Oxfam’s Heart of Darkness

Every year since 2018, or thereabouts, we have seen variations on a grim theme. Women in third world countries, the recipients of aid and charity, have accused aid workers of sexual abuse and exploitation, of rape and molestation.

Women have done so most recently in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Oxfam has suspended two of its staff in order to investigate predictably unpleasant allegations made against them. In February, The Times reports, Oxfam received a ten-page letter about its operations in the DRC, accusing eleven people and alleging sexual abuse and workplace bullying.

Oxfam has its own catalogue of horrors, and we will return to it; but for a moment I would like to say more about the DRC. That country has seen rather a lot of this particular grotesqueness. In September last year, it was reported that World Health Organisation workers in the DRC had operated a particular form of exploitation termed ‘sex for jobs’, in which they traded the scarce work in their gift for sex with locals.

Between 2018 and last year, during an epidemic of Ebola, aid workers are alleged to have exchanged those things they were meant to provide for their own gratification. Fifty-one women were included in this catalogue, each of them alleging a series of abuses. Thirty women specifically accused men who identified themselves as WHO staff.

After these accusations were concretely made, several aid organisations and charities – including UNICEF – launched internal enquiries.

In their promises to improve in future, there was a collective throwing up of the hands. Every spokesman said that they deplored these actions. They tacitly acknowledged that these were not only perversions of the purported work of these organisations – they also tarnished everything done by those aid agencies in country, coming as it does from the hands of the abusers.

Agencies acknowledged that these crimes are often committed; that mechanisms for their reporting do not work; and that the prospect of punishment or justice finding the criminals is close to nil. These facts are stubborn. Very little can be done to change them.

Returning to Oxfam, we have the defining incidents of this series of scandals. In 2010, after the terrible earthquake in Haiti, senior members of Oxfam’s staff including its Haiti director of operations, Roland Van Hauwermeiren, were alleged to have preyed upon the survivors. They were first accused of having made prostitutes of the Haitian locals, paying them for sex. Some of those locals were allegedly children, which makes what follows all the more galling. (In 2006 in Chad, it later emerged, exactly the same thing was alleged to have happened, again led by Van Hauwermeiren.)

After hearing of these accusations in 2011, Oxfam actively hid them from public view. It took until 2018 for reporting in The Times and elsewhere to acknowledge the story. In the meantime, four of the alleged perpetrators, including Van Hauwermeiren, were encouraged to resign quietly. All this in the hope of defending the charity’s reputation rather than attempting to reckon with its sins.

In 2018 Oxfam released a heavily redacted version of its 2011 report, noting not only the allegations against these and other men, but also extensive corroboration. All of this was kept from the public for seven years, and from the Charity Commission for as long. After years of conscious concealment and deceit, and after the crimes themselves, Oxfam tried pathetically to spin the report as an exercise in honesty and learning lessons.

‘However difficult it is to meet the demands of transparency, and however hard it is to confront mistakes of the past, we believe that ultimately, this will help us take meaningful action and become more effective’, its copy held.

As pathetic as this read in 2018, it seems disingenuous and wicked now. That same year, The Sunday Times reported of over a hundred individual complaints of sexual abuse against workers for British charities. The Charity Commission report in 2019 found that not only did Oxfam conceal and lie for all it was worth; it also pointedly ‘failed to act‘ on reports that its staff were abusing girls in Haiti. It acted as though complainants, including children, were liars, and its staff were upstanding people wrongly accused.

Anyone who has dealt with aid workers knows that while many are good and decent, some are decidedly not. The latter live as though they are acting out a passion play with themselves cast as lead. Being in situations of strain and peril is not a sacrifice for them, but rather something to which they are temperamentally suited.

Indeed, for the abusers above, the rough living justifies exploitation of others, with the difficulty of conditions serving as an excuse for a form of self-medication with moral depravity. Such people think of those they are nominally in country to help as a mass which they can exploit and use for their own gratification. Perhaps all this is justified by the good they believe they are doing. Perhaps, to such people, their actions need no justification.

The New Humanitarian has diligently reported on accusations against aid workers and peacekeeping forces which have been made for 25 years. It is a story which seems to recur with depressing inevitability.

There has been a little attempted defence of these people and what they did.

Some, like the academic Mary Beard, mused whether the boundaries of civilisation broke down in trying circumstances like these. As if each aid worker was his own Kurtz, driven mad by the darkness of the abyss into which each stared. But these are not individual lapses and small instances of evil set against worse circumstances. They are crimes contrary to the policies of the organisations to which these men belong; crimes which were hushed up by higher-ups in the hope of not scaring away donors, and to allow the organisations in question continued access to scenes of disaster and strife.

And they will keep happening, again and again, often successfully concealed, with some of these stories appearing in the papers up to eight years later: possibly horrifying their readers just enough to reconsider their next donation.

This piece was originally published in The Critic.

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