The Oxfam scandal

News broadcasts a week ago resounded with the story of sexual exploitation of women in Haiti by Oxfam aid workers after the devastation of 2011. It now seems that this wasn’t an isolated incident. Workers for Oxfam and other aid agencies have been accused of exploitation of vulnerable people in several parts of the world following natural or man-made disasters.

Many details of the 2011 incident(s) remain unclear, but it seems that Oxfam took immediate action on the culprits, dismissing some and allowing others to resign. They didn’t tell the public about those offences, probably because they feared (not unreasonably) a negative effect on income from donations. Now the story has been exposed, and some reactions have been extreme. We should examine it – at least, we should examine as much of the information as has been revealed – in the cool light of reason.

Exploitation of the vulnerable, sexual or otherwise, is morally repugnant whatever the circumstances. Exploitation by people whose ostensible mission is to help and support – who are employed to help and support – is particularly disgusting. It’s akin to a doctor seducing a patient or a teacher seducing a pupil, though somehow it feels even worse. This makes it right that the story has been made public. As donors to charities, we all have a right to know.

The chair of Oxfam’s trustees, Caroline Thomson, spoke of her ‘anger and shame’ at the revelation. I have no doubt she was sincere. The deputy chief executive of the charity, Penny Lawrence, has resigned. Others will follow. Conjectures that these senior people knew about the behaviour of the miscreants and have been implicated in a cover-up would be petty, unnecessary and probably mistaken. Rather, I suspect that Ms Lawrence’s resignation has an air of “What’s the point?” In her place, my faith in the concept of charitable support for those in need would have been shattered, or at least undermined. But resignations aren’t going to solve the problem. Nor are clichés about “lessons to be learned concerning transparency and safeguarding” (not, to be fair, that I’ve heard any such anodyne lines from Oxfam).

But there are questions to be answered, and not all of them are being asked.

First, what actually happened? Sometimes we’re told about workers ‘using prostitutes’, other times about them ‘coercing women into sex in exchange for aid’. Those are two very different acts. If someone paid a woman who was already (prior to the disaster) working as a prostitute, then he spent money from charitable donations inappropriately, but did nothing worse. He deserved a sharp rap over the knuckles. But if he blackmailed the woman by telling her it was the price of the aid package she needed for her survival or her children’s survival, he did something immeasurably worse – particularly if (as some reports allege) underage girls were abused in this way. He deserved to be in prison.

Second, it’s barely conceivable that more than a handful of the aid workers were guilty of such offences. So why didn’t the decent and honourable ones blow the whistle on them? Or did they, thus enabling Oxfam to take disciplinary action behind closed doors? The large majority of aid workers do what’s asked and expected of them and don’t behave in utterly unacceptable ways. Tabloid attempts to tar them all with the same contaminated brush are stupid and reprehensible. But decency is duty-bound to speak out against iniquity.

Third, ‘behind closed doors’ indicates an error of judgment. Crimes of this sort shouldn’t be dealt with in-house but reported to the appropriate authorities so that action can be taken with the full force of the law. In-house action, however well considered and executed and no matter how understandable in motive, is bound to make the organisation appear suspect when the situation is made public.

Fourth, have Oxfam and other aid agencies, including the UN agencies, taken serious action to preclude any further crimes of this sort?

Fifth, what is to be done about the inevitable backlash? This has at least two aspects.

On the one hand, some individuals and governments who have supported Oxfam and other aid agencies are likely to stop donating to them. Indeed, some already have. The British government’s reaction to date has been almost as distasteful as the exploitation scandal itself. Priti Patel has asserted that “officials at the highest levels knew about this sort of thing” while she was international development secretary. Really? Then it follows that she also knew about ‘this sort of thing’. Yet she did nothing about it. I’m impressed. The current international development secretary, Penny Mordaunt, has written to every British government-funded charity, asking them to disclose any “safeguarding issues” of which they have knowledge. She’s made an explicit threat to withdraw Oxfam’s funding by the government. Implicitly, she’s casting suspicion on all such charities. The Charity Commission is looking at Oxfam with a jaundiced eye because it has standards (and a reputation) to uphold. The European Union is asking questions, too; again there’s a potential threat to funding.

In some of these actions and attitudes we might see an element of vengeance. Oxfam has accused the British government of anti-humanitarian behaviour, justifiably enough to make the accusations sting. The government reprimanded the charity three or four years ago for pointing out (as the Archbishop of Canterbury had done) that benefit cuts, zero-hours contracts and underemployment were creating a “perfect storm” of poverty in our country.  Before Davos, Oxfam gave a withering criticism of global capitalism and its consequences. Is it possible that Ms Patel and Ms Mordaunt are licking their lips at their chance to hit back at the accuser?

On the other hand – actually a related point – there’s a threat to our commitment to foreign aid. The right-wing press, which exerts more influence than is healthy for the nation, has run a long campaign against the fraction of our GDP (0.7%) devoted to foreign aid by the Department for International Development. Unfortunately, the government’s arguments for continuing this commitment are misplaced. A former prime minister said that the point of it was to promote growth and development in poorer countries in order to provide better trading partners for us. The current foreign secretary sees it as a facet of ‘soft’ power to further our national interests. I’d like to think that the majority of our people take a less self-serving and mean-spirited attitude to our foreign aid commitment.

As far as I’m concerned, and as many of my friends are concerned, our foreign aid budget is an expression of the moral imperative to help those who’re in need, with no quid pro quo assumed or expected. But along with that imperative goes the expectation of moral behaviour by those who’re providing the aid on the ground. And when that expectation is as drastically unfulfilled as it was by the Oxfam scandal, outrage is the natural and justified consequence.

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