More than a fortnight after the Times broke the news on the Oxfam scandal, the aftershocks are still being felt in the humanitarian assistance and development sector. The story has more twists and turns than a cheap garden hose, and there seems to be a new development every day, with several other organisations admitting to having the same problems, though perhaps not to the same extent, within their ranks. This includes both intergovernmental entities such as the UN Peacekeepers, and non-governmental ones like CARE, Red Cross. Even Médecins sans Frontières (Doctors without Borders) which is usually regarded as an organisation that is more principled than others in the sector has been somewhat tainted by the allegations.
What this shows is the extent to which that sexual abuse and sexual exploitation are rife within the sector. People who have often suffered a great deal, and who usually have no choice but to put their fate in the hands of humanitarians who are ostensibly there to help them, have also had to face the indignity of being offered aid in exchange for their bodies, in some cases. This is an obvious violation of their human rights, and it is clear that reform is urgently needed within the industry, so that the evil of sexual abuse can be rooted out, and vulnerable people protected.
Yet, we must not let the moral outrage blind us to reality and lead to even more suffering for the people that need help all over the world. The truth is that while the problem is widespread, certain organisations have reacted better than others. This diversity is illustrated by bad examples such as the UN Peacekeepers which maintain a culture of silence about accusations; Oxfam which, at the time, dismissed the accused but then covered up the case perhaps for fears of public reprobation and loss of funding; and, on the more positive side of the spectrum, MSF which has received less criticism, because it appears to have been one of the more transparent ones.
Yes, the humanitarian and development sector is full of human beings who are far from perfect, and yes it is true that the people working in the industry at times do more harm than good, however, it is sometimes one of the only real avenues for getting aid to people in emergencies, and we must remain pragmatic.
The need for such pragmatism becomes even clearer, when one considers the fact that intergovernmental organisations such as the UN, which are supposed to play a global role in maintaining international peace and security, protecting human rights, delivering humanitarian aid, promoting sustainable development and upholding international law, also have mandates which require “that they respect the regime’s sovereignty.” However, it is a well-known fact that this proximity to national governments can have negative impacts on humanitarian response, particularly in conflict settings, where respecting the idea that the state has exclusivity of jurisdiction and working with such governments will, de facto, lead to the exclusion of populations in non-government-controlled areas from aid and assistance.
The 2013 polio outbreak in Syria illustrates this well. During the outbreak, the World Health Organisation (WHO), impeded by the government was unable to act, and it was left to actors working outside the UN system to identify and contain it. These organisations were able to disregard the Syrian government’s claims to exclusivity of jurisdiction and therefore cooperate with the insurgents, but the response was much slower in these areas than those where the WHO could operate unimpeded. The WHO is the leading actor in global health, yet its mandate to respect the de jure sovereignty of the Assad regime inhibited its ability to prevent and contain the polio outbreak that occurred in insurgent-controlled areas of Syria. This mandate also inhibited its ability to act in accordance with humanitarian principles of “humanity, impartiality and neutrality”.
This is just one example out of the many that exist, but it demonstrates the importance of non-governmental organisations which are not bound by any obligation to respect national sovereignty. Although it is becoming increasingly difficult, as these organisations themselves have become targets in both conflicts and smear campaigns, they are usually able to step in, act unfettered and provide assistance to people in need, when intergovernmental organisations are rendered impotent by their mandates.
In my opinion, the solution to the issue that has been exposed in the aid industry is multifaceted: the deep-seated roots of the problems of sexual abuse and exploitation must be examined; the contradiction between the UN’s mandate and its aspirations need to be re-evaluated; and the sector must go through the painful process of reform that is needed. In the meantime, however, it is my firm belief we cannot throw out the figurative humanitarian and development aid baby with the bath water, at least for now, because the truth is that as long there is inequality in the world, someone, somewhere will always need these organisations.