Category Archives: Oxfam

Prostituting Charity: The Oxfam Debate

Oxfam has outdone itself.  In the murky, squalid business where charity seems to chase, then embed itself in disaster zones like a dedicated virus, Oxfam ranks highly.  In terms of a tally, the number of reported abuses in the charity sector is galloping ahead, with one of Britain’s most noted charities in the lead.

The revelations this month that the charity’s staff sexually exploited victims of the Haiti earthquake in 2010, a point subsequently concealed, have triggered a storm of British discontent.  The revelations included a very active country director, Roland van Hauwermeiren, who revelled in sex parties as he went about his humanitarian work.  Allegations of sexual abuse in Oxfam shops have also made their searing mark.

The organisation has lost over 7,000 donors since the revelations, and MPs on the international development committee overseeing aid have been unimpressed. The Charity Commission may well have been misled by former executives Dame Barbara Stocking and Penny Lawrence.

Oxfam’s CEO, Mark Goldring, is all apologies, notably after remarking in an interview with The Guardian that the charity was being attacked as if “we murdered babies in their cots.  Certainly, the scale and the intensity of the attacks feel out of proportion to the level of culpability. I struggle to understand it.”

The official line from the organisation was more humbling, though prefaced by an insistence that measures of reform had been implemented. “It is clear we still have not done enough to change our own culture and to create the strongest possible policies to protect people we work with globally. We are doing that right now.  But we must do much more and act with greater urgency.”

On the other side of the moral saviour is the self-helping abuser.  Such figures have needs and callings.  The squalid reality soon manifests.  Vulnerability is less there to be alleviated than cultivated, teased into an ongoing relationship between the victim and the touted rescuer.  Historically, however, the mission of rescue can be broadly seen as part of the stock idea of the civilising project.  The modern humanitarian project is a colonialism of the emotions, pornogrified guilt that finds refuge in despair.

It is precisely such a civilising mission that was said to cause debility and emotional decay. The obligated civilisers, in engaging their burdensome task, would encounter harsh environments, uncompromising geography and problematic natives.

It was precisely such background that provided the alibi and apologia for the white civilizer’s bad behaviour read against noble necessity. Geographer Ellsworth Huntington suggested in Civilization and Climate (1915) that temperate zones engendered mental stimulation while tropical climates induced “tropical inertia”.

The focus of such geographers and the odd enthused quack was an insistence on justifiable degeneracy as an occupational hazard.  “Tropical neurasthenia” was one term coined by Charles Woodruff in his 1905 work The Effects of Tropical Light on White Men, emphasising the preponderance of insanity amongst certain US soldiers based in the Philippines. (Those based in cooler regions evinced fewer problems.)

“According to the man’s complexion and general resistance to this exhaustion from increased metabolism and effects of the light may be so slight as to show mere enervation, or nervous weakness being more marked in older men.”  Such studies served to bolster the views of Benjamin Kidd, a British sociologist who insisted that peoples from temperate zones could never adjust to tropical climes.

Taking such factors into account, and the modern, heart bleeding charity worker becomes a colonial builder.  Such a figure is part of the modern industry of rescue, dressed up as a charitable exercise.  According to Afua Hirsch, theories such as tropical neurasthenia may well have fallen out after the Second World War, “but to this day our understanding of countries that receive humanitarian assistance is still deeply grounded in the same colonial thinking.”

Even those considered voraciously read and enlightened on the problems of empire find room, even if small, to defend such missions.  Poverty and disaster invite assumptions.  “I do wonder how hard it must be to sustain ‘civilised’ values in a disaster zone,” pondered Cambridge classicist Mary Beard.  That statement, it should be added, followed on from, “Of course one can’t condone the (alleged) behaviour of Oxfam staff in Haiti or elsewhere.”

The Beard episode induced outrage.  Language police duly considered her use of inverted commas of civilisation as unwarranted and misguided.  Others chose to avoid seeing them.  Torrential abuse followed.

Fellow Cambridge academic Priyamvada Gopal finessed a particularly brutal response, reflecting on her own place of employment.  Cambridge, that abode “where there is little direct abuse but plenty of genteel and patrician casual racism passing as frank and well-meaning observations.” Beard had done nothing to show contrition, indeed persisted in refusing “to see what was so profoundly and deeply wrong” with such claims, supplemented by “bizarre, indeed cringe-making comparisons between the French resistance and aid workers.”

Beard felt, a point she subsequently made in a blog for the Times Literary Supplement, she had been “guilty of a shorthand which misled.”  She duly concluded that it was “too easy to imagine that we are better than those who do the work we would be too scared to do.”  The implication of such a sentiment, framed as an obligatory task of the nobly decent, is clear: even those involved in rescue and inadvertent civilising are humans too.  Patrician morality is alive and kicking.

Prostituting Charity: The Oxfam Debate

Oxfam has outdone itself.  In the murky, squalid business where charity seems to chase, then embed itself in disaster zones like a dedicated virus, Oxfam ranks highly.  In terms of a tally, the number of reported abuses in the charity sector is galloping ahead, with one of Britain’s most noted charities in the lead.

The revelations this month that the charity’s staff sexually exploited victims of the Haiti earthquake in 2010, a point subsequently concealed, have triggered a storm of British discontent.  The revelations included a very active country director, Roland van Hauwermeiren, who revelled in sex parties as he went about his humanitarian work.  Allegations of sexual abuse in Oxfam shops have also made their searing mark.

The organisation has lost over 7,000 donors since the revelations, and MPs on the international development committee overseeing aid have been unimpressed. The Charity Commission may well have been misled by former executives Dame Barbara Stocking and Penny Lawrence.

Oxfam’s CEO, Mark Goldring, is all apologies, notably after remarking in an interview with The Guardian that the charity was being attacked as if “we murdered babies in their cots.  Certainly, the scale and the intensity of the attacks feel out of proportion to the level of culpability. I struggle to understand it.”

The official line from the organisation was more humbling, though prefaced by an insistence that measures of reform had been implemented. “It is clear we still have not done enough to change our own culture and to create the strongest possible policies to protect people we work with globally. We are doing that right now.  But we must do much more and act with greater urgency.”

On the other side of the moral saviour is the self-helping abuser.  Such figures have needs and callings.  The squalid reality soon manifests.  Vulnerability is less there to be alleviated than cultivated, teased into an ongoing relationship between the victim and the touted rescuer.  Historically, however, the mission of rescue can be broadly seen as part of the stock idea of the civilising project.  The modern humanitarian project is a colonialism of the emotions, pornogrified guilt that finds refuge in despair.

It is precisely such a civilising mission that was said to cause debility and emotional decay. The obligated civilisers, in engaging their burdensome task, would encounter harsh environments, uncompromising geography and problematic natives.

It was precisely such background that provided the alibi and apologia for the white civilizer’s bad behaviour read against noble necessity. Geographer Ellsworth Huntington suggested in Civilization and Climate (1915) that temperate zones engendered mental stimulation while tropical climates induced “tropical inertia”.

The focus of such geographers and the odd enthused quack was an insistence on justifiable degeneracy as an occupational hazard.  “Tropical neurasthenia” was one term coined by Charles Woodruff in his 1905 work The Effects of Tropical Light on White Men, emphasising the preponderance of insanity amongst certain US soldiers based in the Philippines. (Those based in cooler regions evinced fewer problems.)

“According to the man’s complexion and general resistance to this exhaustion from increased metabolism and effects of the light may be so slight as to show mere enervation, or nervous weakness being more marked in older men.”  Such studies served to bolster the views of Benjamin Kidd, a British sociologist who insisted that peoples from temperate zones could never adjust to tropical climes.

Taking such factors into account, and the modern, heart bleeding charity worker becomes a colonial builder.  Such a figure is part of the modern industry of rescue, dressed up as a charitable exercise.  According to Afua Hirsch, theories such as tropical neurasthenia may well have fallen out after the Second World War, “but to this day our understanding of countries that receive humanitarian assistance is still deeply grounded in the same colonial thinking.”

Even those considered voraciously read and enlightened on the problems of empire find room, even if small, to defend such missions.  Poverty and disaster invite assumptions.  “I do wonder how hard it must be to sustain ‘civilised’ values in a disaster zone,” pondered Cambridge classicist Mary Beard.  That statement, it should be added, followed on from, “Of course one can’t condone the (alleged) behaviour of Oxfam staff in Haiti or elsewhere.”

The Beard episode induced outrage.  Language police duly considered her use of inverted commas of civilisation as unwarranted and misguided.  Others chose to avoid seeing them.  Torrential abuse followed.

Fellow Cambridge academic Priyamvada Gopal finessed a particularly brutal response, reflecting on her own place of employment.  Cambridge, that abode “where there is little direct abuse but plenty of genteel and patrician casual racism passing as frank and well-meaning observations.” Beard had done nothing to show contrition, indeed persisted in refusing “to see what was so profoundly and deeply wrong” with such claims, supplemented by “bizarre, indeed cringe-making comparisons between the French resistance and aid workers.”

Beard felt, a point she subsequently made in a blog for the Times Literary Supplement, she had been “guilty of a shorthand which misled.”  She duly concluded that it was “too easy to imagine that we are better than those who do the work we would be too scared to do.”  The implication of such a sentiment, framed as an obligatory task of the nobly decent, is clear: even those involved in rescue and inadvertent civilising are humans too.  Patrician morality is alive and kicking.

Oxfam Sex Scandal and NGO Imperialism

Imagine living in a country where the entire social services sector is privatized, run by “charities” that are based in other countries and staffed by foreigners who get to decide whether or not you qualify for assistance.

Welcome to Haiti, the “Republic of NGOs.”

As salacious details about Oxfam officials hiring Haitian girls for sex make headlines, the media has downplayed NGOs’ lack of accountability to those they purportedly serve. Even less attention has been devoted to the role so-called non-governmental organizations have played in undermining the Haitian state and advancing wealthy countries’ interests.

According to a series of news reports, Oxfam UK’s Haiti director hired prostitutes and organized orgies at a charity run villa set up after the devastating 2010 earthquake. Some of the girls may have been as young as 14 and Oxfam representatives traded aid for sex. Oxfam UK leaders tried to keep the issue quiet when it emerged in 2011, which enabled a number of the perpetrators to join other NGOs operating internationally.

Since the earthquake there have been innumerable stories of NGOs abusing their power or pillaging funds raised for Haitians. In an extreme case, the US Red Cross built only six houses with the $500 million they raised for Haiti after the earthquake.

While impoverished Haitians get short shrift, NGOs respond to the interests of their benefactors. After the UN occupation force brought cholera to Haiti in October 2010, Oxfam and other NGOs defended the Washington-France–Canada instigated MINUSTAH (Mission des Nations Unies pour la stabilisation en Haïti). In response to Haitians protesting the UN’s role in the cholera outbreak, Oxfam spokeswoman Julie Schindall, told the Guardian “if the country explodes in violence, then we will not be able to reach the people we need to.” At the same time Médecins Sans Frontières’ head of mission in Port-au-Prince, Stefano Zannini, told Montreal daily La Presse,our position is pragmatic: to have learnt the source at the beginning of the epidemic would not have saved more lives. To know today would have no impact either.”

Of course, that was nonsense. Confirming the source of the cholera was medically necessary. At the time of these statements UN forces were still disposing their sewage in a way that put Haitian life at risk. Protesting UN actions was a way to pressure MINUSTAH to stop their reckless sewage disposal and generate the resources needed to deal with a cholera outbreak that left 10,000 dead and one million ill.

Worse than deflecting criticism of the UN’s responsibility for the cholera outbreak, NGOs put a progressive face on the invasion/coup that initiated MINUSTAH. Incredibly, many NGOs justified US Marines taking an elected President from his home in the middle of the night and dumping him 10,000 km away in the Central African Republic.

On March 25, 2004 Oxfam Québec and a half dozen other Canadian government-funded NGOs defended Canada’s (military, diplomatic and financial) role in the ouster of thousands of elected officials, including President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, before the Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs. Marthe Lapierre of Development and Peace stated:

We’re not talking about a situation where a rebel group suddenly orchestrated Aristide’s departure. We’re talking about a situation where the Aristide government, since 2000, had gradually lost all legitimacy because of involvement in activities such as serious human rights violations and drug trafficking, but also because it was a profoundly undemocratic government.

Oxfam Québec regional director Carlos Arancibia concurred:

I fully agree with the analysis presented by others. It’s important to understand that things went off the rails starting in the year 2000, with the election.

(After they lost the May 2000 legislative elections the opposition claimed that the electoral Council should have used a different voting method, which would have forced eight Senate seats to a runoff. Aristide’s Fanmi Lavalas party would likely have won the runoff votes, but the US/Canada backed- opposition used the issue to justify boycotting the November 2000 presidential election, which they had zero chance of winning. For its part, Washington used the election dispute to justify blocking aid to the country. Even without the disputed senators, Fanmi Lavalas still had a majority in the senate and even when seven of the eight Lavalas senators resigned the aid embargo and effort to discredit the elections continued.)

At the time of the coup most of Haiti’s social services were run by NGOs. A Canadian International Development Agency report stated that by 2004, “non-governmental actors (for-profit and not-for-profit) provided almost 80 percent of [Haiti’s] basic services.” Amongst other donor countries, the Canadian government channelled its “development assistance” through NGOs to shape the country’s politics. According to CIDA, “supporting non-governmental actors contributed to the creation of parallel systems of service delivery. … In Haiti’s case, these actors [NGOs] were used as a way to circumvent the frustration of working with the government … this contributed to the establishment of parallel systems of service delivery, eroding legitimacy, capacity and will of the state to deliver key services.” As intended, funding NGOs weakened the Aristide/René Préval/Aristide governments and strengthened the US/France/Canada’s hand.

Highly dependent on western government funding and political support, NGOs broadly advanced their interests.

The Oxfam “sex scandal” should shine a light on the immense, largely unaccountable, power NGOs continue to wield over Haitian affairs. In a decent world it would also be a lesson in how not to use “aid” to undermine democracy.