Oxfam Haiti sex abuse scandal arose from the arrogance of ‘godlike saviours’, but cutting off funding is not the answer
The Oxfam sex scandal has highlighted sexual abuse and exploitation by staff at the British-based charity in Haiti, after an earthquake ravaged the country in 2010. It also exposes the arrogant culture and lack of accountability in the aid sector.
The reason the sector is so vulnerable to such allegations is that it is too often consecrated. Oxfam uses “ending poverty” as slogan to rally for funding and support. As a charity, it is often seen as a representation of the “good” and “sacred”. It was not expected to do harm to society. This explains why it has fallen so far from grace recently.
Such an incident reveals not only that aid workers have been sexually abusive in local fields, but that they are using their position to exploit the most vulnerable.
Believe it or not, this is not an isolated incident. When aid workers from the developed world are sent into the developing world, this possibly breeds a sense of exceptionalism. Coming from the “better” outside world, as well as under the aim of “saving the world”, aid workers are inclined to do things differently than they otherwise would do back home.
Some even believe that they are godlike saviours for the locals, reinforcing the image of white fantasies with the mission of civilising the global south. They are left to their own devices to operate freely in such yet-to-be-liberated spaces. Some even perceive themselves as above the local norms and laws.
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Amid such a power hierarchy, incidents such as these are probably only the tip of the iceberg.
Still, a few black sheep do not justify cutting off funding to Oxfam and the entire sector. Cutting off funding will not help curb sexual exploitation by workers on the ground, but mostly affect the vulnerable populations who require help.
This under-supervised industry requires a structural overhaul. It is also important to realise the overhaul shall not be based on an event, but be a long-term process of constant evaluations.
The way forward is not only to improve the transparency of the organisation and sector, but for the management in these organisations to articulate new and renewed commitments, to their process, the core vision and values.
Neville Lai, Ho Man Tin