Allegations of sexual abuse in the charity and foreign aid sector have been circulating for decades, but very little has been done to make a real systemic change to prevent exploitation. Oxfam is the latest aid group to come under fire, with claims of sexual misconduct among senior management in Haiti and Africa. Further allegations suggest that aid was exchanged for sexual favors in crisis-stricken areas, as well as bullying, harassment, intimidation and abuse of volunteers and staff.
The U.K. based charity has operations across the globe and has been one of the most trusted names in the fight against poverty worldwide. In addition to misconduct on the ground, some evidence of a cover-up has lead the U.K. government to consider withdrawing funds from the organization. The revelations have shocked some, but former U.K. International Development secretary Priti Patel said:
There has been in my view, not just a cover-up with Oxfam, there is a denial, a culture of denial in the aid sector about the exploitation and sexual abuse that has taken place historically for decades.
Perhaps this is no surprise; with the recent Weinstein revelations and subsequent #metoo campaign exposing many so-called “feminists” as closet abusers, perhaps the foreign aid sector is only the newest addition to the long line of hypocrites hiding behind a virtuous facade.
OXFAM SCANDAL ROCKS U.K.
An investigation by the Times has revealed that seven Oxfam aid workers in Haiti used prostitutes in the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake. Among them was country director, Roland van Hauwermeiren, a Belgian national who was accused of similar misconduct while previously representing the organization in Chad. Hauwermeiren admitted to hosting prostitutes in his Oxfam-provided housing, which was apparently nicknamed “the wh***house” by the participants. Prostitution is illegal in Haiti, but criminal charges were not sought, despite an internal Oxfam report stating, “It cannot be ruled out that any of the prostitutes were under-aged.” Four of the seven were fired, while another three, including Hauwermeiren, were allowed to resign, and the organization neglected to disclose their full report to the authorities.
A key criticism of foreign aid organizations is that they breed an economy of dependence while understanding little of local custom – a situation that aid providers are well positioned to exploit for personal gain, if they choose. Hauwermeiren and his staff committed their transgressions while running Oxfam’s relief program in the wake of Haiti’s 2010 earthquake; fully aware of locals’ dependence on Oxfam and other aid organizations for support and donations. It’s unclear whether the women were actually professional sex workers or just earthquake survivors who agreed to participate in so-called “survival sex” in return for some extra cash.
125 reports of sexual exploitation were made against British charities from 2016-2017, the worst offender being Oxfam with 87 allegations, of which only 35 were reported. A source for the Times described witnessing an alleged prostitution “party” for Oxfam staff:
These girls wearing Oxfam T-shirts, running around half-naked, it was like a full-on Caligula orgy. It was unbelievable. It was crazy.
But Oxfam is hardly an isolated example of exploitation and cover-ups in the aid sector. The most prominent offender is probably that institution whose name is synonymous with global do-gooding: the United Nations.
THE LONG HISTORY OF U.N. ABUSE
The United Nations has an unfortunate history of sexual abuse and exploitation. The issue first came to light in 1999, when whistleblower Kathryn Bolkovac was fired for attempting to investigate human trafficking and sexual exploitation by U.N. officials in Bosnia. An investigation by the Associated Press identified 2000 cases of sexual abuse allegations against U.N. personnel, of which 300 involved children. 31 new cases were brought forward during the U.N’s most recent quarterly report, while 2016 saw 145 allegations against peacekeepers and civilian staff.
Haiti and central Africa have been particular hotbeds of abuse; in 2015, a whistleblower revealed multiple cases of abuse in the Central African Republic (CAR), with several accounts involving minors. Troops allegedly coaxed local children into performing sexual favors in exchange for food, a practice also alleged in Haiti.
COVERING UP ABUSE
Huge organizations like the U.N. and Oxfam are bound to contain a few bad apples; it would be unrealistic to expect a completely clean track record among the thousands of staff. The major problem is rather the internal cover-ups that only serve to enable the further spread of abuse.
In response to the allegation in the Central African Republic, an independent inquiry found that:
The manner in which UN agencies responded to the Allegations was seriously flawed. The head of the UN mission in CAR failed to take any action to follow up on the Allegations…He also failed to direct his staff to report the Allegations higher up within the UN. Meanwhile, both UNICEF and UN human rights staff in CAR failed to ensure that the children received adequate medical attention and humanitarian aid, or to take steps to protect other potential victims… Instead, information about the Allegations was passed from desk to desk, inbox to inbox, across multiple UN offices, with no one willing to take responsibility to address the serious human rights violations.
In the wake of the many allegations against staff, the U.N. has started to take on a more active role in investigating claims, however, Code Blue, a campaign set up to expose sex abuse in the U.N., has serious doubts about the veracity of the program. “The concept is a public relations response to serious crimes, a further exploitation of women and children who have already been violated by the U.N.,” said Paula Donovan, co-director Blue Code’s parent organization. This sentiment is echoed by Bolkovac, who has said:
I don’t think that UN efforts are reliable at all over the last 15-20 years … They still refuse to send proper investigative teams to the field and they certainly are still trying to cover things up. All of this talk that they are giving out really is just talk, and it is clear that the highest-level officials of the UN will cover things up just to save their own reputation rather than doing the right thing.
The generosity of foreign aid is a point of pride among many, but few of those in a position to give that money have ever been faced with the reality of aid on the ground. For years, aid has been an untouchable industry, with the downsides dismissed as miserly excuses by unkind people to avoid giving money away. While most aid workers have good intentions, the current system is open to corruption at every level. As evidence of mismanagement, abuse and cover-ups proliferate, can we continue to pprop upan industry that cares more about protecting its own reputation than about helping the vulnerable?