The furore over allegations of sexual misconduct on the part of aid workers employed by leading UK charity, Oxfam, while engaged in emergency relief w
The furore over allegations of sexual misconduct on the part of aid workers employed by leading UK charity, Oxfam, while engaged in emergency relief work in Haiti after the devastating 2010 earthquake, has reached the level of a firestorm in a country in which Oxfam has long been venerated as an institution synonymous with humanitarianism.
That the sexual exploitation of desperate human beings in one of the poorest countries in the world, their plight compounded by the impact of a natural disaster in which 220,000 people were killed, 300,000 injured, and 1.5 million left homeless, that this deserves a special place in hell goes without saying.
The story, broken by the Times of London, could not be more damning. It reveals that Oxfam staff procured sexual services from local woman working as prostitutes, using property funded by the charity to host them at sex parties, providing them with food and other basic necessities in exchange for sex. It is alleged that girls as young as 16 were involved.
Yet amid media onslaught that’s been unleashed against the charity — justifiably, it has to be said, given the nature of the abuse that has come to light — there is a question surrounding the timing of this story. It suggests that things may not be quite as they seem.
Allow me to explain.
In January, prior to the annual get together of the world’s business and political elite at Davos in Switzerland, Oxfam issued a scathing report lambasting the current state of global inequality and apportioning responsibility to “the relentless corporate drive to minimize costs in order to maximize returns to shareholders,” while recommending the rejection of “neoliberal economics and the unacceptable influence of [business] elites on our governments.”
In other words, if ever a report was designed to attract the ire of the neoliberal powers that be, it was most assuredly this one.
Thus, predictably, it met with unalloyed disdain from a coterie of unreconstructed neoliberals in the West, organizations and people for whom extreme wealth and moral virtue walk hand in hand, while extreme poverty is God’s divine punishment for those whose intrinsic worth ensures that they are deserving of nothing less.
In identifying not only the evil that is global poverty, but also its political, structural and human causes, the Oxfam report confirms that greed, connections and inheritance more than enterprise, talent, and innovation are key in the obscene disparity in wealth that has achieved normalization in our world, aided by governments that have gone out of their way to help the rich get richer at the expense of the poor.
How can it possibly be right that 82% of the wealth created in the world last year went to the richest 1%, while the poorest 50% enjoyed no increase in wealth at all?
Again, if ever a major global charity wanted to make itself powerful enemies they could not do better than Oxfam with this report.
This being said, it bears repeating that the allegations of sexual exploitation on the part of Oxfam aid workers in Haiti are so serious that those involved must be held to account. The immorality involved in middle aged white men abusing the desperate plight of young women in a disaster-hit poor country for sexual gratification is about as contemptible as it gets.
For some years now, NGOs and charities like Oxfam — their damning report into global poverty and inequality notwithstanding — have worked as an adjunct to the government’s from which they rely on for a large part of their funding, used as an instrument of soft power in pursuit of wider geopolitical objectives.
In a March 2011 article, John Hillary, head of War On Want, a UK anti-poverty charity that is unique in that it refuses to separate politics and the causes it supports, makes the point that “Too many British NGOs have been seduced into unholy alliances with big business and the state. War on Want’s strong links with social movements in the global South help keep our politics where they should be, in the tradition of radical resistance. Whether it be fighting the cuts in Britain or challenging the injustices of global capitalism, the war must go on.”
Charity and politics are inextricably linked. Those who claim otherwise are either disingenuous or deluded. Too many Western charities and NGOs work to alleviate the symptoms of gross inequality and, more to the point, the imperialist policies of their own governments that are responsible for it.
The question is whether in coming out with such a scathing report into the actual causes of global poverty and inequality in the run up to Davos in January, Oxfam crossed the line from benign charity doing ‘God’s work’ to political organization attacking the very status quo from which it has long benefitted via UK government funding. In other words, did Oxfam make the mistake of biting the hand that feeds it?
By the same token, the sex scandal that has engulfed the NGO provides incontrovertible proof that there is a significant difference between solidarity and paternalism, between viewing those in need as fellow human beings whose plight stirs anger at the injustice involved, and viewing them as lesser beings whose dependency reinforces a sense of power and entitlement.
Back in the 1960s, Brazilian Catholic Archbishop Dom Helder Camara famously said: “When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why they are poor, they call me a communist.”