The epitome of an aid worker is a saintly, selfless humanitarian working to deliver aid to the world’s poorest and most vulnerable. Recently, Oxfam opened the Pandora’s box; heard through the media is an orgy of fury over the widespread sexual misconducts that have been perpetuated in charity organizations. This having happened in the very sector expected to uplift human dignity, the scandal is even harder to bear.
Oxfam, a global anti-poverty charity based in England, seeks to create lasting differences to worldwide poverty, visioning a world where people are valued and treated equally. Yet, the recent sex scandal surrounding Oxfam has seriously violated the organization’s own mission, leaving donors and supporters outraged. On February 9, the Times newspaper issued an article titled, “Top Oxfam staff paid Haiti survivors for sex,” claiming that Oxfam has covered up accusations.
▲ Oxfam Aid
Unfolding the Scandal
The scandal dates back to 2010, when Oxfam ran programs to support people affected by the devastating Haiti Earthquake. However, several Oxfam staff members have been accused of hiring prostitutes, some of them underage, while providing aid to the vulnerable. Roland Van Hauwermeiren, the country director for Haiti at the time, was alleged to have invited prostitutes into a villa rented by the charity. According to Oxfam, four staff members were fired and another three resigned. Yet, continued criticism was directed towards Oxfam for trying to keep the allegations at bay.
▲ Roland Van Hauwermeiren
Fully knowing the consequences of a scandal, Oxfam has continued to pull the wool over the public’s eyes; it did not fully disclose or warn other aid agencies regarding their staff’s misbehavior, allowing them to continue work elsewhere in the aid sector. Moreover, it has been revealed that Van Hauwermeiren has had previous records for using prostitutes in 2006 during his mission to Chad, and yet no strong action had been taken.
In the case of the Oxfam employees involved in the scandal, predators have ascended into positions to exploit their power over the defenseless, who seek security and basic necessities. This is the very example of the white savior mentality that still underlines some charities. According to Professor Jeong Jae-won (Kookmin University, Institute of Eurasian Studies), “this is also an incident demonstrating the reality of an utterly male-dominated society.” This sex work economy, centered on the extreme power inequality against the beneficiaries, has shattered Oxfam’s ambition to eradicate the walls of poverty and inequality, showing the rising need for a globalized system of police checks and close inspection.
Suspicion Towards Charity
Adding insult to injury, Oxfam’s troubles have also been traced to other global charity and aid industries, showing that Oxfam is only the tip of the iceberg. Last year, the United Nations (UN) announced that there were 145 cases of sexual exploitation involving 311 victims reported within peacekeeping in 2016 alone. Moreover, Britain’s National Crime Agency had warned since 1999, that predatory child sex offenders’ modus operandi is to target the developing parts of the globe. They gain access to underage girls by joining a children’s charity. It shows that sexual misconduct is not just an issue restricted to Oxfam, but an issue in all aid agencies around the world.
Not only has this scandal withdrawn support and a million pounds in public funding for Oxfam, but it has further tainted the prestige and core values of charity organizations as a whole. Previously, increased fears and worries regarding the allocation of funds have given rise to a phenomenon: donation phobia. The transparency of charity organizations is a common concern for its inconvenience of not revealing the expenditures of funds and direction in which the organization is heading towards, leaving donors to wonder how much of the money actually makes it to the causes. Oxfam too has contributed to the piling doubts, making it crucial to clear out the opaque intermediate stages.
Rebuilding the Shattered Trust
▲ The article issued by the Times newspaper.
According to a poll conducted by the Guardian after the scandal, 52 percent of responders were less likely to donate to humanitarian causes in the future. Rather than rejecting and abruptly cutting down on funding, a more mediating role should be taken. Government organizations and charities’ watchdogs must encourage whistleblowing, and further conduct investigations to re-examine past cases. There is also a strong need to set codes of conduct and standard bars higher, requiring charity organizations to strictly align to safeguarding guidelines. This way, the allocation of funds, transparency, and overall administration of the charity could be better ensured.
However, above all, it is crucial to not associate sexual exploitation with charity organizations only, as sexual misconduct is a culture that has seeped into almost every sector of society. In the wake of the #MeToo movement in Hollywood, South Korea has accelerated the movement through revelations of sexual misconduct by high-profile actors Cho Min-ki and Cho Jae-hyun. This #MeToo phenomenon did not end in the entertainment sector, but has extended into the political field and workplace.
The movement and scandal do have apparent differences, in that #MeToo demonstrates the prevalence of sexual assault and harassment, whereas the Oxfam scandal focuses on the issue of prostitution. Nevertheless, this brings up greater hopes for the Oxfam case to add momentum to the wave, encouraging people to come forward in bringing change to unravel the chronic culture of sexual misconduct. Without a doubt, charity organizations have many transformations to undergo, yet, in the words of Professor Jeong, “the global culture of prostitution must be rooted out from society first.”
Despite the disarray created by a few, there still remain hundreds of good, brave and compassionate workers working for global aid organizations. This is no time to dissemble or live in regret; the charity has a long way to go to regain the trust of the public, fully and robustly. The news that Oxfam staff used prostitutes in Haiti has led to renewed focus on how the aid sector works, and what measures are in place to ensure that people are being protected from exploitation and abuse.