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Saturday, 24 February 2018

Developing a sense of proportion about the aid scandal

I didn't expect to be writing another post on the aid controversy quite so soon after the previous one. However, the media furore has continued.

For those of you who have been living on a desert island, the headlines were originally triggered by a couple of sensational and poorly-written articles published in The Times 10 days ago, about the behaviour of Oxfam aid workers in Haiti in 2010,  and a petition against international aid organised by The Daily Express and coincidentally delivered to the Prime Minister by Jacob Rees-Mogg MP at the same time.

The story has been picked up by media outlet after media outlet and now involves most major international aid organisations.  A couple of days ago it was Brendan Cox and Justin Forsyth who bit their bullets. When working as senior executives at Save the Children (StC) they had apparently sent some ill-judged tweets and emails. Justin Forsyth's messages were apparently about the appropriateness of the outfits female staff wore at work. Clearly a misdemeanour almost on a level with child rape. He has now resigned from his post as deputy executive director at UNICEF, not because of the StC emails but because he felt that to remain would lead to further attacks on international aid. Clearly ill-judged tweets trump the needs of the people of DR Congo, the Yemen and South Sudan, and of the Rohingya in Bangladeshi camps.

Today it was the turn in the spotlight of Plan International which had sacked 10 workers for sexual misconduct over the last two or three years, and the Red Cross who had taken action against 21 who had paid for sex. Like all charities, they have been raking through disciplinary records going back years, in order to feed the frenzy. Well, that will have distracted a few of them from doing their substantive jobs. The newspaper-reading public don't seem to be quite so interested in the conduct of workers in those charities which support British people, or indeed, in removing their financial support.

The irony as far as Oxfam International is concerned, was that the original report on the misdemeanours in Haiti had been reported by their senior officer in charge of Latin America and the Caribbean when they happened. About seven staff were reported as using prostitutes in Haiti, out of 10,000 Oxfam staff at the time. One in 10 British men is said to make use of prostitutes in our own country.  (Clare Short's figures, see below). The incidents were reported in 2011, though not picked up widely by newspapers at the time.

Ironically, most of the last fortnight's media 'revelations' have come from this, Oxfam's own report, published by the BBC. As Patrick Cockburn pointed out in todays' The i Newspaper, the hypocrisy of the media has been 'breathtaking' in describing Oxfam's action as a 'cover up'.

'...had Oxfam not reacted so quickly to allegations of bad behaviour by its staff in Haiti, there would have been no report and probably no scandal. Instead, it sent an expert investigation team, identified those responsible for misbehaviour and dismissed them. It did all this in the middle of a cholera epidemic which was to kill 7,500 and which Oxfam was trying to stem. Had it not done so, and had there been no report, it would not be in such trouble now.'

Oxfam took action and immediately implemented new safeguarding procedures, retrained staff and set up a new safeguarding unit. Oxfam's new procedures for dealing with internal sexual abuse were commended by researchers at Tufts University last year for encouraging more complainants to come forward.

One of the first Oxfam employees to be interviewed last week was Helen Evans, until two years ago head of Oxfam's new safeguarding unit, who recounted the increasing number of allegations of sexual abuse gathered by Oxfam's own researchers from three international teams over previous years. The transcript does not report the total number of allegations by the time she left, though she stated that in 2013/2014 there were 39, a number which increased in later years. Oxfam currently has 5,300 paid employees worldwide.  No direct comparisons have been published for comparable organisations or for publicly-funded organisations working within our own country.

Evans' report was discussed by the Trustees. However, she was disappointed that she was not invited to talk to it. When Channel 4 asked what recommendations she had made, she stated that she had requested 'more resources', C4 did not ask a follow-up question about the nature of this resource, however, I would imagine it meant more administrative support for evidence gathering and action, as Evans had already mentioned that her admin support was only part-time.

And she has a very valid point, although - in my personal and relatively uninformed opinion - she hadn't a hope in hell of receiving any significant additional support. ALL charities are under major and increasing pressure to REDUCE administrative costs. Currently Oxfam quotes a figure of 10p in each pound donated being spent on 'support and running costs'. Many of the nasty online comments this week have accused the charity of spending all or most of its money on administration. 'Support and running costs' includes aspects of governance, human resources management and safeguarding for their own staff and also for those people they serve (11.6 million in Oxfam's case).

I myself know from my limited contact with the governance of aid organisations, how strictly the Department for International Development (DfID) monitors every aspect of spending.  Contrary to media reports, Oxfam does NOT receive large amounts of taxpayers' money. It received £31.7million from the UK government, which is about a quarter of a percent of what the government spends on foreign aid each year.

Most of Oxfam's funds come from individual donations from the general public. Many aid organisations are reliant on grants from charitable trusts. Charitable trusts will usually specify that they should spend NONE of the grant they receive on running costs.

All this leaves charities with a dilemma. How on earth are they supposed to run international operations in some of the world's most challenging countries if  'the British public' we keep hearing about in the media, do not believe they should spend money on administrative costs? They just can't 'win'.

What private business, what local council, what national agency or government department could spend as little as 10p in the pound on governance, human resources, training and running costs and do their work effectively?

And do their work effectively if they had to carry it out in Haiti (or DR Congo, or Yemen, or South Sudan, or in the refugee camps of Bangladesh)?

What do we know about Haiti? Slave rebellions, the Duvalier family, the Tontons Macoutes, corruption, gang rule, overthrown governments, military interventions by the USA and devastation by tropical cyclones. And that was before the earthquake in 2010. If you've read The Comedians by Graham Greene, you'll know a bit about the middle part. If you've read the newspapers, you should know about the more recent natural disasters.

So, Haiti was not a stable well-run country before 2010, though it could have been described as a stable poorly-run country. Was it a country in which sexual exploitation was unknown, do you think? Where prostitutes didn't exist? Where child trafficking didn't exist? Where people had decent housing and sanitation and enough to eat?

And then came the earthquake. And then came the aid workers, among them a few sexual predators - unknown, of course, in any British-based public service or private business - and some lonely men living away from their families. Lonely women as well, of course. In stressful circumstance, sexual relationships within the organisations would be more or less inevitable, if unpalatable to the 'British public' who wouldn't dream of having sex themselves without a wedding ring or when away from home. Sexual relationships with members of the local population not allowed, but rules occasionally contravened. An interesting article by Phoebe Greenwood in The Guardian (see below) describes the situation in her own organisation, StC, well.

As Patrick Cockburn also wrote today, 'Prostitution in Haiti is the result of the terrible poverty, not the availability of aid workers as clients.'

And all this happened while living in 'luxurious' villas, as the popular press insists on repeatedly pointing out - in the case of Oxfam in Haiti, large houses on the top of the hills, whose original owners built them there to take advantage of the fresh air and clean water. The poor lived in jerry-built houses and shanty towns on the hillsides and in the valleys.  Now, this description is significant. Remember, it was an earthquake. Hardly any houses were left standing, and certainly not enough to rent. Greenwood ended up living in a tent in the valley, with dogs who had gorged on human remains trying to break in, because StC's existing compound was already full of temporary accommodation.

Oxfam arrived later than the other organisations as its role was to respond to the subsequent cholera outbreak by constructing water and sanitation facilities. It was able to rent the houses on the hill because their wealthy owners had left. However, even if they had not had to rent houses, and had had sufficient solid accommodation of their own, it would still have been better than that of the general population. Development organisations tend to be housed in solid, often colonial, houses, with water and sanitation, security walls and gates and compounds big enough for buildings or marquees to be erected for outdoor meetings (to avoid the costs of air-conditioned halls). Permanent staff rent locally. During humanitarian crises, office compounds can be used for temporary structures.

None of this should have to be said. It is obvious.

In South Sudan, where public order has completely broken down and communities been utterly destroyed, more than half of underage girls are married to older men, often with existing wives, by the time they reach puberty. Young men do not have sufficient cows to buy them. Child abuse of various kinds is endemic. Mothers cannot feed their children. The majority of women in some areas, as in DR Congo, have been raped. Terrible if any aid workers add to this misery, of course, but they do not cause it and have been reported and dismissed for exploiting it.

Sexual exploitation, as I pointed out in my previous post, is not unknown in Britain. Only a couple of days ago, Newcastle Safeguarding Children and Adult Boards published an independent and highly - if briefly - publicised report on a number of cases involving vulnerable people.

Can we just stop here now? Have The Times, The Telegraph, The Daily Mail and The Daily Express, not to mention Jacob Rees-Mogg, now done enough to persuade us all to remove our funding from these irresponsible aid organisations? These organisations which keep people alive by means of their humanitarian work during disasters, as well as their targeted development work and conflict resolution to make such disasters less likely to happen.

We don't need to listen to our sometimes poisonous popular press. Read the Gates Foundation Report. That will tell you what work has been done, and what improvements have been made. It will also, however, tell you how all that has been achieved can be lost if we give up now.


As Aid organisations, we will take every step to right our wrongs and eradicate abuse within our industry, Open letter from 22 charities published in Huffpost blog, 22 February 2018
Aid organisations 'truly sorry for sector's failings, BBC News, 22 February 2018
Oxfam scandal: Nine charts which show what charities do, BBC News 22 February 2018
Reality check: How much UK charity money goes to Oxfam?, BBC News, 12 February 2018
What Oxfam can learn from charities which survived scandals - and one which didn't, Mark Lancaster University), The Conversation 23 February 2018
Don't cancel your donation to Oxfam - double it, Gib Bulloch, Huffpost blog, 22 February 2018
Stop the sexual assault against humanitarian and aid workers, Dyan Mazurana and Phoebe Donnelly, Tufts University, USA, 2017 (it includes a section on Best Practice: Oxfam Global)
BBC Haiti Country Profile - worth scanning the full timeline from its 'discovery' by Columbus in 1492 until the present.
Oxfam loses 7,000 donors since sexual exploitation scandal, Jessica Elgot and Karen McVeigh, The Guardian, 20 February 2018
Sexualised atmosphere among aid workers in Haiti disturbed me, Phoebe Greenwood, The Guardian, 13 February 2018
The toxic effects of the Oxfam scandal have weakened us all in the aid sector, Kevin Watkins, 13 February 2018
Oxfam boss Mark Goldring: 'Anything we say is being manipulated. We've been savaged.', Decca Aitkenhead, The Guardian 16 February 2018
Save the Children apologises to female employees over ex-boss, Nadeem Badshah and agencies, The Guardian, 20 February 2018
The Comedians, by Graham Greene,  Wikipedia entry
Drinking, dancing and death, Duncan Campbell, The Guardian 17 December 2005
Seeds of Fiction: Graham Greene's adventures in Haiti and Central America 1950-1983, by Bernard Diederich, 2012
BBC DR Congo Country profile
Democratic Republic of the Congo, Wikipedia entry
BBC South Sudan Country Profile
Children 'forced to watch rape' in South Sudan, BBC News, 22 February 2018
How the international community has failed South Sudan, The Economist, 16 February 2018
Red Cross staff reveals 21 staff paid for sexual services, BBC News, 24 February 2018
Oxfam scandal: Helen Evans Channel 4 interview, full transcript published in The Spectator blog, 13 February 2018
Clare Short attacks 'hysterical coverage of Oxfam scandal' and claims 'entire aid sector smeared', Paul Waugh, Huffpost, 23 February 2018
Unicef deputy quits after inappropriate behaviour claims, Patrick Greenwood, The Guardian, 22 February 2018
Final Joint Sector Case Review concerning sexual exploitation of children and adults with needs for care and support, by David Spicer for Newcastle Safeguarding Children Board and Newcastle Safeguarding Adult Board, February 2018
Nobody is safe in an era of puffed-up scandals, Patrick Cockburn, The i Newspaper, previously published in The Independent as The overreaction to Oxfam's failings is part of a deeper and more damaging malaise, 23 February 2018
New Foundation Report highlights remarkable progress against global poverty and disease, warns future progress in jeopardy, Press Release, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, 13 September 2017

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