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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 18 December 2018

The Oxfam abuse scandal in Haiti shines light on a dark side of the international aid industry

Reputations can take decades to build but be destroyed in hours. More scrutiny and transparency in the aid sector is long overdue

A woman walks past an Oxfam sign in Corail, a camp for displaced people of the 2010 earthquake, on the outskirts of Port-au-Prince, Haiti / Reuters
A woman walks past an Oxfam sign in Corail, a camp for displaced people of the 2010 earthquake, on the outskirts of Port-au-Prince, Haiti / Reuters

Few people in the aid sector will be greatly surprised by the allegations surrounding the conduct of Oxfam staff in Haiti.

But what has shocked and angered many is the fact that the charity apparently concealed the findings of a 2011 inquiry into the behaviour of their senior aid workers.

This issue is not about to evaporate any day soon, nor should it. It will shine a glaring flashlight into the darkest corners of not only Oxfam but the multi-billion dollar aid industry and its practices, historic and current.

The allegations are certainly not unique to the aid sector but they throw up many pressing questions as to the very nature of development and how such large organisations are governed.

The Haitian ambassador to Britain, Bocchit Edmond, said the handling of the case was “an insult” to his country – and he is right to be indignant.

I worked for a similar sized NGO to Oxfam – Plan International – for five years. I completed two deployments to Haiti, including one as part of an emergency response team a day after the devastating earthquake in 2010.

We were among the first international support teams to get in and start emergency aid on the ground. Many, many other organisations followed, leading Haiti to be sardonically dubbed "the Republic of NGOs". But the reality (as with all disasters) is that it is the local people who are first on the scene, the first to drag their loved ones, alive, maimed and dead from the rubble, often hours or days before any foreign aid arrives.

The Haitian earthquake was unexpected. The country does not experience regular earthquakes and it came at a time when it was trying to pull itself up from its knees and shake off a reputation as the "basket-case" of the region, a failed state rocked by political instability, poor trade and endemic poverty.

It was a seismic kick in the teeth. The situation on the ground was horrific. An estimated 220,000 killed, several hundred thousand were injured and some 1.5 million were left homeless. It is as vicious a demonstration of cruel fate inflicted upon a people as I have witnessed.

The 7.0 magnitude quake was indiscriminate, wiping out senior members of both the UN mission, national government and security forces. It broke open the prison in Port-au-Prince, spilling hardened criminals onto the capital’s streets in a time of chaos and insecurity.

The international aid response to Haiti was as heartfelt as it was unwieldy. The streets cleared to cut paths through the canyons of rubble in the capital were quickly clogged up with the 4x4s of NGOs. Demands for undamaged buildings pushed rents through the roof. It’s the same thing that happens in cities where the international aid community descends en masse, from Juba in South Sudan to Kabul in Afghanistan.

Aid is a messy, complex business. It operates in countries which are often dangerous, insecure and corrupt. Money (both publicly donated and grants) goes missing, misappropriated by militant groups, mafia or through staff fraud. Money can also be wasted. It is an accepted norm that a percentage of aid is written off in this way. All organisations aim to keep this to a minimum as much as possible, obviously.

And, like any sector with hundreds of thousands of workers, you will always have a few "bad apples". What you don’t expect is that they will be at the top of the tree – and are kept there with impunity.

Dealing daily with victims of major disasters (especially those involving children) is traumatic and exhausting. Western aid workers are lucky. We are there by choice; we can leave. Years after the earthquake, tens of thousands of people are still living in makeshift tented camps, vulnerable to hurricanes, diseases and other threats.

Haitians have good reason to be mistrustful of international aid and the United Nations.

The UN’s peacekeeping mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH) lowered its blue flag in October after 13 years. Its legacy is mixed. Although credited with improving stability and security, it also eventually admitted – under great duress – to one of its bases being the source of a cholera outbreak which killed more than 9,000 people after the earthquake.

In addition, international UN peacekeepers (from countries such as Pakistan, Brazil, Sri Lanka and Nepal) were implicated in sexual abuse scandals in Haiti after arriving. This included an organised child-sex ring and young women and girls coerced into "transitional sex" in exchange for food and money.

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Read more:

Actress Minnie Driver steps down as ambassador for Oxfam

Medecins sans Frontieres fired 19 staff members over sexual misconduct last year

Oxfam's deputy chief executive quits over Haiti sex scandal

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This wasn’t an anomaly; we have seen the same violations in Liberia, Sierra Leone, the Central African Republic and Chad, where Oxfam’s former country director in Haiti, Roland van Hauwermeiren, had previously been posted and was similarly alleged to have been involved in procuring prostitutes there too – possibly minors.

This brings us to the question of such country directors. Many NGOs have tried to move away from their old models of foreign aid workers being drafted in, preferring sustainable models of building capacity and skills with local staff and working with major corporate employers.

While I never personally witnessed or heard any allegations of wrongdoing while working in Haiti – and it was high on my radar –Van Hauwermeiren was typical of a certain kind of senior figure often seen in the field. While NGOs more commonly employ local staff, usually senior hires such as country directors are brought in above them. Ironically, the reason often cited is to avoid local corruption or political pressure. However, they are often middle-aged white men who are veteran aid workers. They live in secure villas, sometimes with domestic staff and drivers. After their contract ends, they often move on to another country directorship and live a transient life. The inherent risk is that the by-product is a neo-colonial network of well-remunerated men who are removed from the communities which they are there to serve and who are answerable to very few.

Does that excuse the behaviour of Van Hauwermeiren? Never.

The one thing everyone in aid is acutely aware of is that people in conflict and post-disaster situations are extremely vulnerable. Children and women are particularly at risk of exploitation, trafficking and violence.

The duty of care you have towards them is paramount, which is why Van Hauwermeiren’s behaviour is a double betrayal of the trust put in him.

While working in Haiti, I heard concerns about petty pilfering of aid or contract squabbles – but nothing like the allegations Van Hauwermeiren is now facing.

The vast majority of aid workers I was proud to work alongside were selfless, professional and immensely conscientious. They don’t choose the work because it’s well-paid, glamorous or are seeking a healthy work-life balance. They do it because they want to help people and improve lives.

Most of their ideas of rest and relaxation was being able to get to a beach for a day or finding somewhere with proper running water for a shower and a decent bed for a night.

Aid is not perfect. Writers such as Dambisa Moyo and Linda Polman are right to question its worth and methods. It will be – and should be – subject to more scrutiny and more transparency. That is long overdue.

Only the senior leadership of Oxfam know why they chose not to properly report the abuses and potential crimes; why they chose the protection of their brand over the rights of Haitian women and girls.

The organisation has a great heritage and does some fantastic work but as is often cited, reputations take decades to build but can be destroyed in hours.

I only hope that positive lessons can be salvaged from this dark chapter.

Stuart Coles is a public relations advisor and former head of media of the NGO Plan International