Oxfam's sex scandal won't surprise anyone who has worked in a war zone

It is no secret that there have been repeated, large-scale sexual exploitation scandals ...

Posted: Feb. 13, 2018 2:07 AM
Updated: Feb. 13, 2018 2:07 AM

It is no secret that there have been repeated, large-scale sexual exploitation scandals involving UN peacekeeping forces in Congo, Central African Republic and Liberia since the mid 2000s, often cited as the "sex-for-food affair."

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Nevertheless, many people are shocked by the revelations published in the Times of London that civilian aid workers for Oxfam engaged in similar practices, and that the organization allegedly "covered up" the incidents.

They should not be shocked. And they would not be if the aid sector hadn't benefited for so long from an immunity to examination and criticism, an immunity akin to that which was once enjoyed in the Western world by the Catholic Church and the Church of England.

Of course, there have been some whistleblowings and expos-s of emergency-aid wrongdoing and failure over the years, not least the books "Road to Hell" by the former aid worker Michael Maren, and "War Games" by the Dutch foreign correspondent Linda Polman. Her book even refers to "aid workers who cared for child soldiers and war orphans by day and relaxed by night in the arms of child prostitutes."

But the powerful public relations machine of large, publicly subsidized mega-charities like Oxfam -- which lobby in the UK and elsewhere for ever greater government aid budgets -- has until now been able to maintain the reputation and economic interests of what critics call the Aid Industry.

Both the charges and the apparent coverup reflect deep cultural problems within the aid industry in general and the mega-charities and large international aid agencies in particular.

Anyone who has spent time working in or reporting from war zones and disaster areas has likely encountered bad behavior in the NGO community. I'm not simply referring to the blowing off of steam -- the drink- or drug-assisted partying and in-house sexual shenanigans to be encountered in NGO watering holes from Kabul to Kinshasa.

These are inevitable and even necessary in the high-stress, often dangerous places where emergency aid work is carried out. Rather more dismaying -- and surprising for people whose only knowledge of aid work comes from golden-hued industry marketing -- is the sheer toxicity of the work environment in many NGOs: the bullying, the exploitation of local workers, the arrogant mistreatment of the people the organizations are supposed to be helping.

It's almost as if some aid workers feel that because they are devoting time and perhaps risking their lives to help others, they no longer have to be governed by the moral rules that bind ordinary civilians.

After all, they are already moral exemplars thanks to their vocation and their sacrifices; whatever small wrongs they might commit are mitigated by the fact that they are out there on the front lines, saving the unfortunate when they could be selfishly making a good living in the comfort and safety of the first world.

The second, even more important reason why these awful acts of exploitation should not come as such as shock is that they are the products of a particularly dangerous kind of opportunity -- the kind that opens up when overwhelming human desperation meets ordinary human weakness.

In the worst disaster areas and conflict zones, officials who work for international organizations -- like their imperialist and missionary predecessors of the late 19th and early 20th century -- can find themselves wielding something close to the power of life and death over their wards. Not everyone has the moral fiber to resist the resulting temptations.

It's rather na-ve to assume that the well-educated, middle class, predominantly white people who run the big aid organizations should somehow be less vulnerable to the intimate temptations of great power than other people. Especially if they see themselves as having sacrificed their own safety and comfort to do good in the world, or if they feel that their difficult, dangerous and frustrating work is insufficiently appreciated or rewarded both on the ground and at home.

In my own visits to conflict areas I've certainly encountered otherwise outstanding people who have undergone a shift of moral compass after too many brutalizing years witnessing human depravity and suffering.

The alleged Oxfam coverup should certainly not come as a surprise, given the often disingenuous or even dishonest way the megacharities present their work to the public whose donations they need.

You would never know from the advertisements and fundraising efforts of Big Aid that delivering effective aid that does more good than harm is actually extremely difficult.

This is as true of emergency or humanitarian aid as it is of development aid: All emergency work is full of moral and political -- as well as technical -- challenges, and again and again aid agencies in disaster areas and conflict zones have found themselves doing harm more or less inadvertently.

But implicit in the narratives of the fundraising efforts of large aid organizations, the only issue the public need to trouble its mind over is how generous it should be: Show some compassion and give us your money and don't ask too many questions.

You'd certainly be hard pressed to find any major admission by Oxfam during the last seven decades about the failure of an aid program or methodology, even though the organization, like rest of the aid industry, has embraced all the various aid fads -- from intermediate technology to more recently fashionable "evidence-based aid."

Unfortunately, it seems to be an article of faith within the aid industry that if agencies like Oxfam were to be honest and open about their failings it would undermine their marketing: the carefully, expensively cultivated public image of the selfless aid worker and the infallible, heroic organization for which he or she works.

The current scandal may well disillusion some donors who unquestioningly bought into the narratives and images presented over the years by powerful, government-linked and subsidized aid organizations.

But if it prompts those organizations to be more open and less morally arrogant it will be to everyone's benefit. Aid agencies that are transparent, self-examining and willing to admit to their mistakes, internally and externally, are more likely to be effective and less likely to do harm. And this will be to the benefit of the people we want them to help.

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