Sex scandals: International humanitarian organizations in crisis

Nevertheless, due to the reality of today’s interdependent world, we cannot imagine a future without the active presence of the humanitarian organizations
Sex scandals: International humanitarian organizations in crisis
Oxfam (top left)-Photo:Oxfam México FB, Médecins Sans Frontières (top right)-Photo:Médecins Sans Frontières FB, Save the Children (bottom left)-Photo:Save the Children FB, and UN Peacekeeping-Photo:UN Peacekeeping FB
Gabriel Moyssen
Mexico City
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The sex scandals engulfing Oxfam and Unicef, two of the largest and more prestigious charities, have damaged the credibility of the international humanitarian organizations at a time when our globalized societies need its aid more than ever.

Last week, the Government of Haiti suspended Oxfam’s operations in the country, immediately after it was revealed that following the devastating earthquake in 2010 the local head and workers from the United Kingdom-based Non-Governmental Organisation hired prostitutes and were engaged in sexual harassment of staff, thus experts are warning this is only “the tip of the iceberg” and probably more cases of misconduct are on the way.

“No one working in aid will be surprised by this,” said Andrew MacLeod, former Head of United Nations’ Emergency Coordination Centre in Pakistan who has been highly critical of the system. “This is not just an issue about Oxfam, it´s an issue in all aid agencies all over the world”, he said to the BBC.

MacLeod told Australia’s SBS News in another interview that “many people have been blowing the whistle for over 30 years. Whistleblowers have been drummed out of their organizations, they’ve been chastised and they haven´t been listened to. Finally we’re listening to whistleblowers, finally, we´re listening to victims.

For its part, Michelle Russell, Director of Investigations at the UK’s Charity Commission, disclosed that British NGOs are reporting more than 1,000 incidents over the protection of children and vulnerable people every year.

In the same vein, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), which was founded in Paris but is headquartered in Geneva, said it was receiving a rising number of reports of abuse among its 40,000 staff. During 2017, it said 146 complaints were received from the field. Of those, 40 involved abuse and/or sexual harassment and were investigated internally.

Cholera outbreak

Poverty-stricken Haiti has been especially affected by this problem since United Nations peacekeepers accidentally carried cholera to the country after the earthquake that killed 220,000 people and left 1.5 million homeless.

It took the multilateral organization six years—and more than 9,000 dead in the outbreak—to admit that its military personnel “played a role” in the spread of the waterborne disease.

The UN Stabilization Mission in Haiti lowered its blue flag in 2017, 13 years after it began, marred by accusations of sexual abuse against at least 134 of its peacekeepers.

The United Nations, which regularly uses organisations like Oxfam as “implementing partners,” has a long record in the subject, including the sexual exploitation of trafficked women in Bosnia, a “sex for foodscandal which implicated the World Food Programme in Liberia, and children abuse in the Central African Republic by French UN peacekeepers .

In the particular case of the United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef), it is necessary to recall that last week Justin Forsyth resigned as its Deputy Executive Director, following accusations of inappropriate behavior toward female staff while Chief Executive of Save the Children.

Forsyth said he was not resigning because of the mistakes he had made while at the NGO, but “because of attempts to damage aid organizations and the humanitarian sector.”

However, yet another scandal erupted last Tuesday, after BBC revealed that men from various NGOs, possibly including Care International, sexually exploited Syrian women in exchange for food at least since 2015.

Aid workers told that exploitation is so widespread that some Syrian women are refusing to go to distribution centers as people would assume they had offered their bodies for the aid they carried home.

Given the popularity and influence gained by the NGOs in the post-war era, several authors have noted that some of the most powerful organizations, such as International Amnesty, MSF, and Human Rights Now, have become politicized tools of western intervention in the developing world and armed conflicts.

Nevertheless, due to the reality of today’s interdependent world, where no disaster can be ignored by the global village, we cannot imagine a future without the active presence of the humanitarian organizations.
The populist and isolationist trends that are been used even in Britain to promote an agenda of budget cuts for international relief, would be strengthened if the NGOs would leave the field.

The key challenge is to improve and enforce the codes of conduct and the vetting process of employees. As Judith Greenwood, Head of the CHS Alliance, a charity network based in Geneva said, “we have the guidelines, policies, procedures in place to prevent this. That’s not lacking. What’s lacking is the application.”

In January 2017, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres created a high-level task force to tackle the peacekeeper problem internally.

Mexico should learn from this lesson, as a beginner in the sector with a symbolic presence of its military personnel in Colombia, western Sahara and the Central African Republic, as well as plans to establish a joint training center for peacekeeping operations.

Edited by Sofía Danis
More by Gabriel Moyssen

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