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Relief Aid Imperiled by Revelations of Sexual Abuse in the World’s Poorest Countries

A latrine project led and financed by Oxfam for displaced Haitians. (Getty)

by Joseph Braude

On February ninth, a front-page expose in London’s Times alleged that in the aftermath of Haiti’s devastating 2010 earthquake, senior staff at Oxfam — one of Great Britain’s foremost international relief organizations — paid Haitian women and possibly underage girls for sex. Among the alleged perpetrators was the chief of Oxfam’s operations in Haiti, Roland Van Hauwermeiren. Some of the crimes reportedly occurred in a villa which the charity had financed. The Times also alleged that Oxfam, after learning of the activity, sought to cover it up. The charges drew intense interest in the UK because Oxfam receives a substantial portion of its £408.6-million ($568.3-million) budget from the British government and its citizens.

In response, Oxfam condemned the crimes but initially denied attempting to conceal them. Further reporting confirmed, however, that Oxfam had failed to relay the facts with due transparency to the Charity Commission, the UK’s regulatory body for relief organizations. Nor had the group done much if anything to prevent Van Hauwermeiren and his fellow offenders from finding work at other charities after their departure from Oxfam. Amid the media frenzy driven by the Times story, Oxfam scrambled to implement quick reforms, only to face further accusations: Its staff may have similarly exploited women and girls on a 2006 mission to Chad, and a total of 268 claims of sexual exploitation and abuse have been made against the organization worldwide over the past nine years. Three days after the scandal broke, Oxfam deputy chief executive Penny Lawrence took full responsibility and resigned.

Subsequent fallout for the organization proved severe. The regulatory Charity Commission opened a formal inquiry, imperiling vast potential monies for Oxfam. The European Commission warned that it may halt its support altogether pending satisfactory reforms. Actress Minnie Driver and Archbishop Desmond Tutu quit their ambassadorial roles at the charity. Thousands of individual donors cancelled their payments. Though one Oxfam leadership figure decried the public outrage as “out of proportion to the level of culpability,” executive director Winnie Byanyima has adopted a posture of contrition. She pledged that the organization will “atone” and has begun to establish an independent commission of inquiry into the apparently broader institutional culture of sexual impropriety. Oxfam has also volunteered to stop bidding for UK government monies until it achieves ethical standards deemed satisfactory by the public.

New scandals meanwhile emerged at other charities. The medical relief organization Medicines Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders) revealed on February 14 that it had dismissed 19 staffers over allegations of sexual harassment or abuse. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) acknowledged that 21 of its global team had quit or been fired over paying for sex as well. Plan International UK confirmed six cases of sexual abuse of children. The list went on to include a British landmine-clearing charity and the relief organizations Action Aid and Water Aid. Former Save the Children CEO Justin Forsyth resigned his post as deputy director of UNICEF after admitting that he had sexually harassed three female employees in the past. In each case, the number of confirmed offenders amounted to a sliver of the global team: Medicins, one of the world’s largest NGOs, comprises 40,000 doctors; ICRC employs 17,000 worldwide. Public anger exceeded these proportions, however, because the profile of perpetrators skewed toward upper levels of the hierarchy while victims included some of the most disadvantaged people in the world.

Oxfam CEO Mark Goldring (centre), Oxfam Chair of Trustees (left) and Executive Director of Oxfam, Winnie Byanyima, (right) arrive to face a select committee hearing at Portcullis House on February 20, 2018 in London, England. (Getty)

THE “WEINSTEIN EFFECT”

Though some of the charges driving headlines about Oxfam and other charities date back over a decade, there is a freshness to the controversy arising from a new trans-Atlantic climate of public outrage over the mistreatment of women. In October 2017, New York Times reporter Jody Kantor exposed harrowing incidents of sexual abuse by Harvey Weinstein, a powerful Hollywood producer and donor to American liberal causes. His subsequent ouster from the company he had co-founded triggered a wave of similar charges and dismissals of powerful men in at least ten countries — a phenomenon that has become known as the “Weinstein Effect.” Most publicized cases occurred in either the media industry or political realm of the world’s wealthiest democratic nations.

The global charity scandals, while similarly concerned with men’s abuse of authority over women, have highlighted an even starker imbalance because several involve women in the world’s poorest countries — violated, at that, in their hour of greatest need. The reasoned presumption that imbalances of power will be exploited when left unchecked has fueled the concern that Oxfam-like sex crimes are endemic in the developing world. Will Holden, who manages an emergency logistics team facilitating relief efforts in Iraq, raised alarms in an interview with The Irish Times. He advised that the field of humanitarian aid is “years behind what would be considered the norm for human resources in the commercial world.” Haitian president Jovenel Moise, who has called for heightened scrutiny of all charities operating in his country, warned that the Oxfam case is merely “the visible tip of the iceberg.”

Some poor countries may lack the mechanisms of public scrutiny and accountability that have evolved in developed democracies to root out such abuse. But as the charities’ purse strings are tied to powerful donor nations that are beginning to adopt “zero tolerance” for sex crimes, further evidence of impropriety will likely bring further consequences.

The impulse to punish the charities, however, also risks denying life-saving services to their millions of beneficiaries. Writing in The Guardian, Oxfam donor Mark Haddon spoke up for “people who seem to have been left out of the conversation … people in Yemen who, after three years of war, are now facing the world’s largest cholera outbreak; more than half a million Rohingya people fleeing to Bangladesh to escape the violence in Myanmar; 3.8 million people driven from their homes in the Democratic Republic of the Congo; recipients of Oxfam aid and support in Bolivia, Malawi, Kenya, the Philippines, Niger, Rwanda, South Sudan and Zimbabwe.” Some of Oxfam’s fiercest critics in recent weeks, he said, have been “people in the UK who had no interest whatsoever in the welfare of those people … now occupying the moral high ground or, worse, using this crisis as a way of furthering their own campaign against overseas aid in general.” In a similar vein, Hong Kong-based writer Niall Fraser denounced the “media orgy of – often faux – outrage over the sexual behaviour of fewer than a dirty dozen individuals which took place almost a decade ago and which in the end will only damage the interests of the poorest and most vulnerable among us who make up the vast majority of the human population.”

Some of the charities’ longtime boosters feel doubly aggrieved — by the ugliness of the abuse and its indirect toll on conscientious aid workers and the people they serve — and seek a way forward that treads a delicate line. Actress Minnie Driver said of the Oxfam scandal that it “cut me to the very heart of what I had been involved with.” Appearing at a London event focused on the movement to counter sexual harassment and abuse, she called for grand-scale adoption of the model of “truth and reconciliation” — a reference to structures of judiciary redress created in post-apartheid South Africa and post-genocide Rwanda. She also called for an aggressive effort to “clean house” at Oxfam that would enable the group to regain its global footprint as soon as possible.

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Joseph Braude
Middle East specialist Joseph Braude is the author of Broadcasting Change: Arabic Media as a Catalyst for Liberalism (Rowman & Littlefield). He is Advisor to the Al-Mesbar Center for Research and Studies and tweets@josephbraude.

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