Former International Development Secretary Clare Short has attacked the “hysterical” media reporting of the Oxfam sex harassment scandal and claimed the whole aid sector has been “smeared” by the coverage.
In an interview with BBC Radio 4′s The Week In Westminster, Short said that development charity workers were no different from the rest of the population, declaring that one in ten men use a prostitute at some point in their lives.
Her words came as agency bosses revealed on Friday that they will pursue criminal checks on all their staff in Britain, saying in an open letter that they are “truly sorry” for a series of scandals sweeping the sector.
Oxfam’s under-fire chief executive Mark Goldring was among 22 charity heads who pledged to conduct “rigorous background checks” in the UK, amid widespread allegations of sexual misconduct in high street shops.
Deputy Unicef director Justin Forsyth resigned from his post this week after it emerged he had sent inappropriate texts to female staff when he ran the Save the Children charity.
Save the Children’s former executive Brendan Cox also quit his role in two charities set up in his wife Jo’s memory, admitting that he had behaved inappropriately towards women in the charity.
But Short, who was the very first Secretary of State for International Development when Tony Blair created the post in 1997, hit out at the raft of recent criticism of Oxfam, Save the Children and other agencies.
“I think something hysterical is going on. Of the ten thousand Oxfam staff, one, plus a few more, used prostitutes - horrible - in Haiti and were sacked in 2011,” she said.
“That’s the story. And now Oxfam is smeared, international development is diminished. It’s crazy.
“Of course I don’t like the idea of anyone in a disaster area using prostitutes. But - what is the estimate? - 11% of British men between the ages of 16 and 74 at some time at least once used a prostitute.
“That’s something like three million men in Britain, lots of vulnerable young women here. Yes, let’s attend to it, and 80% of those young women would like to get out of what they’re doing.
″So this is no excuse, but it’s a crazy, crazy, hysterical, distorted story. Very hard not to think it’s part of the anti-development, anti-aid agenda.”
“And yet underneath it there is a big question that feel strongly about, which is people who go off to disasters or doing aid work live high on the hog, have flashy cars, live in posh houses and become too elite and too superior.
“And I think we should be looking always to build up the capacity of local people so that they are the first responders in an emergency.
“And when we are working on long-term development we should be building the capacity to do things for itself not sending in these crusaders. There’s a very important debate to be had. But the story I think has got ill-motive.
“The way it’s run and run and everyone’s picked it up, there’s something wrong with our media.”
When challenged that the recent revelations were part of the #MeToo movement and were legitimate given the testimony of the victims of harassment, Short replied there were men using prostitutes in “pretty well every organisation in the world”.
“Some not all men, some are abusing their position when they are powerful. And #MeToo is challenging all that. We are probably living in a time of big change that’s very welcome. I’m all in favour of that.
“But I’m not in favour of talking about something that happened in 2011 when the people who did it were sacked, as though Oxfam is the most evil organisation in the world.”
Short also seized on the danger of Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson’s recent claim that splitting overseas development from the Foreign Office was a ‘colossal mistake’.
“The Foreign Office hated DfID from being set up, briefed against it. Because the Foreign Office wants to control the money. The funny thing is the Foreign Office is really full of superb diplomats, it’s obsessed with having money and it’s really useless at managing money. That’s the true story.”