Oxfam’s 'hypocrisy' is not unique: the aid system is built on a power imbalance
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Just over a year since the allegations of sexual abuse in Haiti were revealed, Oxfam have been through the equivalent of a reality TV colonoscopy: the organisation has been turned inside out and upside down to reveal what lurks beneath.
An independent investigation on sexual misconduct found abuse far beyond Haiti. The independent commission’s conclusion, after visiting 20% of countries where Oxfam works, was that the issues were endemic.
Stories heard by the commission were from people being refused aid, or losing their jobs, if they refused to have sex with aid workers. Hierarchies existed for who would get help, like the older women forced to wait in the hot sun longer than those who were “desirable”.
The investigation effectively called Oxfam hypocritical – gender justice as a core objective didn’t translate in how the organisation lived its values.
Everything in the commission’s report could be written about any international NGO. The issues aren’t unique to Oxfam or Save the Children, as the report acknowledges: they are systemic across the aid system. Sexual abuse is about money and power, and these are the key pillars on which the aid system has been built. The rich donors of the north have all the money and all the power. Those who are beholden to their services have neither.
The aid system, as we’ve learned, is no more immune to “me too” than any other sector, because gender-based violence and exploitation exists everywhere. So why does it feel so much more egregious?
Because aid has a higher purpose and a higher duty of care. In looking after the world’s most vulnerable, they’re supposed to be the saints, not the sinners. It feels like a stab in all of our hearts.
Aid recipients become faceless victims who should be grateful for the crumbs thrown their way – numbers, not people
Is it possible for aid agencies to come back from such a low point?
Even if all the commission’s recommendations were implemented overnight, the problems the report lays bare won’t disappear. Endless efforts have been invested in accountability mechanisms for at least the past two decades and there has been little tangible progress. To rebuild trust we need to go deeper: it’s about Oxfam, yes, but it’s also about the wider aid system, and how, as citizens of a richer world, we relate to it.
The first part is obvious: Oxfam and its counterparts will need to rapidly implement the report’s recommendations to deal with the immediate safeguarding issues.
The second, even more important thing they should do is to look beyond this and examine their relationship with the people that they seek to support.Is their role to be a headmaster, or a friend? A doctor or advocate? Patron or ally? These are different roles that generate different answers and starkly different ways of working. Unfortunately, Oxfam and others may think they are friend, advocate and ally, but all too often act like headmaster, doctor and patron – and usually of the male variety.
Oxfam staff cited problems of capacity for southern organisations to deliver aid effectively, referring to them as pre-mature partnerships. They alluded to the lack, locally, of an understanding of safeguarding and cultural differences. This is the headmaster or patron role: they try to “solve” poverty and administer prescriptions, rather than walking beside people in their struggle, including women. They blame these pressures rather than looking at what should be their role as ally and friend. They do absurd things like conducting an English-only workshop in a French-speaking country.
The starting question should be: if we’re all here to solve poverty and realise justice, including gender justice, how do we do this together and in solidarity? And they should do this in collaboration, as an enquiry, not a top-down, project-driven solution.
From there, a complete overhaul of the system would emerge, from the way agencies are governed and who they’re accountable to, to how brands like Oxfam, Action Aid or Save the Children compete with each other for charitable giving.
Some populist political leaders are pitting those in the global south against those of us struggling in the north. They blame our own austerity programmes on the fact that we send money overseas. Agencies, as a consequence, struggle to show impact to defend against attacks, because in truth solving poverty is not that easy.
Our failure as a public to understand why aid can be exploitative and power driven, and occasionally corrupt, has developed because we’ve outsourced our own moral compass for too long. We consume resources extracted from the south, enjoying the cheap labour developing countries offer to make our clothes or food or iPhones, or selling the arms that fuel conflict.
Aid agencies pick up the pieces, enabled by our charity, but they are unable to tackle the structural problems of inequality and power that exist between the richer north and the impoverished south. This isn’t good enough. We all want to believe in aid but, to do so, we also have to look at our own culpability.
As a nation, we expect value for money. The Department for International Development even has a VfM policy, defined as “the optimal use of resources to achieve intended outcomes”. Those who receive aid become faceless victims who should be grateful for the crumbs thrown their way. They are numbers, not people, and aid is reduced to a spreadsheet.
Oxfam failed to report child abuse claims in Haiti, inquiry finds
People in the global south do not want to rely on the charity of others. They want control over their own lives. Women and children certainly don’t want to be sexually exploited. Investing in safeguarding isn’t just about systems. It’s about solidarity. And solidarity requires that we invest in each other: in stopping exploitation, and in the time and resource it takes to build power from the bottom up. We need to reform our own economic and social systems that see the developing world as something to be exploited.
It seems obvious, but often it’s not: aid agencies and those who support aid need to walk beside those we’re helping, those with whom we’re working, not in front of them.
The public genuinely wants to like aid, and to overcome these problems. But they need to see that agencies are up to the task. The report’s first recommendation is that it should “reinvent the system” for safeguarding. I would argue that they need to reinvent the whole international NGO system and the public’s relationship with it.
Now that everything is out in the open, the hard work can really begin.
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