Dani Garavelli: Oxfam crisis doesn't absolve us of our debt

If there is one thing the past few years have taught us, with their many revelations of abuse, it is that wherever there is a power differential, there will be sexual exploitation.
Oxfam has been at the forefront in helping people like these Haitians queueing for water after an earthquake hit Port-Au-Prince in 2010. 
Photograph: Getty ImagesOxfam has been at the forefront in helping people like these Haitians queueing for water after an earthquake hit Port-Au-Prince in 2010. 
Photograph: Getty Images
Oxfam has been at the forefront in helping people like these Haitians queueing for water after an earthquake hit Port-Au-Prince in 2010. Photograph: Getty Images

Counter-intuitively, or perhaps not, the risk seems to increase in those institutions in which the public has traditionally invested most trust: schools, hospitals, churches, the BBC.

With Jimmy Savile we learned the hard way that engaging in good works was a perfect cover for offenders to operate in plain sight; and that the higher the financial and reputational stakes, the greater the scale of the cover-up.

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There are few organisations where the power differential is bigger than charities working in disaster zones. And, although there will always be a section of the population which is hostile towards foreign aid, most NGOs working in developing countries are still regarded predominantly as a force for good. More than any other organisations, perhaps, they rely on people’s perceptions of them as morally upstanding to function effectively.

It is hardly a surprise, then, that Oxfam, which employs 5,300 people and works with 22,000 volunteers, should have been targeted by opportunists who saw its global credibility as a chance to prey on the vulnerable. What is shocking is that – while exploiting local people was a sackable offence – for a long time, paying for sex per se was not outlawed because to do so would be “a breach of human rights”. And that, after all the scandals that preceded it, Oxfam should have tried so hard to sweep its own under the carpet.

According to reports last week, the charity failed to respond appropriately to two separate sets of allegations. In 2011, four employees were fired and three allowed to resign after it emerged senior aid workers had bought sex from local girls (some of whom may have been underage) in the wake of the devastating earthquake in Haiti. Those who resigned included the then-country director Roland van Hauwermeiren, who denies he paid for sex, but admits an inappropriate relationship with a local woman.

It then emerged the same thing had been happening four years earlier when van Hauwermeiren was country director in Chad.

Despite the firings/resignations, little effort was made to stop those involved obtaining jobs with other NGOs and the problem was not properly reported to donors and regulators.

Militating against the stamping- out of such abuses has been an unwillingness among some charities to acknowledge the use of prostitutes as inherently wrong. Last year, Amnesty International came out in favour of the decriminalisation of the sex industry, and while its motives were no doubt positive, the message it sent out was that prostitution is a legitimate life choice as opposed to a form of violence against women.

Even in the developed world that argument is debatable, but it is unsustainable in the impoverished regions where Oxfam and other NGOs operate. There, the disparity between the wealthy aid workers and the local population creates a ready market for prostitution, with women prepared to sell themselves for food or soap.

Buying sex in such circumstances cannot be anything other than exploitative. It is doubly iniquitous because trading on local citizens’ susceptibility entrenches the historical exploitation (via colonialism) that created the need for NGOs to be there in the first place.

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Almost as unpalatable as Oxfam’s lacklustre response has been the enthusiasm with which some politicians have sought to capitalise on its crisis to bolster their own campaign against the UK’s foreign aid contribution.

Shortly after the revelations emerged, there was Jacob Rees-Mogg – complete with Grinch-like grin – clutching a 100,000-plus Daily Express petition against the government’s target of 0.7 per cent of national income (which last year amounted to £13bn).

Rees-Mogg and his anti-aid cabal may not have been responsible for the story breaking at a time that completely served their purpose, but they sure made the most of it, helping to whip up an almighty backlash which prompted Minnie Driver and Bishop Desmond Tutu to resign as ambassadors for the charity.

Of course, Oxfam deserves a kicking. But it is not the first or the largest organisation to have dealt ineffectively with incidents of this nature. In the past 12 years, there have been more than 2,000 allegations of sexual exploitation involving UN peacekeepers and other UN staff, including 100 accused of running a child sex ring in Haiti.

With this in mind, the vitriol being aimed at the charity seems disproportionate to the point of being vengeful. Which is eminently plausible given Oxfam’s repeated criticisms of government policy.

The idea that this scandal – however egregious – should lead to a loss of Westminster or public funding or cuts to the UK’s foreign aid spending is abhorrent. In its 76 years, Oxfam has more than proved its worth, delivering clean water to refugee camps, irrigation schemes to kick-start farming and improving access to health care. Are we suggesting that the behaviour of a minority absolves us of our international obligations? Our contribution to the world’s most troubled regions is not a question of benevolence, but of restoration: an atonement for our part in their degradation.

Rather, this scandal should be used as a springboard for better scrutiny of individual NGOs and for a more clear-eyed appraisal of the potential pitfalls involved in delivering foreign aid.

Oxfam seems, at last, to be taking its responsibilities seriously. Though it didn’t report the allegations to its donors, regulators or prosecutors, it did introduce a new safeguarding system, and Oxfam International has promised its own inquiry to root out any wrongdoing and restore public confidence.

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Equally important is oversight of other NGOs. Already, news has emerged of similar incidents at Save the Children and SCIAF. There seems little doubt that this goes right across the sector.

If it is to get to grips with the situation, the Charity Commission will have to raise its game considerably. It is five years now since it was criticised by the National Audit Office for failing to use the powers it had to bring charities to account. MPs have asked why it didn’t do more when the Oxfam allegations were raised by whistleblower Helen Evans in 2015. New chair, Tory peer Tina Stowell, will be under pressure to prove it is fit for purpose.

In response to the allegations against peacekeepers, the UN has appointed eight global victim advocates, but, as Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said last week, a global cultural shift is what is required. Only when all powerful institutions stand united against it will sexual exploitation, in its many guises, finally be eradicated.