Last month, it was revealed by The Times that senior Oxfam staff had hired prostitutes, some who may have been underage, whilst working in Haiti in the wake of the 2010 earthquake. Oxfam denies claims of a cover-up, having immediately launched an internal investigation into the behaviour of their staff working overseas. Among the accused include the then director of operations, Roland Van Hauwermeiren, who allegedly hired prostitutes at his villa, paid for by the charity. Since the revelations, the Charity Commission has launched a statutory enquiry into the events as it was later reported that workers had also hired prostitutes in Chad in 2006, and that more than 120 workers from UK charities were accused of sexual abuse in the past year.
A plethora of questions are now being asked. Does international aid help international development? Are large donations of money actually beneficial? What about our moral imperative as a developed nation to provide for those in need?
As public support and funding for the charity plummets, debate about the efficacy of international aid has opened up. Moreover, there has been a discernible loss of faith in the morality of the aid system, and even calls to cut international aid from the government budget, from the likes of Jacob Rees-Mogg. It seems that all organisations are suspect, purporting the belief that the benevolent nature of charity work simply fosters an atmosphere of superiority - a remnant of our colonial past that has led directly to this abusive behaviour, says Afua Hirsch.
Economists argue that international aid donations create a cycle of dependence and do not help build the kind of infrastructure necessary for real poverty-reducing action. But a distinction must be made here between the different forms of aid, and the kind that Oxfam itself provides.
Firstly, there is ‘humanitarian’ or ‘emergency aid’: charity-run support aimed at creating specific solutions to specific problems, such as during natural disasters or health pandemics. There is also ‘systemic aid’: large sums of money regularly transferred from one government directly to another government in need, to be managed using the already existing national systems. In 2016, the European Commission distributed €1.73 billion to partner countries in this form of budget support. Dambisa Moyo, Zambian economist, is one of many who argue that this ‘systemic’ aid does not work and that alternative types of aid provide better solutions; peace-keeping, trade privileges and security to name a few.
What can be learnt, then, from the recent Oxfam revelations? It is clear that the way we think about and provide international aid can and should be changed, but cutting aid altogether is not the solution. Humanitarian aid will remain vital in times of crisis, despite the actions of a few, and to cut this would be detrimental to the systems of relief and recovery in third world countries.
What we really need now is to harness the gathering momentum developing in the wake of this scandal and overhaul the way international aid is carried out. Our focus should be on evaluating how we provide aid, improving the effectiveness of the humanitarian system, and understanding why certain people in positions of power felt they had a right to abuse said system. In this respect, Oxfam deserve credit for their diligent attempts to approach the coming storm with unreserved transparency and receptiveness. The same cannot be said for the British Government, as it was revealed by Priti Patel, the then International Development Secretary that government officials knew about the misconduct of Oxfam aid workers and attempted to cover it up.
This scandal should inspire us to make aid and international development changes public knowledge. As cases of abuse in other charities come to light, namely Unicef and the Red Cross, we must pay attention. Charities like Oxfam should be held accountable to the principles they espouse, but so should we. This means embracing and adapting our ideals of international aid, not diminishing them.