In a tragic irony, Oxfam has demonstrated the injustice of a certain kind of inequality.
The international charity, which is known for its annual report on income inequality, is mired in scandal involving sexual coercion by its employees, possible pedophilia, and lying to a government agency in order to maintain taxpayer funding.
While responding to the 2010 Haitian earthquake, relief workers engaged prostitutes in living quarters furnished by Oxfam, paid for with charitable donations (and tax dollars). Some have alleged that Oxfam workers did not spare minors. Behind all this is the fear that charitable aid may have been leveraged as a bargaining chip, leaving women fearing that if they did not comply, they would be denied food and medical supplies.
The reports are familiar to Roland van Hauwermeiren, who oversaw Oxfam operations in Haiti. While denying some media reports, van Hauwermeiren admits he had relations with a Haitian aid recipient. “I supported her young sister and very young mother with diapers and powdered milk,” he revealed.
He reportedly engaged in identical behavior while working for Oxfam in Chad and in Liberia for the aid group Merlin (which subsequently merged with Save the Children). In the latter, NGO workers reportedly abused boys as young as 14 – and girls as young as eight. While allegations of pedophilia in Haiti thus far remain unproven, they would fit a discomforting pattern.
When Oxfam officials discovered the Haitian sex scandal, they potentially violated the law by hiding it from the British government. Oxfam revealed sexual harassment in an August 2011 report, but withheld the most significant details. The UK’s Charity Commission said:
The report to us stated there had been no allegations, or evidence, of any abuse of beneficiaries. It also made no mention of any potential sexual crimes involving minors.
Doing so allowed Oxfam to retain its access to a lucrative revenue stream. “In its last financial year Oxfam received 32 million pounds ($44 million) from Britain’s aid ministry, about 8 percent of its overall income,” Reuters reported. It receives another £29.3 million annually from the EU. Both agencies have threatened to revoke funding – but neither has yet followed through.
Sexual harassment and exploitation of vulnerable women flows from what the Financial Times describes as “the inevitably yawning imbalance of power between the givers and recipients of aid.” MEP Daniel Hannan wrote that villagers view Oxfam employees as “little gods,” handing out life or death one box at a time. Some aid workers come to share this view. Their self-aggrandizement inverts the advice of St. Gregory Nazianzus, who said, “Be like gods to the poor, imitating God’s mercy. Humanity has nothing so much in common with God as the ability to do good.”
Whatever the solution to this crisis, it is not identity politics. Oxfam’s initial response boasted of its commitment to “ensure more gender balance in leadership roles,” adding that 15 of its 22 executive directors are women. (Sixty-eight percent is not, in fact, gender balance.) However, the one official who took responsibility and resigned is Oxfam GB deputy CEO Penny Lawrence.
Nor could the situation be improved if government awarded this aid directly, rather than delivering it via private charity. UN workers in peacekeeping zones sexually abused 311 victims in 2016 alone. After the UN refused to stamp out such victimization in the Central African Republic in 2013 and 2014, the director of field operations in its human rights office (OHCHR) leaked the details to French media. Rather than the abusers it was the whistleblower, Anders Kompass, who found himself suspended. After an independent investigation vindicated him, his resignation letter denounced the UN’s culture of “complete impunity.”
The greater the power differential, the greater the immunity predators enjoy.
Where could one begin to clean up such a mess? How can we assure that Western aid workers are seen as gods of mercy, not gods of plunder?
Oxfam’s inequality report offers a helpful starting point. It outlines a course of action for corporations guilty of a much lesser “offense”: not paying its workers Oxfam’s definition of a living wage. The relevant passage reads:
No dividends if no living wage: Multinational companies can choose to prioritize the well-being of lower paid workers by refraining from rewarding shareholders through dividends or buybacks or paying bonuses to executives and the highly paid until all their employees have received a living wage (calculated using an independent standard), and steps have been taken to ensure they are paying prices that can provide a living income for workers or producers in their key supply chains.
If Oxfam believes entities are responsible for the deeds of other segments of its supply chain, then the charity can exercise responsibility for the actions of its own employees. Herewith, a modest counterproposal:
Oxfam can choose to prioritize the well-being of its recipients by refraining from rewarding its directors with salaries or benefits – or, at a minimum, decline all government funding – until such time as 1) all its beneficiaries are free from sexual coercion by its employees and 2) it stops misleading the governments which funded that exploitation.
If Oxfam finds this policy impracticable, it may wish to rethink the advice is dispenses.
Failing that, the government should take compulsory measures to defund bad actors, who mislead supervisors to retain taxpayer funding. The Charity Commission is presently investigating the 2011 report. It should both assure that Oxfam fires everyone guilty of deception and exact a proportionate financial penalty from the agency. Furthermore, it should privatize a greater share of its long-term relief budget. This would offer more immediate oversight, less waste and red tape, and allow a more nimble and nuanced response to unique local circumstances.
Any illegal actions committed by Oxfam personnel should be subject to vigorous enforcement of all applicable laws and statutes. Haitian officials have initiated this process, which the charity has publicly applauded.
Ultimately, the only way to end the cycle of abuse is for charitable agencies to value the human dignity and well-being of the powerless – the least of these – over money. Human beings become gods of mercy only when they see the image of God in every human face, however discarded or disfigured. This renewed vision is so vital that our salvation depends on it (St. Matthew 25:31-46). Most aid workers – like most priests – fulfill their vocation with the highest of ethical standards. But no institution should sweep malfeasance under the rug, especially to preserve a steady stream of taxpayer funds.
In its current fundraising pitch to combat “extreme inequality,” the charity writes: “Oxfam is fighting for a future … where people are put before profits.”
It is time for Oxfam to practice what it preaches.
(Photo credit: Public domain.)