The aid industry is long overdue its #MeToo moment

Ruth Tanner writes that revelations about Oxfam's behaviour in Haiti are shocking, but not surprising.

February 13, 2018
6 min read

A refugee camp in Port-Au-Prince, Haiti

I  recently worked for Oxfam and the love and trust many people have felt for Oxfam is not, in my experience, misplaced. And neither is the shock and anger at what happened with Oxfam in Haiti.

In the name of the women involved, cynical attempts have been made to use this situation to cut funding for much needed humanitarian and development work. However, we must be careful not to minimise what has happened and dismiss the outrage as a Daily Mail witch-hunt or a right wing conspiracy. Whilst I feel the urge to protect all that is good in the work Oxfam and the aid industry does, I am alarmed when I hear people trying to reduce this to a story about  a handful of staff in one organisation.

The  reality is, Oxfam is an international player in the global aid industry. The abuse of women in Chad and Haiti and the subsequent ‘cover up’ exposed by The Times is not a one off in the sector. There have been warnings for years, but few were listening. Until now.

Power inequality, including of race and gender, lends itself to exploitation. That men in privileged positions, in chaotic situations, have abused this power is not just unsurprising, it is well known. That this reality is being used to attack aid is not a reason to minimise it.

16 years ago Save the Children published findings of a report into sexual abuse of children in refugee camps in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone. Refugees reported 67 cases of abuse by those agencies responsible for their care, Include that aid was being used a tool for exploitation. As one adolescent refugee in Liberia put it, when interviewed for the report, “It’s difficult to escape the trap of those (NGO) people; they use the food as bait to get you to have sex with them” .

In 2017 an investigation by Associated Press found that over the past 12 years peacekeepers and other UN personnel had faced 2000 allegations of sexual abuse and exploitation, including 300 involving children. Horrific abuses, including a child sex ring, were documented in Haiti.

It would appear that the men working for Oxfam swiftly left country and the authorities were not informed. This lack of accountability and legal redress is a well know problem. In 2015 a panel reporting on the sexual abuse of hundreds of children and young women by peace keeping soldiers from over ten countries in Central African Republic (CAR) found that there had been ‘systematic failures by UN personnel, pointing to a culture of impunity, flawed mechanisms to investigate reports and inadequate victim support structures’.

The Oxfam story included paying women for sex. But it’s not clear that we can couch this as sex workers undertaking a transaction to which they freely consented. The situation in Haiti in 2011 was desperate one, putting these men in positions of incredible power and making the idea that women were freely consenting to the transaction difficult to believe. This is an abuse of power – making the issue not about whether or not women are paid for sex, but whether or not women are in a position to consent.

A Guardian article in 2014 describes the use of sex workers in humanitarian situations as a ‘morally fraught transaction’ but one that was ‘part of the reality of the job.’ An article on Aid Workers Wellbeing suggested that ‘Making decisions on the best way for staff to visit brothels is a familiar dilemma for some humanitarian logistics managers’. The article never specifies the gender or race of the staff in question. Just like much of the coverage of the Oxfam story it talks about staff and prostitutes, rather than men and women. And moreover, the article never addresses the issue of power. In a crisis situation, aid workers are often the gatekeepers of vital resources. They literally hold the power of life and death over people in disaster-struck areas.

The war in Bosnia, in the 90s, saw well-documented cases of aid workers exploiting and abusing women. This, during a conflict in which widespread rape was used as a weapon of war. On LBC this week one former aid worker defended his own decision to pay women for sex whilst ‘helping’ in Bosnia. He argued that what he did in his own time, with his own money, was his own business given the good he was doing in his day job. These revelations shouldn’t be used to attack sex work – a move which will just drive vulnerable women further away from vital services. But we should recognise that being an aid worker puts people in a situation of power which means that consent to sex is at best ‘fraught’ and at worst near impossible. These cases point to a culture of impunity and acceptance, in an industry which fails to critically examine the power wielded by its workers..

Women workers in the sector have also reported abuse and harassment. Some have worked hard to expose it and stop it but all to often, as in many other workplaces, it has been ignored or handled badly. Efforts by Oxfam to tackle this issue have recorded 268 safeguarding incidents.

Cutting funds and demonising individual organisations is not the answer. Policy change and accountability is needed within internal systems. Oxfam GB brought in a whistleblower system and is responding to the demands of government with rigorous new policies. The impunity of peace keepers and others is also a challenge. Legally enforceable accountability mechanisms and structures for redress must be put in place – for workers and for people who receive aid.

More than this though, we need to see a cultural change. One of the truths that we have been facing up to with #MeToo is that being a sexual predator hasn’t been much of  liability in any walk of life. In fact, bullying and misogynistic behaviour has been a route to success.

This should be the Aid industries #MeToo moment. There are women campaigning for accountability and redress. The #PredatoryPeacekeepers campaign was born of the findings in CAR but until now little attention has been paid to this issue. This sector deserves the same scrutiny as any other. More so, given that uneven power relations are so embedded in the daily work. Oxfam and the like are in the business of challenging the structures that drive inequality and injustice. We cannot walk away from this challenge. It’s time to speak up and act.