Oxfam and the dark side of the aid industry
February 16, 2018 | 5:58 pm| | | Start Conversation
Every humanitarian crisis is unique, but the cast of expatriate characters — roaming between disaster zones in a never-ending quest for chaos — remains essentially the same. There are earnest diplomats and hard-charging journalists, brisk military officers and savvy logistics experts, eastern European pilots-for-hire and taciturn American and British security types with regulation wraparound shades. But these all come later. The central players earn their privileged position by being first to arrive and last to leave. Instantly recognisable via T-shirts branded with their organisation’s logo, sleeveless safari jackets, and often travelling in gleaming white four-by-fours, it is the aid workers who will do more than anyone else to shape the story.
In the furore over revelations of sexual misconduct by Oxfam staff, the industry is no longer dictating the narrative — it has become the subject of it. Reports by The Times of London alleging that Roland Van Hauwermeiren used prostitutes at a villa rented for him by Oxfam — charges he denies — while he was serving as country director in Haiti during the response to the 2010 earthquake have served as a lightning rod for many more allegations of sexual abuse and harassment in the field. Talking to friends who work in the sector, I have found that the only thing that seemed to surprise anybody was that these kinds of lurid tales had not surfaced any sooner. “Everybody right now is holding their breath,” says one veteran humanitarian who has worked in Africa, Asia and the Middle East. “This is endemic for the whole industry; it’s not just Oxfam. It’s in many ways comparable to the Harvey Weinstein case.”
The sex scandal engulfing Oxfam has clearly gained traction because of the context: the #MeToo movement ignited by the reports of serial abuse in Hollywood and the wider societal debate over predatory behaviour. But it is also the most glaring symptom of a deeper dilemma that has confronted the aid industry since it emerged in its modern form during Nigeria’s Biafra civil war in the late 1960s: the inevitably yawning imbalance of power between the givers and recipients of aid.
While the industry encompasses a huge diversity of participants — from UN behemoths and major organisations such as Oxfam to much smaller outfits — all operate under the same banner of altruism. There is no question that this ecosystem has saved countless lives and often does enormous good. But there can be few other enterprises founded on such high moral principles that are so prone to unleashing unintended consequences, and where genuine impulses towards compassion can blur into something less noble.
“Sexual harassment: it’s one of the faces of all these abuses of power, but it’s just one aspect,” says Kari Just Laperriere, a legal consultant and human resources head who worked for years in the UN system. “A big, big clean up will have to take place before anything changes.”
Just as a familiar line-up of players will parachute into every crisis zone, so there will be a bar to which they will all repair after a day on the front line of that particular disaster. Over beers, the conversation will invariably turn to mistakes made by the aid organisations pitching camp outside. There will be no shortage of talking points: warring factions may exploit their generosity to gather supplies or as a cover to buy arms; there may be competition and duplication of effort when scores of organisations descend en masse to help the same people; or perhaps “beneficiaries” are once again being portrayed as hapless victims in the scramble to raise funds. These problems are not new, and there are many aid workers who have spent their careers trying to rectify them. But the Hauwermeiren affair presents a clear-cut case of how far the aid industry still has to go for its pledges of transparency and accountability to ring true.
The outrage is not just over the reports of aid workers using prostitutes, but the apparent ease with which Hauwermeiren was able to continue working despite evidence of misconduct. According to Irin, a humanitarian news website, the Belgian Hauwermeiren agreed to leave his post with the charity Merlin in Liberia in 2004 after an investigation into sex parties with local women. He went on to work for Oxfam in Chad, where there were further allegations he used prostitutes, and then Haiti. Following an inquiry into alleged sexual exploitation, intimidation and bullying during the earthquake response, Oxfam allowed three men to resign and sacked four for gross misconduct, according to a confidential report seen by The Times. Among those allowed to resign was Hauwermeiren, who admitted using sex workers at his villa.
He was then hired by the French charity Action Against Hunger as mission head in Bangladesh, where he served until 2014. The charity has said Oxfam did not provide it with details of the reason for Hauwermeiren’s resignation.
“There’s some excellent people who have been working very hard to tell the sector that they have a problem for many years. But there’s been no collective leadership,” says Imogen Wall, an independent aid worker who has worked with the UN in crisis zones including Indonesia, Haiti, the Philippines, Sudan and East Timor. “This has not been tackled at a senior level in the way that it needed to be. It’s been swept under the carpet, whistleblowers have been ignored, or threatened or fired in some extreme cases.”
If the Oxfam scandal proves to be the aid industry’s Weinstein moment, then the soul-searching over sexual exploitation, harassment and abuse should extend to a far broader inquiry into failings in the industry, and what can be done differently in the future. Haiti is not just the source of Oxfam’s PR disaster, it is also a case study of how doing good can go so wrong. As the journalist Jonathan M Katz documents in his book The Big Truck That Went By: How the World Came to Save Haiti and Left Behind A Disaster, more than half of American adults donated money for relief efforts for the Haiti earthquake — private donations totalled more than $1.4bn in the US alone. But even as relief and reconstruction pledges topped $16bn, Katz found years later that the relief effort had failed to deliver on its key goals, such as rebuilding safer cities for the homeless. He also reported how Nepalese UN peacekeeping troops had inadvertently spread a deadly cholera epidemic — as if Haiti did not have enough problems. “The issue is less with some organisations having more know-how than others; it’s that the whole system needs to be overhauled,” Katz writes.
My own naivety about the pitfalls inherent in delivering humanitarian aid was dispelled in northern Uganda, which in the mid-2000s was the scene of what the UN billed as the world’s “biggest forgotten, neglected humanitarian emergency”. As the Ugandan military confronted the forces of Joseph Kony, a warlord famous for abducting thousands of children to serve in his “army”, more than two million people had ended up in squalid camps, desperately hungry. As a correspondent in the Reuters bureau in Nairobi, I would dutifully file stories reporting on appeals for funds by the UN World Food Programme to feed them.
It was only when I spent more time in the north that I realised that the Ugandan army had systematically forced people into what were effectively open-air prisons, where families crammed into desperate, squalid conditions were forcibly prevented from farming, pushing their children to the verge of starvation. By supplying this arrangement with a reliable pipeline of food, UN agencies and relief organisations working alongside them had become complicit in a programme of mass forced displacement — a war crime, basically. One academic compared the aid agencies working in the camps to a doctor enlisted to keep torture victims alive.
The organisations could counter that they have a duty to feed people in need — and that donor countries would have had far greater leverage to influence Uganda’s military. Such subtleties tend to get scant air time in coverage at the height of a disaster, however, when much of the media takes the narrative presented by aid organisations at face value.
Jane Bussmann, a comedian who documented her time in northern Uganda in her book The Worst Date Ever: or How it Took a Comedy Writer to Expose Africa’s Secret War, put it like this: “Keeping people in these camps would have been impossible without logistical and technical support from charities. Worse, charities made it look like good was being done, when in fact they were assisting in the most dubious military exercise since Operation Iraqi Freedom.” The dilemma was a frequent source of discussion at our particular crisis hotel, the Acholi Inn in Gulu, where a Norwegian diplomat, an Argentine aid worker, a retired British colonel and assorted Ugandan military officers, ex-rebels and spies would gather in the lush garden and pass judgment over a warm bottle of Nile Beer.
Such dilemmas are, of course, by no means unique to Uganda — relief work always involves painful compromises. But the country seemed particularly prone to playing out such issues on a public stage. While the spotlight that briefly alighted on northern Uganda would soon shift elsewhere, the crisis burst back into the news in 2012 in an entirely unexpected way. A small US group, Invisible Children, launched a campaign to push the US government to increase its support for attempts to catch Kony featuring an extremely slick video. Widely criticised as a sentimental, inaccurate portrayal of the conflict by a broad range of opinion from within and outside Uganda, the video nevertheless gained more than 80m views on YouTube in a matter of days.
While many seasoned aid workers were among the critics of the Kony 2012 campaign, the controversy it sparked broadened to reflect an underlying unease over the big bureaucratic model of aid delivery, based primarily in the developed world. Organisations are starting to get better at tackling longstanding disparities between the high salaries paid to international staff and the much lower earnings of local colleagues, but the structural imbalance of power remains. “It breeds an arrogance and a sense of exceptionalism that allows people to do things they would not do in their own country,” says Shantha Bloemen, an independent consultant who has spent years in the aid industry. “They rationalise the perks and use their status of ‘saving the world’ as a way to pretend that they are above any reproach.”
The US writer Teju Cole encapsulated the essence of this kind of critique in an article for the Atlantic magazine headlined “The White-Savior Industrial Complex”. The substance of Cole’s criticism is that much support for humanitarian causes is really designed to satisfy the emotional needs of privileged white people — when they would be more usefully engaged focusing their attention on reversing damaging western foreign policies. “One song we hear too often is the one in which Africa serves as a backdrop for white fantasies of conquest and heroism,” Cole wrote. “It is a liberated space in which the usual rules do not apply: a nobody from America or Europe can go to Africa and become a godlike saviour or, at the very least, have his or her emotional needs satisfied.”
After years spent covering humanitarian workers in the field, I find it hard to accept this conception of the aid industry as a purely self-serving bureaucracy — simply because of the good I’ve seen being delivered by humble, dedicated professionals who genuinely care about saving lives. Take Luis Tello, a Spanish paediatrician seconded to Mirwais Hospital in Kandahar in southern Afghanistan by the International Committee of the Red Cross. Late in 2016, he showed me around a brand new paediatric ward the organisation had provided. Already, it was persuading more mothers — who used to assume premature newborns had no chance — that even the weakest babies might survive.
“We’ve managed to change people’s minds,” he told me, with evident pride.
Similarly, I will always remember visiting a remote border town in Chad in 2004, where the crump of barrel bombs dropped by Sudanese Antonov jets on villages in neighbouring Darfur echoed across the plain in a slow, deadly rhythm. Surgeons with Médecins Sans Frontières worked calmly in stifling tents to save the lives and limbs of refugees streaming across the border with horrific shrapnel wounds. The convoy of journalists who roared to a halt outside and then started snapping pictures and interviewing patients with barely a pause to ask permission — infuriating the French aid worker in charge — seemed churlish by comparison. It was hard to feel anything other than a profound sense of respect.
Neither should the focus on sexual misconduct eclipse the broader toll that this kind of front-line work can inflict on staff in terms of trauma and burnout. In 2015, a survey on the Global Development Professionals Network found that almost 80 per cent of more than 750 respondents had experienced a mental health problem — almost all of them due to their work.
It would also be wrong if the new scrutiny of the aid industry eclipsed the need for much tougher action to clamp down on graver instances of sexual misconduct: widespread exploitation, abuse and rape by UN peacekeepers in Africa and beyond. More than a decade after such cases began to surface in Democratic Republic of Congo — the current epicentre of the scandal — similar instances of abuse in Sudan, Central African Republic and Haiti show the UN still needs to do far more.
For aid agencies, the obvious lesson to be drawn from the Oxfam saga is that they need to do a much better job of vetting and managing their staff. But new thinking on aid needs to go far beyond human resources departments. Perhaps decades-old models of bureaucratised aid delivery could do more to embrace the kind of disruptive change that social media poses to newspapers and broadcasters, ride-share apps pose to transport, and the growth of renewables and smart grids poses for utilities.
As parts of the developing world build greater resources for confronting crises it should be possible to transfer larger proportions of aid money to locally owned and managed endowments that can provide grants and support community-owned initiatives to alleviate poverty, respond to emergencies and adapt to climate breakdown. “The big players could lead this reform, rather than see it as a threat to their existence,” says Bloemen. The greater threat to these organisations will be that a disillusioned public — concerned that their donations are enabling abuse of some of the world’s most vulnerable people — will decide to stop giving, and call on their governments to do the same. The Oxfam scandal — dispiriting as it is for many humanitarians — could be a chance for the industry to move a step closer to achieving what all relief agencies claim they want: to be so successful in helping people that they put themselves out of business.
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