What to read on Oxfam’s sexual misconduct crisis?

February 19, 2018 6 By Duncan Green

Like anyone else connected with Oxfam, I’ve been glued to the media, and my emails over the last 10 days. It’s been pretty harrowing, a crushing dissonance between the revelations of sexual misconduct in our responses to emergencies in Haiti, Chad and elsewhere, and what I know of Oxfam’s focus and work on gender, women’s rights and working with women’s organisations, based on my 14 years with the organization.

Winnie Byanyima, Oxfam International’s Executive Director, captured how we all feel right now

Some of you have asked me to comment, but I’m not sure I have that much to add to some excellent commentary by others. I’ve never worked on the humanitarian side; nor do I have any particular inside track – one of the joys of my role of ‘pointing outwards’ for Oxfam is that I spend my time reading, blogging, writing and talking to non-Oxfam people, rather than sitting in loads of internal meetings. As you can see from FP2P, I’ve been carrying on with that role (with some relief) over the last week.

But after a while the elephant in my study becomes too big to ignore, so here are the pieces that I have found most illuminating (rather than infuriating) on what Oxfam is now calling its ‘sexual misconduct crisis’.

Oxfam’s response:

In addition to heartfelt expressions of shame and remorse, here are the concrete actions we are proposing (some of them quite far-reaching) to put it right.

This is not an argument for cutting aid or defunding Oxfam:

Zoe Williams: ‘Nobody whose serious interest is in the welfare of the girls and women of Haiti and Chad wants to see aid workers shut up shop and go home. There is a principle behind international aid: it’s not a wing of soft, diplomatic power to further Britain’s interests, as Boris Johnson has it, nor a way to “kickstart growth and development” and give us better trading partners, as David Cameron maintained. It’s the manifestation of a driving moral imperative to help another person in desperate need, whether suffering from natural disaster or manmade violence.’

Megan Norbert, who suffered a horrendous experience while with a humanitarian organization (not Oxfam) in South Sudan: ‘I feel quite strongly that dragging down the sector serves no purpose. Despite having been harmed while undertaking humanitarian work, I feel no ill will for humanitarian action as a whole; the hundreds of survivors I communicate with on a regular basis express similar feelings. What will help is pushing for more change, encouraging humanitarian organisations to act, and providing them with the resources to do so.’

Owen Barder set out his thoughts on twitter: ‘It can be harder to uncover and tackle abuse in a sector in which many of its supporters and employees feel strong affinity to the mission. People are reluctant to undermine the institutions This has led to cover ups in churches, politics, trade unions, and in NGOs…..It would be especially paradoxical to single out @oxfamgb which has fought an important fight for women and girls, and for rights, and against sexual abuse around the world. They are a key voice against abuse in the aid sector and in society.’

Heck, even Jeremy Clarkson weighed in (gated).

How to stop abuses in humanitarian response:

Save the Children UK’s Kevin Watkins argues that ‘an international registry of humanitarian workers backed by a “passport system” would enable us to prevent individuals exploiting recruitment loopholes. The UK’s large international development agencies could also come together to create a global centre on child safeguarding and sexual exploitation, working in cooperation with DfID and national authorities to prevent problems and support victims.’

Mike Edwards believes this should galvanize the push to localize spending and power: ‘For at least the last 25 years there has been a lively debate about power, aid and NGOs, focusing on the inability or unwillingness of agencies to hand over control and share their resources—as opposed to building their own brands and competing for market share from their fundraising base in the global North, and notwithstanding the recent trend to decentralize some parts of their operations. There are echoes of this debate among the friendlier critics of Oxfam since the Haiti scandal broke. The central issue is that, while NGOs are happy to criticize inequality when it is caused by others—billionaires for example, or the World Bank or multinational corporations—they have not been prepared to face up to the inequalities for which they themselves are at least partly responsible.’

Why is Emergency Response so prone to abuses?

Maggie Black in New Internationalist: ‘These environments are invariably chaotic, lawless, violent and deeply unequal. The people hired to work in such settings frequently have to face down warlords to get access to victims, argue aid convoys through armed checkpoints, risk their lives, and sometimes lose them, in the effort to bring relief to vulnerable people. Those able and willing to do those things often have a go-getting, driven and macho mentality. And this can lead to the creation of a dysfunctional and testosterone-loaded micro-culture…. To do the work on the ground, teams of itinerant workers are hired on short-term contracts and deployed in the world’s multiplying hot-spots. These conditions are where the micro-culture of aid dispensation is most vulnerable to abuse. The situation exerts huge pressure on human resources management.’

Wider Reflections:

Tim Harford on outrage as a positive feedback loop, feeding off itself.

Finally, the other, heroic, side of our Haiti response: the wonderful Yolette Etienne on Channel 4 News

And in the unlikely event that you still want more, here’s Aidnography’s regularly updated guide to the coverage (60 resources and counting)