Last month, The Times of London reported on allegations that, shortly after the 2010 Haitian earthquake, aid workers employed by the UK-based charity Oxfam cavorted with prostitutes in a villa rented by the agency in a suburb of the capital Port-au-Prince. One source told the Times of “full-on Caligula orgies” while others said that girls as young as 14 might have been involved. Oxfam quietly sacked four of the men in 2011—though one was later rehired—and two others resigned. Meanwhile, the country director, Roland van Hauwermeiren, himself accused of hiring prostitutes in both Haiti and Chad, went on to work for another charity, which reportedly wasn’t informed about his possibly criminal behavior.
The outcry over the scandal has been a rude awakening for Oxfam and the aid business generally. Under pressure, the 76-year-old charity withdrew a bid for UK-government funding, and contracts with the European Commission are on hold. Thousands of individual donors have pulled out, senior staff were dressed down in Parliament and subsequently quit, Archbishop Desmond Tutu renounced his Oxfam goodwill ambassadorship, and a hail of opprobrium rained down on the organization across the English-speaking world. Investigations of staff accused of sexual abuses are now underway at UNICEF, UNAIDS, Save the Children, and other aid groups. Meanwhile, new revelations have emerged: Last week, the London Times reported that a senior Oxfam employee in Haiti was retained for a year after being accused of sexually harassing his coworkers.
The outrage is long overdue. For years, the international community has ignored such abuses, as well as far more serious ones. The UN secretary general reported 67 allegations of sex with minors in 2005 alone among UN personnel, the majority of whom were peacekeepers. Scores of other peacekeepers were later revealed to be running a child sex ring in Haiti, and some even filmed themselves raping a boy. Some peacekeepers were eventually repatriated, but none were prosecuted. Last year, the UN established a desultory system of safeguards; just two months later, a 12-year Associated Press investigation found over 300 additional allegations of child sex abuse by peacekeepers and other UN staff.
I worked in the aid business for years. We all knew that some male colleagues regularly solicited prostitutes in the impoverished communities where they worked. In good hotels throughout the developing world, bellboys routinely offer procurement services to white male guests. Personally, I knew of no cases involving children or physical coercion, but I now wonder why I regarded the cases I did hear about with such nonchalance. Perhaps I, like many colleagues, was inured to the cruelty of global power relations, in which the aid business plays a complex and sometimes cynical role. Haiti desperately needed assistance after the earthquake because its own development has been hampered by two centuries of Western-backed dictatorships and other forms of political meddling, along with ruinous World Bank loans and IMF rules, that left its economy in ruins. The snowy-haired aid worker drinking at the bar with a beautiful young local woman just didn’t seem so extraordinary in a world where he was being paid to mitigate some of the very horrors his government and its allies helped create in the first place.
It’s with such a jaundiced eye that I’ve begun to wonder whether the righteous anger of some of the loudest Oxfam critics has less to do with concern for women and girls than with taking advantage of an unsavory scandal to undermine the more activist wing of a charity sector that is trying to address these fundamental contradictions.
Ire about excesses in the aid business had been brewing in Britain’s conservative circles for years before the Oxfam scandal blew. Just one day before the Times broke the sex-scandal story, Jacob Rees-Mogg, one of the most vociferous of the original anti-aid Tory MPs, appeared on the steps of Prime Minister Theresa May’s Downing Street residence with a petition signed by over 100,000 readers of the Daily Express demanding cuts to the foreign-aid budget. It had reportedly begun circulating last October.
At least some of the problems can be traced back to 2011, when then–British Prime Minister David Cameron enraged some of his own MPs by increasing the foreign-aid budget during a period of austerity at home. The nonprofit sector in England and Wales is regulated by the Charity Commission, so Cameron’s government, perhaps in a concession to those angry MPs, then appointed a new board of commissioners who pledged to crack down on abuses in the aid sector, which conservatives claimed were rife. While this was in many respects a welcome move, some of the new commissioners’ credentials suggested a weak commitment to humanitarianism. The new chairman, William Shawcross, had been a fierce advocate of the Iraq War, praised the Guantánamo prison, and was a director and trustee of the Henry M. Jackson Society, which advocates for increased defense spending and a global US-UK military presence to secure Western interests. At the Charity Commission, Shawcross promoted a vision of modest voluntary good works, praising the old-style Women’s Institute championed by Britain’s Queen Mother from the 1950s on.
Shawcross, who recently completed his five-year term, inveighed against the supposedly “Islamist abuse of Muslim charities.” Peter Clarke, former head of counterterrorism at Scotland Yard was also appointed to the commission in 2013, as was Gwyn Prins, a professor at London School of Economics and adviser to the Global Warming Policy Foundation, which promotes skepticism about climate change and once shared an office with the Institute of Minerals, Materials, and Mining. Not long after his appointment, Prins warned charities to avoid politics. “If a charity campaigns about matters that appear to be outside its objects, then naturally we will look at it,” he told the charity trade journal Third Sector. “The public expects charities to stick to their knitting.”
In 2016, Prins was investigated by the commission for breaking his own rule after penning a pro-Brexit article for a chauvinist group known as Historians for Britain.
Shawcross and Prins were once viewed as men of the left. Sideshow, Shawcross’s brilliant exposé of US President Richard Nixon’s war in Cambodia, was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in 1979. Prins is the author of The Hidden Hippopotamus, a highly regarded historical study of the reactions of the people of what is now Zambia to colonialism. He also coauthored a prescient book, published in 1991, about the dangers of environmental destruction, which he viewed as a matter of global security. Today Shawcross inhabits a glittering world of country estates, heiresses, and right-wing political maneuverers. What happened to Shawcross, whose father was chief prosecutor at the Nuremberg trials, has been a preoccupation of left-leaning British media organs for some time. (Shawcross did not respond to a request for comment on this article.)
In our increasingly unequal world, it’s possible to imagine that Oxfam in particular would have been a thorn in the sides of establishment elites like Shawcross and Prins. Despite serious flaws, Oxfam is also unusually courageous, as charities go. Most groups accept funding from Western governments and carry out programs to mitigate the effects of horrors that are frequently created by those very same donors: They run health programs in countries crippled by onerous World Bank loans, IMF funding caps, unfair terms of global trade, and corrupt Western-backed dictatorships; they hand out food to victims of wars involving proxy armies supplied by the United States, the United Kingdom, and other Western nations. In recent years, however, Oxfam has begun to take on these contradictions directly, while continuing to deliver services to needy people. The group has launched a campaign against inequality, centered around tax havens, such as those revealed in the Panama and Paradise papers and pressured the European Union to sanction non-EU countries that allow them on their territory. It also regularly publishes bulletins about the concentration of wealth and power in the hands of a small number of billionaires. In 2014, the charity sparked Tory ire—and an official complaint to the Charity Commission—when it unveiled a campaign calling out the British government’s austerity program.
It’s not clear from whom the London Times obtained the damning information on Oxfam because its sources are anonymous. What does seem clear is that hard-core foreign-aid skeptics have been all too happy to pounce on the scandal—with its ugly revelations of negligence and abuse—to send a message to Oxfam and any others who might consider challenging the global forces that keep so many people poor and needy in the first place.