Have Oxfam’s critics gone too far – or not far enough?

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In a tragic turn of events, it was uncovered in recent weeks that Oxfam staff allegedly hired prostitutes, some who may have been underage, while carrying out operations overseas. The renowned charity denies any cover up and since the news has hit headlines, the Charity Commission have launched a statutory inquiry into the events. It first broke that director of operations in Haiti, Ronald Van Hauwermeiren, carried out such conduct in the wake of the 2010 earthquake that shook the country. Since then, further allegations have been made in regards to the director’s work in Chad in 2006 and Liberia in 2004, where he was investigated by British health charity, Merlin. A further 26 claims of sexual misconduct surrounding the charity have also been made since the scandal emerged.

Is it necessary to tarnish Oxfam’s entire reputation merely because of one person’s abuse of power?

As 7000 people begin to cancel their donations to the charity and famous figures from Minnie Driver to Archbishop Desmond Tutu denounce the NGO, the question we are left to ponder is whether we are risking the work of many for the sake of a few? Is it necessary to tarnish Oxfam’s entire reputation merely because of one person’s abuse of power, or on the other hand, is such outcry against the whole organisation imperative in sparking the reform that is needed to ensure that nothing like this ever happens again?

Although Oxfam have profusely expressed their regrets in regards to this grave injustice, perhaps people and organisations, from 7000 faithful donors to the government of Haiti, are justified for their decision not to forgive and forget just yet. The allegations that Oxfam are facing bring to light flaws within many humanitarian organisations across the world. One Irish aid worker remarked in the Irish Times that “It’s all tied into the same structural weaknesses, that we’re really bad at staff care, staff management and how to handle it when people cross ethical lines.” Canada’s Report the Abuse group conducted a study that revealed how 87% of workers in the humanitarian sector knew a colleague who had experienced sexual harassment or abuse in the course of their mission, while a mere 17% were happy with how their charitable organisation dealt with the problem when reported.

In NGOs across the world, it is clear that those in managerial positions are unable and underprepared to deal with claims of sexual, physical, or emotional abuse when the situation arises. In an interview with The Irish Times, Will Holden, managing director of an emergency logistics team in Iraq, was not exaggerating when he remarked that the humanitarian world is “years behind what would be considered the HR norm in the commercial world.” One of the most profound structural problems here becomes evident; when those who are so vulnerable find it so hard to take a stand against the power that they are faced with, how can we ever expect the problem to stop?

These shocking Oxfam revelations are reminiscent of the sexual abuse scandals within the Catholic church, where apparently isolated incidents indicate further structural defects

These shocking Oxfam revelations are reminiscent of the sexual abuse scandals within the Catholic church, where apparently isolated incidents indicate further structural defects that are prevalent throughout the operation of charity work worldwide. Due to a consistent lack of budgetary and staffing resources, one aid worker told of how abusers of power can be redeployed elsewhere once accused of harassment, or can, if they deny the allegations, simply resign and then “pop up” somewhere else in the world. Holden admits; “It’s similar to the church and how they tried to cover up the actions of a few monsters by moving them from one place to another and never actually dealing with the problem. I’ve seen this regularly, not just in sexual harassment cases but with general staff bullying.” In one incident alluded to by the Irish Times, again involving prostitutes, the person responsible was deemed “too valuable” to dismiss. If that is the case, does that mean vulnerable young girls are in contrast, “not valuable enough” to protect?

As much humanitarian work as Oxfam has carried out across the world, maybe this condemnation of the charity is a necessary wake up call to this NGO, alongside others, to recognise the need for reform in the sector. Janet Horner, a former aid worker, worries that the Oxfam allegations could affect the sector as a whole and the important work carried out by the vast majority of aid workers. However, she equally feels additional resources and training are urgently needed to equip people with the tools to deal with allegations of sexual harassment. For when those who are supposed to safeguard the vulnerable become predators rather than protectors, there is a clear problem.

Criticising charitable organisations may appear to tar many excellent aid workers with the same brush as the few that abuse their positions. However, if it means the acknowledgment of those few who were hurt and the protection of many more vulnerable people in the future, we should view the outcry against Oxfam as an essential opportunity to change, rather than a condemnation of the charity as a whole.

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