It is hard to imagine a more disturbing and damaging story for a humanitarian organization to have to deal with than the one last week that alleged staff of Oxfam, one of Britain’s largest charities, committed “sexual misconduct” in Haiti in 2011, including hiring sex workers. To make things worse, it was also alleged that some of the women involved were underage. It is alarming and upsetting because Oxfam is regarded as a beacon in the world of humanitarian and disaster relief; hence there has been an expectation for it to set the highest standards of conduct — and especially so in a disaster-stricken location, as Haiti was eight years ago, following the earthquake in which 220,000 people lost their lives and 1.5 million were displaced.Such conditions leave many, especially women and children, vulnerable to all sorts of exploitation, including the actions of sexual predators. There is an obvious expectation that, under these conditions, humanitarian organizations, including INGOs, NGOs and UN agencies, will be the protectors of the vulnerable, not their exploiters and victimizers.
For Oxfam, these recent revelations leave it with a mountain to climb. It must rebuild its reputation and credibility, not only among its funders and the wider public, but particularly among those whom it is assigned to help.
What is worse, though, is that the entire field of humanitarian and foreign aid has been seriously damaged by this sordid affair. Further stories of similar behavior some years ago by an Oxfam team in Chad — and an admission by the international aid group Medecins Sans Frontieres that last year it had to act on 24 cases of sexual harassment or abuse and fired 19 of its employees — cannot help but make us wonder just how widespread this behavior might be among aid workers.
There is no escaping the fact that these revelations also cast a long shadow on the entire humanitarian operations world in terms of accountability and public scrutiny. That it has taken seven years for the Oxfam story to come to light is disturbing in itself. And it is not only the NGOs that are under the microscope, but international organizations in general, including those affiliated with the United Nations. Kathryn Bolkovac, who went to Bosnia as part of a UN mission, disclosed in her 2011 book “The Whistleblower” the direct involvement of UN peacekeepers and US State Department officials in the sexual enslavement of young women trafficked there mainly from Russia and Ukraine. Every time a story like this hits the headlines it produces shockwaves, but quite clearly not enough is ever done to prevent the repetition of such atrocities.
However, as justified as much of the criticism of Oxfam and other organizations may be, it would be unwise to let this undermine, or let it be used to undermine, the work of a huge number of NGOs that are doing exceptional humanitarian work, domestically and internationally. They fill a huge gap in the global society where governments are failing to act and private businesses are reluctant to pull their weight, and where in many cases both are part of the problem rather than the solution. INGOs and NGOs at their best are devoted, competent and agile, and ready to carry out humanitarian missions with a minimum of fuss and at a moment’s notice. But they are also, sadly, part of a global society where misogyny is a prevailing aspect of life and a phenomenon that we seem to be very slow in ridding ourselves of. And, unfortunately, in areas hit by disasters, natural or man-made, it is even easier for the minority of rotten apples in these organizations to cynically take advantage of breakdowns in the rule of law and exploit the most vulnerable.
The Oxfam sexual misconduct case highlights that something is rotten in the aid sector and organizations must put in place procedures to prevent such acts occurring and take appropriate action when they do.
At the beginning of the Oxfam affair, the organization unreservedly apologised and was rightly contrite and remorseful. It announced that it was setting up a high-level independent commission to look into the culture and practices of the organization, with a mandate to investigate past and current claims of sexual exploitation; to set up a global database of accredited referees to ensure sex offenders cannot falsify references and reoffend at other charities; and to facilitate a safe “whistleblowing mechanism.”
However, Oxfam then went on the counter-attack. Its chief executive Mark Goldring revealed the other side of the organization, unwisely downplaying the severity of the behavior of some of its staff in Haiti, and calling into question the sincerity of the organization’s critics. He told the UK’s Guardian newspaper that the attacks on Oxfam are “out of proportion to the level of culpability.” He might be correct to point out that some critics with a broader anti-aid agenda are indeed “gunning” for the humanitarian aid world. Yet some of his remarks, such as “the intensity and the ferocity of the attack makes you wonder, what did we do… We murdered babies in their cots?” are extremely insensitive and make one wonder if the organization can learn from its wrongdoing under its current leadership. Goldring has since apologized for his remarks.
This is not about those who are “gunning” for the wonderful work of the many thousands of aid workers around the world who save lives, provide medical help and education, and defend the human rights of millions everywhere. It is about the exploitation of women and children in general, as the #MeToo and the #TimesUp campaigns have demonstrated so poignantly, painfully, and also so effectively, especially in areas hit by humanitarian disasters. There is more than enough evidence of sexual assaults by those who work for UN agencies, INGOs and NGOs, including on other aid workers. Something is rotten in the state of humanitarian aid, at least in some parts, and acknowledging it is the first step. This needs to be followed up, in the words of Megan Nobert, an aid worker who was herself sexually assaulted by a colleague, by measures to ensure that all aid organizations “have responsive policies and procedures in place to prevent acts of sexual violence and take appropriate action when it does.”
- Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations at Regent’s University London, where he is head of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program. He is also an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media.Twitter: @YMekelberg