servant and former aid worker Amira Malik Miller was shaken to read about the Haiti case, which pertained to alleged parties and orgies in 2011, seven years after her own experiences of him in Liberia. She couldn’t believe he was still active in the aid world, especially after she had blown the whistle on him and his colleagues, not once but twice.
“Oh my God, he’s been doing this for 14 years,” she remembers thinking. “He just goes around the system… from Liberia to Chad, to Haiti, to Bangladesh. Someone should have checked properly,” she told IRIN.
On two previous occasions, she thought she had done enough to stop his predatory behaviour.
Malik Miller told IRIN how her initial complaints way back in 2004 led to van Hauwermeiren being pushed out of his job as Liberia country director of UK charity Merlin, a medical group now merged with Save the Children. An internal investigation into sexual exploitation and misconduct led to his departure, several Merlin staff members confirmed.
In 2004, Malik Miller was being briefed in London for a new job: assistant to the Liberia country director and reporting officer there for the medical group Merlin. She had been warned by a colleague that there might be some “dodgy” things going on; she says it was clear they were related to sexual behaviour.
Soon on the plane to the West African country, she was picked up at the airport personally by her new boss: van Hauwermeiren. Initially grateful for his hospitable gesture, her confidence quickly evaporated after he took a call during the drive and said to the person on the other end: “It’s a green light”. She told IRIN it was “really uncomfortable” as she “definitely felt that it was about me”.
Positioned in van Hauwermeiren’s Monrovia office as the most junior expatriate staff member, Malik Miller couldn’t help but notice unusual patterns in his workday. “He was away a lot,” she explained, often returning to work with fresh clothes or wet hair.
Assigned to stay in one of two guest houses rented by Merlin, she shared one nicknamed “London” with several colleagues, while van Hauwermeiren and a medical manager were in another called “Brussels”.
One weekend morning, two or three weeks into her assignment, Malik Miller found one of her housemates, the financial manager, joking with and fondling a young Liberian woman in the kitchen. The woman appeared young, she said. Immediately, she took him aside and explained she wasn’t going to tolerate sex work in the house.
“It can’t go on where I’m living,” she told him. On the Monday morning, she emailed a formal complaint to the Merlin head office in London.
From that point on, Malik Miller said it was “quite intimidating” – the four senior managers “constantly had their eye on me”. When Merlin’s human resources officer called to check up on her (which they did frequently), she pretended it was her mother or sister on the line and stepped away so she wouldn’t be overheard.
Within a fortnight, Merlin had sent a senior two-person team to Monrovia. In the course of their investigation, they spoke to other aid groups, Liberian employees of Merlin, and the expatriate staff and management.
One of Merlin’s investigating team, a former senior manager, confirmed Malik Miller’s account. He told IRIN he and his colleague rapidly reached their conclusion: the management team (“four middle-aged men”) were all engaged in paying for sex. They had been using Merlin cars to ferry women to and from the NGO’s two guest houses for paid sex and parties involving sex workers.
“It was obvious,” he explained. “So many people had seen them with a succession of young local girls.” He said it was impossible to say if some of the women were under 18. On being told the findings of the probe, van Hauwermeiren “denied everything” but nevertheless agreed to an immediate resignation.
The investigating manager said Merlin lacked sufficient proof to pursue a prosecution, and that the report from Malik Miller was the first he’d heard of the Monrovia misconduct. However, a third source, an aid worker familiar with the episode, countered this, saying the London head office had already been aware of the allegations.
Van Hauwermeiren and the rest of the Liberia management team were “shameless”, she told IRIN. “They acted like it was the most normal thing in the world.”
In the wake of the civil war, “the behaviour at that time in Monrovia was insane,” she recalled. “I think Merlin were a bit worse, but plenty of UN types [were] doing the same. Lots of sleazy bars, girls on the beach…”
“Tip of the iceberg”
Such behaviour may have been rife then in Liberia, but the former Merlin manager who conducted the 2004 investigation told IRIN that sexual exploitation in the aid sector remains an enormous problem to this day.
The latest revelations were just the “tip of the iceberg”, he said, calling for more to be done to professionalise the sector. He argued that the lack of a professional certification body means there is no central monitoring of individuals, while aid agencies are compromised by trying to protect their reputations.
He said it was “staggering” that van Hauwermeiren was able to find re-employment with Oxfam and that he felt “real regret” that his actions didn’t prevent Oxfam recruiting the Belgian. He claimed he couldn’t recall the names and further careers of the other three managers but said they had all been replaced and left Merlin.
Malik Miller, meanwhile, told IRIN she was partly satisfied with the response of the head office and believed her original complaint had at least been taken seriously. “I felt supported,” she said.
However, she was left thinking that the disciplinary action taken had been a bit weak. Van Hauwermeiren had been allowed to resign, while the housemate who had brought a sex worker to the guest house was told to apologise and allowed to stay on.
She started to doubt her own resolve, thinking: “Maybe it is OK… if we can’t prove that they’re under 18, hey ho…. maybe it’s me overreacting.”
She recalled her deeper concern at the time being about this apparent “culture of complacency” that allowed men, ostensibly working for charitable causes, to conduct this behaviour more or less in the open.
In the sector, it’s “a system failure” and a “lack of responsibility to protect children and vulnerable women,” she said. The transactional sex was widely known by colleagues, male and female, who seemed to have accepted it as normal.
Four years later, Malik Miller was at her desk in the Swedish government’s aid department. A file landed on her desk: an application for funding from Oxfam in Chad. She opened it and was appalled to find van Hauwermeiren’s name listed as the country director.
Per Byman, then humanitarian director of the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (SIDA), confirmed to IRIN that he had been alerted in 2008 by Malik Miller to van Hauwermeiren’s previous record at Merlin.
He told IRIN he had taken advice from SIDA’s legal department on what to do about it, but couldn’t recall the outcome. He said he was “disgusted” at reading the recent news of van Hauwermeiren’s behaviour.
SIDA’s website reports a grant of $748,537 to Oxfam for Chad in late 2008. Documents related to the grant include the following: “Oxfam will work with women in their communities to enable them to have recognised value in the family due to increased financial and social capital.”
Asked by IRIN whether it knew of the Liberia case, Oxfam did not answer the question and provided a link to a previous statement. 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.
Save the Children’s press office was unable to comment in detail before publication, but pointed out its takeover of Merlin was in 2013. IRIN was unable immediately to reach Geoff Prescott, who was chief executive of Merlin at the time of the 2004 allegations.
Looking back, Malik Miller said: “My experience of whistle-blowing has not been negative. I felt like I was listened to, and supported by colleagues, including senior managers. At least that side of the system worked. It’s the follow-through that was lacking, and allows people like Roland [van Hauwermeiren] to continue to work in the sector.”
Liberian former aid worker Jeanine Cooper told IRIN she was “shocked” to hear of the case and outraged to see how “these predators are recycled in a cozy system”.
“[Back in 2004], the NGO scene was absolutely horrible; the UN too – impunity all around,” said Cooper, who worked with the UN in several countries.
The aid worker familiar with the Merlin case, who asked to remain anonymous, told IRIN her perception of what is normal in the sector needed readjustment after the experience of working with van Hauwermeiren.
“My next field posting after Liberia was post- (2004 Indian Ocean) tsunami,” she said. “And I remember thinking, ‘oh, there are some old unattractive white men NOT having sex with prostitutes – weird’.