Sex and Charity

Regarding the massive scandal involving chief executives of big NGOs, the situation must be considered through the lens of how we have dealt with sexual abuse. But we must be wary of how this is used to justify budget cuts. Español

Rafael Vilasanjuán
22 February 2018

People queue for water at Place de La Paix Internally displaced peoples (IDP) camp in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. PA Images. All rights reserved.

What I am about to say may offend certain sensibilities. In fact, I hope they are offended.

It is very likely that the women, some of which without a doubt were minors, that had sex with Oxfam workers in Haiti, did so to obtain resources that otherwise would have been out of their reach.

They chose to engage in such acts to obtain money to find food to take home, medicine or perhaps even because being locked up in those brothels meant escaping hell in a country utterly devastated by earthquakes and many other conflicts. Desperate, it is very likely that none of them were professional prostitutes, but simply victims of a catastrophic situation. 

What is certain is that the men that bought those women knew all of this and had no qualm in using their power to create an obscene and miserable reality, as if they were taking them from one kind of hell to another.

When dealing with war zones and extreme human conditions, women and especially underage girls are extremely vulnerable to abuse.

Nothing New

All of us who have worked in situations of extreme vulnerability (including armed conflict zones) know that humanitarian assistance, if provided by the wrong hands, can result in abuses of power. Sexual exploitation is one of the oldest abuses of them all, however is also the most common.

But care must be taken here. I am not saying that conflict ridden countries like Somalia or the Democratic Republic of Congo are immense brothels where anyone can go, offering money in exchange for sex on any corner. But no, there is much more dignity than what that would imply.

What I would like to explain is that when dealing with war zones and extreme human conditions, women and especially underage girls are extremely vulnerable to abuse, because in the majority of cases it is the only available alternative to a life devastated by destruction, violence and extreme poverty.

In each one of these contexts, prostitution is no two-sided act: There are no women who prostitute themselves, but only men that abuse them, even though money can act as an excuse for supposed consent to the act.

Those who do not understand such a simple equation is morally or legally incapacitated and unable to work in a humanitarian organization, or is a perverse human being that is lacking in any kind of scruples.

The worst of all is that this is nothing new. Humanitarian organisations, especially those who have been engulfed in years of extreme misery and devastation, know this too well.

More than 15 years ago, a study by Save The Children and ACNUR about the behaviour of humanitarian workers in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leon alerted the entire international community.

Oxfam, Save the Children, Médecins Sans Frontiers and so many others that although less international fall into the same category because they have all had to deal with abuses of power. Especially regarding abusive sexual practices against vulnerable populations which they had sought to protect from situations of extreme gravity.

In fact, more than 15 years ago, a study by Save The Children and ACNUR about the vulnerability of refugees and the behaviour of certain humanitarian workers in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leon alerted the entire international community.

Sexual abuse and the exploitation of minors was not a mere social phenomenon but also something which occurred within humanitarian organisations. 

Among the thousands of refugees from the west Africa, one witness described in broken English how “the big men love the little girls, they call them when they are walking along the road. Then they go to their houses and the men close the doors. When the big men have finished their work with the little girls, they leave them with money or a present.

Those of us who ran humanitarian organisations in those days were faced with a dilemma when confronted with testimonies such as this one.

These testimonies brought to light an issue that had not before been dealt with, because we had been living in an idealistic world where organisations that worked to assist vulnerable people must surely be averse to such sinister behaviour. How naïve we were!

We recognised the evidence, we began to perfect the codes of conduct and to revise the protocols to avoid such behaviours going unnoticed. We began peer reviewing, to find out if the barriers constructed appeared sufficient to us all.

The key issue is how we, as managers, face up to these issues once we have already put in place mechanisms to detect unacceptable behaviour, which is summarised by our ability to answer three basic questions.

These three questions are: When did you find out about the case? How did you act? and, what did you do to prevent it from happening again?


Three Errors

It is only logical that the index finger currently points towards Oxfam, and that it casts a shadow over other organisations of such a nature. We cannot avoid all kinds of bad conduct. However, from a distance at least three errors can be acknowledged. 

The first was hiding the evidence once it became known internally, and not taking more drastic measures even if it meant it would become public and end the careers of certain individuals.

When faced with bad conduct, the gravest error is to silence it, prioritising the legitimacy of the organisation over the very victims they have a responsibility to protect.

I have no doubt that organisations will learn from these mistakes and that the level of tolerance will diminish extremely in what is considered to be unacceptable overlaps of private and professional life. But even if it were as such, it is better to err on the side of excess. 

Organisations cannot control the private lives of their expats, but they can put in place mechanisms to control unacceptable behaviour. When faced with bad conduct, the gravest error is to silence it, prioritising the legitimacy of the organisation over the very victims they have a responsibility to protect.

The second error, one of equal gravity, would be for society itself, from donors, volunteers, to followers, to accuse the entire organisation of the same depraved behaviour for which a few of its employees are responsible – fortunately a minority – and for the errors committed when the decision on how to act was made.

It is important not to forget that Oxfam, like many other humanitarian organisations which are currently under a watchful eye, look after the territories of many who have been victims of volunteer negligence.

From the most marginalised in the poorest countries, to refugees that we reject at the European border, and that our governments expel. Refugees often returned to the beaches of Libya where they are left in the hands of the mafia, which expose them to abuse, rape, and slavery in an environment of total impunity, precisely because humanitarian organisations are not able to intervene, not even as uncomfortable witnesses.

The third significant error would be to pay attention to the voices that, in the UK and in many other countries, demand that governments cut back on their international aid spending.

From the outside, we see the humanitarian politics of the UK through envious eyes, considering the Official Development Assistance as a public priority of even Conservative governments requiring 0.7% of national spending to go towards aid.

The fact that successive governments have prevailed over those who believe this aid limits social responses to country-wide issues has not been enough to bring the discussion back down to earth and to challenge the notion of “us and the other”. Instead, it has projected Great Britain towards the world as no other foreign activity has ever done before.

Humanitarian aid and sex are incompatible, and it is necessary to clarify every single case that comes to light, and to reinforce protocols to prevent their repetition.

Fortunately, times have changed and it is now finally possible to face up to the opacity with which these abuses have been dealt with by large NGOs and the charity sector. 

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