Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 12 December 2018

Charities need a clean-up to stop their work being tainted by scandal

The criminal actions of a few cannot be allowed to overshadow noble causes

Haiti, which still hasn't recovered fully from the 2010 earthquake, suffered yet more devastation when Hurricane Matthew struck in 2016. Carlos Garcia Rawlins / Reuters
Haiti, which still hasn't recovered fully from the 2010 earthquake, suffered yet more devastation when Hurricane Matthew struck in 2016. Carlos Garcia Rawlins / Reuters

When a devastating earthquake struck Haiti in 2010, killing 220,000 and leaving 1.5 million homeless, aid was despatched from every part of the world. But now we have learned that against this backdrop of grinding human suffering, the very charity workers sent to alleviate victims’ suffering might have exacerbated it with deeply disturbing acts. The British government this week announced an investigation into allegations that Oxfam covered up a scandal involving its staff hiring prostitutes in Haiti, some of them allegedly underage. While the world saw the suffering of Haitians as a moral call to service, some aid workers appear to have seen the disaster as an opportunity for self-gratifying sexual exploitation of the displaced and desperate.

Three male aid workers resigned, another four were sacked for gross misconduct and Oxfam's deputy chief executive Penny Lawrence resigned last night following the inquiry into sexual misconduct. Oxfam now faces the prospect of being stripped of government funding. The charity has insisted there was no cover-up and forced out its Haiti director Roland van Hauwermeiren in 2011 when he allegedly admitted hiring prostitutes – but he simply went on to helm another charity and is now facing similar accusations dating back to his tenure as Oxfam’s director for Chad in 2006. It bears remembering this is not a problem restricted to Oxfam alone. History tells us some of those – but not all – who carry the responsibility for the care and wellbeing of those most in need are culpable of the most flagrant abuse of authority and power. Peacekeepers sent to protect the vulnerable in the Central African Republic in 2013 when the region was riven with violence stood accused of similar abuses of trust.

Oxfam, like other international aid organisations, has done immense good around the world. It has routinely delivered relief in the most difficult of circumstances to some the most inaccessible parts of the world, maintained pressure on world governments to tackle climate change and scrupulously tabulated the grotesque disparities of wealth that, if not addressed, threaten to undo the progress of decades. But the recent allegations threaten to cast a damaging shadow on the charitable sector and peacekeeping missions. Critics now argue that procedural loopholes and lax oversight are making it possible for sexual predators potentially to embed themselves in these sectors. The problem cannot be swept under the carpet. Antonio Guterres, the UN secretary general, last year acknowledged the scale of the problem and pushed for a global compact to combat it. The recent revelations highlight the urgent need for a concerted effort. When international charitable missions appear to have degenerated into vehicles for the commission of the most egregious crimes against the most defenceless people on earth, it becomes impossible to prise good deeds from the criminal actions that occur in their shadow. Now is the time for a thorough clean-up.

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