[RIBI Image library: Haiti earthquake. Flickr CC]

A few days on from the sudden and very public rekindling of a six-year-old scandal, it’s now common knowledge that several Oxfam relief workers are guilty of paying vulnerable people for sex in the aftermath of the Haiti earthquake. For anyone who knows anything about relaxation of sexual norms in highly unstable emergency zones, that much should hardly come as a surprise. More worringly for those who care about foreign aid and believe that – for all its faults – it often does a lot of good, it also seems that Oxfam may have been unacceptably slow in dealing with the problem. Having hired people who had previous sexual offences, they seem to have failed to ensure that perpetrators didn’t get the chance to do it again in another relief organization. Oxfam rightly insist that without evidence people shouldn’t speculate about more serious allegations – that their workers may have offered ‘aid for sex’, and that under-age girls may have been involved.

So as this debacle explodes into a sector-wide ‘MeToo’ campaign, let’s see what lessons we can learn that might not only limit the damage to good international development and relief work, but also strengthen our moral compasses.

Moral debates about vulnerability, exploitation, and sexual sins

  1. Will this episode become another springboard for moral progress? Oxfam is a strong organization with global influence and specialising in a combination of practical assistance and campaigning for moral progress. The latter is what makes this case so poignant. Most of their influence over 70 years has been benign. This debacle is unseemly and worrying for anyone who cherishes the work of charitable aid organizations. But we can also celebrate the fact that we live in an era when sexually exploitative behaviour is being publicly exposed and criticised. Today, lots of people know much better than their parents did that it’s not ok for film directors to sexually exploit aspiring young actresses, for teachers to exploit pupils, for doctors to exploit patients, or for aid workers to exploit the people they’re supposed to be helping. A generation or two ago, plenty people no doubt felt uneasy about such things, but generally they let them pass – immoral behaviour was ok so long as it didn’t ‘frighten the horses’ as Lady Astor said.
  2. If people call the Oxfam Haiti events ‘horrific’, what language will they use for much more serious sex crimes? There’s an important difference between carefully considering the possibility of avoiding wrongdoings,and fostering a moral panic. Much of what has been written about this scandal so far has the flavour of histrionic over-reaction, rather than measured thoughts about relief agencies should balance the risks of harms against the requirement to do good. Were the sins of Oxfam’s Haiti staff just unseemly and misguided, or evil and barbaric? Sex has always been linked with vulnerabilities and inequalities. So how ‘vulnerable’ does someone have to be before we declare them to be sexually off limits? In discussing this case, are we being clear about degrees of sexual misdemenour? Or are we conflating slightly exploitative sex with much more serious ‘sex crimes’ such as rape, traficking, and child abuse? I’m well aware that merely raising these questions is to risk being attacked, but they do seem to be crucial to intelligent moral debate. One of the most awkward aspects of ‘MeToo’ debates has been the tendency for histrionic trolling of anyone who points out that there are degrees of sinfulness and harm. In this instance, better moral lessons will be learned if critics take the trouble to clarify whether they are complaining about prostitution per se, or just about exploitative ‘survival sex’, or even – more specifically still – exploitation of survival sex by on-duty aid workers.    Some of the analogies to military sex scandals have gone way too far. Unless worse evidence comes to light, surely these Oxfam workers’ sins are not in the same moral ballpark as the cases of widespread child rape by UN peacekeeping forces, or the case of the child pornography racket by UNICEF staff. And unless it turns out they were directly linking sexual favours with dispensing of aid, then their behaviour isn’t analogous to doctors or therapists abusing patients, or managers taking advantage of junior staff. Nor does it seem to be as bad as lots of cases where academic researchers have enjoyed sex with vulnerable informants, including children.
  3. What might we learn by listening to prostitutes and their clients? In the UK media at any rate, we haven’t yet heard from the women concerned so we don’t know whether they felt horrifically abused. Nor have we heard from the aid workers who were disciplined. One caller to LBC radio  said he had often used prostitutes while serving as a relief worker in Bosnia, and felt this was helpful to both him and to the women concerned. No doubt most of us could muster counter-arguments, such as pointing out the evidence of widespread sex traficking by aid workers during the Bosnian war. Yet there is no shortage of research and journalistic evidence showing that when asked, even highly impoverished and vulnerable prostitutes often say their work is ok, or at least better than alternative options, and that they bear their clients no ill-will. Here’s an interesting and relevant example: in 2013, prostitutes in Kenya petitioned the UK government to complain that new curfew controls on UK armed forces in northern Kenya had robbed them of their favourite and most lucrative clients.
  4. Do people in ‘virtuous’ professions have to behave impeccably 24/7? Gleeful opponents of virtue signalling are loving this scandal, not least because Oxfam have made always made a virtue of moral crusading. For those of us with realistic and respectful views on prostitution, the Oxfam relief workers’ sin wasn’t that they paid for sex, but that they did so while wearing the virtuous mantel of altruistic aid workers. They should have been helping those women not exploiting them. But what if they had been off-duty, and not in an Oxfam-funded guest house? Is it realistic to expect relief workers to be virtuous and on-duty 24/7? Did Oxfam staff actually do anything wilfully unkind? Or were they just availing themselves of normal (albeit in this instance illegal) commercial services? In most occupations, private leisure activities are not linked to professional positions unless they become criminal and cause public scandal. If it’s wrong for aid workers to pay for sex, surely we much also apply the same to businessmen, soldiers, diplomats, and tourists, all of whom in some sense abuse a position of power?
  5.  When is prostitution wrong? Many aid organizations, including Oxfam, are not anti-prostitution. They run programmes aiming to de-stigmatise sex work and to empower prostitutes. The aid industry doesn’t systematically disapprove of prostitution, and many aid workers have shown that they have good reason to fight against those who stigmatise prostitution. Most of us might prefer to envisage a future world without prostitution, but that profession is alive and well everywhere. Our main moral concern must be to discourage its most exploitative and dangerous forms. Is it always wrong for aid workers to pay for sex while overseas? Some critics of the Oxfam scandal seem to be displaying their prejudice against prostitution, rather than thinking through what exactly was sinful and why.
  6. Sexual exploitation of vulnerable foreigners is mainly male but isn’t a uniquely male sin: Female teachers and managers, we know, have often been found guilty of sexually exploitative relationships. International female sex tourism is a huge and morally fraught business, with rich women travelling to poorer countries in the hope of finding sex partners among men from less privileged backgrounds. Sometimes, researchers have found it very hard to distinguish this from ‘romance tourism’, but that doesn’t conceal the uncomfortable fact that the relationships are highly unequal and in some sense exploitative. Plenty of female aid workers succumb to the temptations of sex with vulnerable men while on overseas duty. Most of this is probably situational opportunism, and relatively harmless or positively benign. Much more serious are the allegations of widespread sexual exploitation of young male refugees by mainly female volunteers at the Jungle Camp in Calais, for example. When female aid workers have sex with vulnerable men, is it disclosed? Are they and their managers really clear about when this is or isn’t morally acceptable? I doubt it: for women and men alike, sexual pleasures are often morally ambiguous. Throughout most of human history, women have been disproportionately and unfairly condemned and penalised for sexual misconduct. Today, however, when it comes to public condemnation of high-status professionals, the tendency to see men as free agents and women as passive victims may offer protection to female exploiters that isn’t available to male exploiters.

Bureaucratic expectations regarding prevention, disclosure, and transparency

  1. Should Oxfam do more to prevent staff wrongdoings? To most commentators, including representatives of Oxfam itself, it seems entirely obvious that a degree of inflation in precautionary measures is called for. But how realistic, and how specific, are the claims that ‘Oxfam must do more’ to prevent this happening? What can we reasonably expect a large and unwieldy international organization like Oxfam to do to reduce the risk of that happening? With over 30,000 staff and volunteers working in difficult, chaotic places where moral norms are often hard to uphold, Oxfam can never hope to control the behaviour of everyone who works for them. They should of course work very hard to persuade staff and volunteers to behave well, and to check they’re not exposing vulnerable people to dangerous sexual predators. If they haven’t been doing enough in that regard, they should do more. But one case like this doesn’t in itself prove their preventive efforts are inadequate. Precautionary measures in any organization much be optimised, not maximised. ‘Total safety’ is always an empty slogan: preventive efforts must be traded off against efficient provision of practical relief and development services.
  2. “Maximum transparency”, really? Has Oxfam as an institution been guilty of a longterm, systematic, and immoral cover-up? In an organization of Oxfam’s size and diversity, working in often dangerous and chaotic conditions at very short notice, some bad stuff is bound to happen. This is as true of relief organizations as it true of armies. Unlike armies, however, Oxfam and other voluntary aid organizations are themselves vulnerable because of their dependency on voluntary donations and on governmental grant funding. So when things go wrong, how honest should they be, and to whom, in admitting that it’s happened? The European Commission has said it ‘expects full clarity and maximum transparency from Oxfam’. The irony of the EC demanding ‘transparency’ from an NGO won’t be lost on anyone who’s had bureaucratic dealings with the EC. In any case, this is obvious nonsense: no-one should expect ‘maximum transparency’ from any organization. You can’t maximize transparency, any more than you can maximize efficiency or maximize safety or any other desirable feature of a good organization. What you aim for is to optimize, and that always involves trade-offs and compromises. And if anyone tells you they know what optimal staff surveillance is for a global aid organization, then they’re self-evidently lying. Optimal surveillance and optimal honesty are always uncertain and in need of reasonable debate.
  3. Is honesty always better than half-truths? Any reflective adult can tell you that honesty is not always the ‘best policy’ either in personal or in professional life. Honesty carries risks and costs that any responsible organization must consider. Until reliable facts were known about these allegations of abuse, Oxfam was right not to expose individuals to life-changing reputational harm. They also had a duty to protect the organization from reputational damage. With hindsight, of course, they might have incurred less reputational damage by being quicker to condemn and punish the offenders. It doesn’t yet seem at all obvious that Oxfam as a whole is blameworthy for letting these misdemeanours happen, and still less obvious that they ought to ‘do more’ to stop such occurrences in the future. If it turns out that there have been long-term and widespread systemic cover-ups, then they will evidently need to make some changes. But everyone should bear in mind that every pound spent on safeguarding is a pound that could have been spent helping people escape from poverty.

Punishments and prejudice

10. Should the whole organization be penalised? Absolutely not. It will not be a morally plausible response if people do deliberate vengeful harm to Oxfam as an organization, as is currently being threatened by the EC and DFID and openly advocated by the ex-DFID minister Priti Patel. No large organization, especially not a large global organization working in chaotic emergency situations, should expect to be scandal-free. Some are arguing for Oxfam to be closed down. If so, are we going to close down other repeatedly scandal-hit organizations – parliament, football clubs, churches, schools, universities, the scout movement? It’s already damaging enough that Penny Lawrence the Oxfam Deputy has resigned. This indicates that she is blameworthy, and she says she’s ‘ashamed that this happened on her watch’. But why add to her own organization’s woes by imposing on them the cost of finding another good Deputy? If she wasn’t involved in a cover-up, why spread suspicion and further damage Oxfam’s reputation by resigning and hence implying serious guilt?

11. What kinds of prejudice are Oxfam’s critics displaying? Oxfam have over 30,000 staff and volunteers worldwide, plus hundreds of thousands more staff in partner NGOs overseas. Are they all to be tarnished, and their life work ruined, because of the actions of a few individuals? Oxfam didn’t have sex with vulnerable prostitutes, a few staff did. It would only be fair to blame them all if Oxfam as an organization had actively encouraged that kind of behaviour. That’s clearly not the case. They spend a lot of time and money trying to safeguard against it. I’ve already mentioned that many critics are revealing their generalised disapproval of all prostitution, but without quite saying so. Some comments also imply over-generalised disapproval of all sex where one party is weaker than the other: if that disapproval were justified, it would apply to a very much larger portion of all aid workers – not to mention businessmen, tourists, etc. A further kind of over-generalised prejudice being aired is anti-aid sentiment. The Oxfam scandal is almost certain to turn into a ‘MeToo’-style contagious scandal throughout the aid sector. It’s less clear whether this will escalate over a longer period, and whether it will be confined to humanitarian aid and to the NGO sector. Will there be public support for the petition by Jacob Rees-Mogg and 100,000 Daily Express readers, that the ‘madness’ of international aid must now be stopped? It’s quite right, in principle, that we continue to ask challenging questions about whether and how aid is worth funding. But it’s just an annoying distraction to use the misdemeanours of a few aid workers as part of the case against aid.


Finally, just in case your appetite for thinking through scandals in international development cooperation has been whetted, here are a few news stories from recent years that may make you pause before thinking of the Oxfam Haiti scandal as uniquely horrible:

Red Cross Haiti (2017)

UN Peacekeepers child abuse (2017)

British soldiers in Kenya (2013)

Trafficking in Kosovo (1999 onwards)

UNICEF Child porn and trafficking (1987) 

…and finally, if you feel like donating to a good cause and sharpening up your skills on moral debate, here are a couple of relevant books: one on Moral Panics and the Media, and one just on Moral Panics, both on sale courtesy of …Oxfam, of course.

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