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.