Search form

Last updated: 2 min 24 sec ago

You are here

Oxfam scandal is not about morality, but abuse of power

The past week has been a bad one for the international aid community, with the news that the UK charity Oxfam covered up an inquiry into some of its staff’s sexual exploitation of vulnerable women in Haiti in 2011, after the devastating earthquake there the year before. 
Many international aid workers are people with impressive skills who often make huge personal sacrifices because they are so dedicated to helping the world’s most vulnerable people. They often go into natural disaster areas, war and conflict zones and situations of extreme poverty when few others foreigners would do so. Throughout my career, many of the most experienced, committed, compassionate and inspiring people I have met have been international aid workers, including some with Oxfam. 
At the same time, it is important to acknowledge that there is a fundamental power disparity between international aid workers and the people they are trying to help. International aid organizations bring funds, supplies and services to populations that are deeply impoverished or are desperate in the aftermath of a natural disaster or war. This power disparity places a huge responsibility on the people delivering aid to behave in a manner that in no way abuses their power over vulnerable people. Many humanitarian workers are very aware of this, and many organizations, including Oxfam, have implemented measures to try to prevent sexual abuse. 
Nonetheless, where there is a power disparity, abuse will sometimes occur. That reality, however, is not an excuse for those who abuse their power or for organizations who fail to act to stop it. The Oxfam scandal is far from the only case in which an aid organization has failed to protect the vulnerable from abuse by aid workers, but it highlights several key problems. 
Two of these problems directly relate to the #metoo movement against sexual harassment and abuse. First, the Oxfam scandal is not about personal sexual immorality. It is about abuse of power and sexual exploitation. When these men entered a war zone or an area that had suffered a massive natural disaster, they were not dealing with women there on equal terms; they were in a position of power and relative wealth, and offered women in desperate circumstances money in exchange for sex. These women were part of the population the aid workers were supposed to be helping, so using them in this way constitutes a clear breach of trust. This is one of the #metoo movement’s key points — this type of behavior is not about personal morality, it is about abuse of power.

The response should not be to cut funds but rather to recognize the power disparity between aid organizations and the people they help.

Kerry Boyd Anderson

Another problem that the scandal highlights is the way that many organizations protect the men who are behaving badly. In the Oxfam case, the focus has been on one man in a leadership position: Roland van Hauwermeiren, who created an enabling environment and participated in the hiring of prostitutes. Van Hauwermeiren previously led a project team for the charity Merlin in Liberia, where a colleague reported that men on the team were hiring local women as prostitutes. After an internal investigation, he resigned. He later led Oxfam’s team in Chad, where similar accusations arose. Despite this, Oxfam put him in charge of a team in Haiti, where the behavior continued. Following an investigation, van Hauwermeiren resigned, but he then went on to work for Action Against Hunger in Bangladesh. 
As the #metoo movement has pointed out, this is a common cycle, in which a man abuses his position but is still able to continue his career, even in the face of evidence or allegations of misconduct. Somewhere in this system, repeatedly, his previous employers either protected him by allowing him to resign and then not sharing information about his behavior with other potential employers, or organizations hiring him failed to do sufficient checks on the person they were going to place in a position of power over vulnerable people. 
A final part of the scandal is the way Oxfam handled the Haiti situation in 2011. Oxfam reported the incident publicly and to the UK commission that oversees charities. However, the 2011 public statement is vague and appears to significantly downplay the problem. This should be a lesson to the many organizations inside and far beyond the aid community that tend to believe revealing some information while keeping other key facts quiet is a good way to be “transparent” while protecting the organization’s reputation. In the modern age of communication technology, this seldom works.
Oxfam is a large organization that employs many good people and does important work. It also is hardly alone in facing problems, and the scandal is highlighting other challenges within the international aid community. This situation is a tragedy for the people who were in need and were exploited. It also is a tragedy for the many truly dedicated aid workers who are working hard to assist the world’s vulnerable populations. If funding to aid agencies drops as a result, it will be a tragedy for the many people in the world who still desperately need help. 
The response should not be to cut funds but rather to recognize the power disparity between aid organizations and the people they help, and to enhance measures to ensure a zero-tolerance approach to any breach of trust.
Kerry Boyd Anderson is a writer and political risk consultant with more than 14 years’ experience as a professional analyst of international security issues and Middle East political and business risks. Her previous positions include deputy director for advisory with Oxford Analytica and managing editor of Arms Control Today.
Twitter: @KBAresearch