Trust takes years to build, seconds to break and forever to repair. Oxfam has become the latest institution to understand this. The charity was only last year using its 75th anniversary to celebrate its history of good works. And its status as a much-loved institution and global brand. Now it’s on the ropes – the reason: aid workers sexually exploited young women in impoverished Haiti.
Oxfam: The Tip Of The Iceberg?
Is what happened in Haiti the tip of the iceberg of sexual abuse committed by humanitarian workers? A Save the Children report suggested many abuses almost ten years ago. Yet officials did nothing about it.
Do calls for decriminalizing prostitution, such as those made by Amnesty International help? Its policy is to recognise the agency and capacity of adults engaged in consensual sex work. Doubtless such people would protest that Haiti is a quite different matter. You can’t compare the exploitation of women in a disaster zone to regular prostitution. But where is the line between exploitation and consent? Is it not also exploitative to pay for sex with an impoverished single mother, or a junkie? Men must not leverage their power to win sexual favours from vulnerable women. Does Amnesty suggest that sex work is fine, even empowering; despite prostitutes often being the most vulnerable women of all? As the Oxfam scandal illustrates, both these ideas cannot be true.
Aid Workers As Saviours
My theory is that compassion doesn’t motivate some of Aid Workers. Rather a small minority are more interested in a thirst for adventure. People who travel the world chasing trauma as though it’s a sport. They arrive in locations where lives are being destroyed and suddenly every night is party night. They’re hailed as heroes for their life-saving work. But who are they accountable to? Hired on short-term contracts, they jump from aid organisation to aid organisation. People rarely report abuses for fear of reprisals in this job, or the next one.
Putting Oxfam Into Context
There is misconduct in all sorts of organisations. And the numbers involved at Oxfam are not large. Seven workers left after the this incident from a global workforce of 5000 staff. Of course, we need urgent reforms to stop such abuse. But we shouldn’t dismantle the entire aid sector. There is huge value in humanitarian aid when disasters strike. Oxfam and other charities don’t only help out in a crisis. They also run long-term development projects, aimed at ending global poverty. No one would want to question such a laudable aim.
The cosy relationship: Government And Development Charities
Whitehall has stumped up the cash from the ring-fenced aid budget. Then development charities have spent it, but who questions what it has been spent on? And does aid simply entrench poverty? Does it enable governments to abdicate their own responsibilities to fund healthcare, education and infrastructure? A virtuous glow has protected the aid sector from scrutiny. And this engenders a complacency in it. We must use this opportunity to ask questions about whether the £13bn Britain spends each year is money well spent. And how, we should check and test the success of projects it funds.
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