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Why defunding Oxfam won't stop abuse

War & Peace
Haiti
MeTooNGOs

I first heard about the Oxfam scandal from my dad, who sent me a punctuation-heavy message to ask if I had seen the news: ‘What disgusting behaviour! It’s shocking!!’ My lack of shock baffled him – and not a single colleague or friend who I’ve spoken to in the following days has expressed surprise either.

It’s because we’ve all seen it in the field– the 50 year-old logistics manager sitting at the bar with an impossibly young local girl on his knee; the group of white men and black women at the one casino in town, whiskeys and coke on the Formica table top; the older woman on the beach, a twenty-something local man holding her handbag for her.

This throws the legitimacy of the industry into question – if aid workers are not good then how can we trust that our money is also doing good?

This behaviour is not new and it is not the first time that it’s been called out – neither is it unique to Oxfam. Nor is it necessarily more prevalent in the aid industry than any other. What makes it shocking is that aid is predicated on the idea of inherent morality – of ‘doing good’ and assuming that aid workers, by proxy, must also be good.

This idea of altruistic morality – which the aid sector promotes through its branding and advertising – is damaging because it erodes any true sense of accountability for the individual and the institution.

Should this moral code be seen to be broken, such as through the disgusting ‘Caligula orgies’ in Haiti, it throws the legitimacy of the industry into question. If aid workers are not good then how can we trust that our money is also doing good?

A friend working in South Sudan explained to me how this ‘morality’ leads to a double-bind that prevents aid workers from taking responsibility for their actions: ‘When we fail the community [that we serve] individually, we take comfort in the fact that the aid sector as a whole is doing good. When we fail the community collectively, we take comfort in the fact that we are moral beings individually. We never feel fully accountable, either individually or collectively.’

The Oxfam scandal lies not in the fact that some aid workers are sexual predators – if the post-Weinstein revelations have taught us anything it’s that sexual predators dwell in every walk of life – but in the lack of accountability.

This is partly due to the short-term and global nature of aid work. Roland van Hauwermeiren, Country Director for Oxfam Haiti in 2011 who was caught inviting prostitutes to his home in Port-au-Prince, simply resigned and took a new job – this time as Country Director for Action Contre La Faim in Bangladesh. Short contracts and country-hopping are common – a CV like his raised no red flags.

His case is not unique. I have had first-hand experience of similar situations. In one such case an NGO staff member was accused of sexual assault and fired, only to be hired by another organization operating in the same country. In another, a staff member was simply moved internally from one country base to another. The fear of reputational damage, and the subsequent loss of funding, is so strong that in most cases it outweighs the necessity to hold individuals accountable; whistle-blowers are ignored and/or fired, sexual abusers are allowed to slink quietly through the back door, and the rights of the populations that we are here to serve are disregarded.

This sudden threat to arbitrarily remove all funding won’t stop abuse from happening, it will reinforce the culture of silence

Another issue is how the diplomatic immunity of UN staff in the countries they operate in has contributed to a culture of impunity in the humanitarian industry as a whole – which largely operates in a vacuum in which ‘expat’ workers see themselves as outside of and exempt from the legal and social codes of the populations they work among. The assumption is that they can stand above the law.

This is why the UK Secretary for International Development Penny Mordaunt’s suggestion of defunding Oxfam as punishment for lacking ‘moral leadership’ is absurd. This sudden threat to arbitrarily remove all funding won’t stop abuse from happening, it will reinforce the culture of silence; if NGOs become even more afraid of disclosing details of abuse for fear of government reprisals, the practice of hiding abuse will continue.

Sexual misconduct in the aid industry is pervasive and systemic. Rather than making an example of Oxfam, the government, and the sector itself, should be encouraging transparency and responsibility.

Sally Hill is an aid worker currently working in Somalia. Her name has been changed.

Pics: Petterik Wiggers/Panos Pictures, CC-BY-2.0; Expert Infantry

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