Earlier this week, MPs have shed light on cases of abuse and misconduct amongst charities and the aid sector at large. Such cases are of a sexual nature, and on the back of ongoing movements such as #MeToo that have actively condemned violence against women the scandal seems all the more disturbing. These findings have reiterated that sex abuse is a crime that reaches all corners of the earth, leaving no stone unturned. The fact that international organisations such as Oxfam, Save the Children and the United Nations are at the centre of this media storm – as the employers of the abusers – makes it all the more depressing.
In response to such widespread allegations, the international development committee (IDC) released a report expressing the ‘abject failure’ of the aid sector, which has not in any way eradicated sexual exploitation within and beyond its workforce. In attempt to tackle the problem, the report recommended adding a survivor support network to the aid sector’s infrastructure via the appointment of an official to oversee complaints against any aid organisations and wishes to deploy a global employee register to ensure abusers don’t fall under the radar. This may appear to be a positive step, but the likeliness of victims coming forward to report against the misconduct of a charity that is supposed to be helping their community recover from natural disaster or war or a disease epidemic is extremely slim. This puts responsibility on the charity workers themselves to speak out about any wrongdoing that they see.
The committee began following a number of claims aimed at Oxfam workers, which accused them of paying Haitian women for sex when on aid missions which materialised following the tragic Earthquake of 2011 that tore the country apart. Yet, accounts of sexual misconduct have existed long before this, with a Labour MP noting: ‘Reports go back over a 16-year period and the system has failed to respond’ – referring to documented concerns as early as 2002 by the UN agency for refugees (UNHCR) and Save the Children about the abuse of vulnerable women in communities that desperately needed help.
The culture of silence and taboo that surrounds sex abuse is perhaps why these allegations have been left behind and ignored for years, and it seems the aid sector puts its reputation as peacemaker before the people that they should be helping. If employers show complicity and even active engagement in sex work with the vulnerable, internal corruption is unlikely to be uprooted. Yet those who do speak out can force people to listen. For example, Save the Children have had to acknowledge the IDC report, after an employee and now whistle-blower Alexia Pepper de Caires openly spoke to the press about witnessing abuse both in the UK and abroad. Generally, it seems that staff are unwilling to report these exploitative workers to the police for fear of ruining their charity’s image, but it really is there responsibility to do what they can in this dire situation and speak on behalf of the victims who need their help.
Organisations, some of which are as prominent on the world stage as the United Nations, have been criticised for abusing power in situations where they should be supporting the vulnerable. The aid sector should be setting an example for the rest of world but instead it feeds vicious cycles of abuse and victimhood. So much for humanitarianism, right?