The international aid community has a sexual abuse problem and they’re still not talking about it

There are many dirty hands in the aid community.
There are many dirty hands in the aid community.
Image: Reuters/Susana Vera
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One of the world’s most prominent humanitarian organizations, Oxfam, is still reeling from the reputational damage caused when its own workers were caught misusing their power in some of the world’s most vulnerable communities.

In February, a whistleblower and newspaper investigation revealed how aid workers allegedly held a “full-on Caligula orgy” with women assumed to be prostitutes at the charity’s villa in Haiti, where Oxfam was helping the country recover from a devastating 2010 earthquake. Some of the the aid workers had already moved on to other charities, but Oxfam failed to warn the next NGOs about their misconduct, the whistleblower revealed.

Haiti suspended Oxfam’s operations and the international charity has lost thousands of regular donors. Oxfam has apologized to the Haitian government, explained itself to MPs in Britain who decide its UK government funding and appointed an independent commission on sexual misconduct. Still, the charity’s image has been tarnished.

Oxfam’s disgrace has forced the rest of the aid community to do some introspection, or at least get ahead of their own potential scandal. Other aid organizations came clean before they came under scrutiny, dismissing workers who had been involved in sexual misconduct. With this, NGOs also reiterated their dedication to ethical behavior, publicising their own strict codes of conduct.

These scandals undermine the good work foreign aid organizations do in developing or disaster hit areas, and tellingly, they are only addressed when donor countries find out. Despite written codes of conduct, in practice the bad behavior of aid workers seems to have been overlooked or covered up to maintain the aid organization’s image among donors. This culture of silence has effectively led to the exploitation of the communities these organizations were meant to help. Even as the scandal wanes, there are still many unanswered questions about the behavior of aid workers in countries desperate for their intervention.

What they didn’t say

The roots of Oxfam’s scandal in Haiti lay in Chad. In 2006 already, the aid workers implicated in Haiti may have been involved in similar abuses. At the time of the Haiti revelations though, Chad barely got a few lines in Oxfam’s statement. In Chad, a country led by Idriss Deby for nearly 30 years and with a suppressed civil society, getting answers would be much more difficult—and still is.

After numerous attempts, Oxfam’s West Africa office failed to respond to Quartz on questions related to whether the NGO had actually investigated the Chad incident. At the time, Oxfam said it was trying to corroborate the allegations made against its Chad office. Oxfam’s response was to share the blanket statement on its independent commission on sexual misconduct.

The Chadian government has released no formal statement either and any reporting on Oxfam’s alleged misconduct in the West African nation has been done by the international press, a Chadian journalist told Quartz. Had it not been for the scandal in Haiti, no one would have paid attention to Chad, and even then the details remain unclear.

Like many countries similar to Chad, impoverished and prone to state-led human rights abuses already, abuse perpetrated by external organizations remain hidden, especially when these organizations purport to benefit vulnerable communities.

In the wake of Oxfam’s exposé, one of the world’s largest humanitarian organizations, the International Committee of the Red Cross released a statement pre-emptively saying that it had identified 21 staff members who it dismissed for paying for sexual services, or resigned during an internal query. The international organization’s decentralized management system was blamed for the potential inaccuracies in collecting data around alleged misconduct. The ICRC assured donors and the media that it was taking sexual misconduct by its staff seriously.

Yet, the Red Cross would also not share any information regarding where the misconduct took place and the nationality of the victims and perpetrators. That kind of information is vital to creating a culture of transparency in an international community now facing scrutiny about its own ethics, especially in countries where sexual violence is rarely dealt with adequately.

“Indeed, for ethical and legal reasons we will not be disclosing the identities or nationalities of the people concerned, or where the misconduct took place,” the ICRC said in response to questions from Quartz. “Rather than focusing on who did what, we would like to focus instead on finding solutions to prevent, detect and report misconduct.”

The misconduct the ICRC referred to was linked to prostitution in host countries, the statement said. The organization had already introduced a rule in 2006 that banned its employees from paying for sex, even in countries where prostitution is legal. But in ring-fencing sex work away from other more egregious forms of sexual misconduct, the ICRC inadvertently perpetuates a culture that allowed the Oxfam and similar scandals in the first place.

UN peacekeeping soldier, Australian Army Captain Morris uses binoculars from an observation tower located on the Israeli side of the 1973 Golan Heights ceasefire line with Syria
Who will guard the guardians?
Image: Reuters/Ronen Zvulun

A culture of misconduct

There was a notorious bar in Goma, eastern DR Congo, that offered more than just pizza and a good time to the community of aid workers, diplomats and journalist living in the troubled region. The bar, now closed, was known for sex work and anyone who passed through heard about the shenanigans.

What seems like harmless fun for a community living in an unpredictable war zone is indicative of an imbalanced culture between aid workers and the communities where they temporarily live and work. In the Goma bar, and elsewhere, solciiting sex from local women is accepted as part of the culture, ignoring the power imbalance between the much wealthier foreign aid worker in town for a short stint and the local women forced to take up prostitution or some form of transactional sex in order to feed their families. There is no romance here, or even a sophisticated culture of sexual openness, instead it is the result of a warped power dynamic that harks back to colonial times.

Aid organizations often cannot determine whether whether alleged sexual misconduct involved consensual sex from professional sex workers, if the women were minors, and as is often the case, or whether these were perhaps destitute women coerced into “survival sex,” says Sharanya Kanikkannan, the campaign’s Mali-based legal and policy advisor.

“The truth is you don’t really know whether a case involves one or the other scenario until you actually give that person a chance to speak out about what happened to them and their experiences,” Kanikkannan told Quartz.

A hierarchy of abuse

Among aid communities, there seemed to be a hierarchy of misconduct that ignored the power aid workers have over the impoverished communities they serve, explains Kanikkannan. A study of women in Haiti who had what looked like consensual relationships with UN workers revealed relationships of unequal power, abuse, violence and the tacit understanding that saying no to a man whose friends carried guns was impossible.

“These power differentials are very, very complicated and I don’t think that any organization—whether it’s the UN, whether it’s ICRC—has enough information right now to be making blanket judgements about whether most of what is happening in the field is non-violent or non-criminal – and they shouldn’t have the authority to do so,” she said.

As a former UN employee, Kanikkannan remembers the bar in Goma and the surrounding cafes. She recalls speaking to local café owners who said they’d seen an influx of women when the UN Organization Stabilization Mission in DR Congo (MONUSCO) was established in 1999 and as the mission has expanded. Women from surrounding areas and from across the border came to Goma, working in formal and informal sex work.

NGOs are now coming forward and trying to establish more exacting codes of conduct around misconduct, which are sometimes stricter than even the local laws. The prevailing lack of transparency ICRC and other organizations have chosen, however, undermines any efforts to affect change.

The UN literally tables a list of abuses by peacekeepers at its various missions, but Code Blue says this doesn’t quite bring justice for the victims. Peacekeepers are drawn from the armies of member states around the world, and the UN struggles to maintain the a standard discipline among diverse troops, and has been unable to enforce a uniform mechanism for transparency.

That infamous bar in Goma was vetted by the UN mission as a safe space for international workers as a ‘green zone,’ but in doing so became a hive for sex work and uneven power dynamics. The bar was emblematic of the toxic masculinity that prevails in the aid community, especially the UN, and it’s one of the reasons why Kanikkannan says she and other women quit. For the local women trying to survive in these communities, that is rarely an option.