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No Place for Moral Vacuums – the Crisis of Humanitarian Aid

Those who follow international news would have found it hard to miss the recent scandal faced by one of Britain’s biggest aid agencies, Oxfam. An investigation by The Times claimed that the charity covered up misconduct by senior aid workers in Haiti, including the then-country director Roland van Hauwermeiren. The following blowup has damaged the charity’s public image and raises more general questions about the need to re-evaluate the structure and the functioning of the aid system.

Back in 2011, a whistleblower made contact with the charity’s chief executive Barbara Stocking and shared a horrifying story of alleged bullying, harassment, intimidation of Haitian and international staff as well as serious sexual misconduct. The reaction of the charity was to order an investigation, however they managed to keep the content and the findings from the public. The Times pieced together an account of what happened through interviews with some of the sources and from leaked documents.

Oxfam was engaged in an international relief effort after the massive earthquake of magnitude 7.3 on January 2010; which claimed more than 220,000 lives, 300,000 injured and left 1.5 million people homeless. This devastated the country and resulted in an immense humanitarian crisis. According to the investigation, the whistleblower reported disturbing allegations about the sexual behavior of senior colleagues. The group of male aid workers was residing at a charity residence – that they called “the whorehouse”- near Port-au-Prince, where they threw parties with prostitutes.

According to the investigation report, the then-country director Roland van Hauwermeiren admitted having prostitutes visit his residence, but rather than be sacked he got a deal from the charity. He would be allowed to resign and given one month’s notice if he co-operated with the investigation. There was no mention of disciplinary action. Six other men left Oxfam as a result of the investigation, all experienced international aid workers in the employment of Oxfam GB.

The charity did not comment on specific contents of the allegations, but did confirm that none was referred to authorities in Haiti. This raises serious questions on the findings of the report, given that prostitution is illegal in Haiti. Oxfam’s spokesman said: “The legal advice we received in Haiti was that given the nature of the allegations, especially with the continued upheaval and chaos, it was extremely unlikely that any action would be taken.”

At the end of the inquiry, on September 5 2011, Oxfam issued a press statement reporting that a small number of staff had been involved in instances of misconduct. However, they stressed that it was not related to fraud and did not affect the millions the charity fundraised following the earthquake in Haiti. No mention was made of the exploitative sexual misconduct that the whistleblower had reported.

This triggered a reaction from the Haitian government that threatened the charity’s right to operate in the country; and from the British government, which stated that Oxfam had a long way to go to restore trust with the public and the people it serves. Also, the charity’s future government funding is now at risk. Britain’s international development secretary Penny Mordaunt said in a statement: “Oxfam has agreed to withdraw from bidding for any new UK Government funding until DFID is satisfied that they can meet the high standards we expect of our partners”. In the previous financial year, Oxfam GB received $44 million in funding from the UK’s Department for International Development.

It is saddening that the Haiti scandal is just one case in an ever-growing list. Only a month ago, a 46-member police unit was removed from the camp of displaced civilians in Wau, South Sudan where they were working. They got confined to base after a preliminary investigation into allegations of sexual exploitation, indicating that some members allegedly engaged in transactional sex. “This is a clear breach of the U.N. and UNMISS Code of Conduct which prohibits sexual relationships with vulnerable individuals, including all beneficiaries of assistance,” was claimed by the United Nations Mission in South Sudan in a statement. Around the same time, the organization Plan International claimed that from July 2016 to June 2017 it had six confirmed cases of sexual abuse and exploitation of children by staff or associates, as well as nine incidents of sexual harassment or sexual misconduct by staff.

It’s likely this is only the tip of the iceberg. So, what now? Since this is a sector-wide problem and clearly the guidelines, policies and procedures already in place did not prevent this; it is time to seek solutions. Many initiatives have grown out of frustration and hope to change things. Code Blue is one of them. Oxfam itself is creating an Independent Commission on Sexual Misconduct, Accountability and Culture Change and they recently announced Zainab Bangura, a former under-secretary general of the United Nations, and Katherine Sierra, a former vice-president of the World Bank, as co-chairs. The Independent Commission will present a report with recommendations on what more Oxfam and the wider aid sector can do- to create a culture of zero tolerance for any kind of sexual harassment, abuse or exploitation.

Source: AIDG, Flickr

A crucial component being affected are the donors. Less than a week after the scandal made the headlines, Oxfam had lost 7000 regular donors. Lacking resources due to donor disappointment is one of the biggest incentives in the aid industry to change things. But there is also a more profound crisis which started a while ago, with voices questioning the aid structure for creating cycles of dependency while undermining local economies. For example, Bill Clinton apologized for the U.S policies forcing Haiti to drop tariffs on imported subsidized U.S. rice during his time as the United Nations Special Envoy to Haiti; it had a devastating impact on the Haitian agricultural sector. “It may have been good for some of my farmers in Arkansas, but it has not worked. It was a mistake” he said in 2010. “I have to live every day with the consequences of the lost capacity to produce a rice crop in Haiti to feed those people, because of what I did.” The documentary Povery, Inc also points out how aid can misfire. Among others, it shows how a Haitian solar power company suddenly faced a hard time when an American NGO raised funds to donate solar panels after the earthquake. “It’s hard to compete with free”, says Alex Georges, co-founder of Enersa, the solar power firm interviewed.

Criticism has also been directed towards aid workers, alleging that they are guilty of being unaware of the contexts they work in. Critics mean that things are not going to change if aid workers see poor countries as a moral vacuum where everything is allowed.

Regardless of different positions, it is important to stop romanticizing the aid industry and associate it with an idea of inherent morality. Unfortunately, morality does not get transferred by proxy to aid workers. This awareness would make it easier for a true sense of transparency and accountability to emerge, both for the individual and the institution.

Johanna Caminati Engström

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