Will Oxfam Sex Scandal in Haiti Start a #MeToo Moment for Aid Organizations?

The British charity Oxfam has released its own internal report into the sex scandal. It concluded senior aid workers at Oxfam, including the country director in Haiti, hired prostitutes at Oxfam properties in Haiti and then tried to cover it up. Oxfam’s internal report includes claims that three Oxfam staff members physically threatened a witness during the charity’s internal investigation. For more, we speak with Edwidge Danticat, Haitian-American novelist, author of several books, including The Farming of Bones, which won an American Book Award.


AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, as we continue our look at how Oxfam has been hit with dozens more misconduct allegations, involving a slew of countries in the days since The Times of London revealed Oxfam tried to cover up sex crimes by senior aid workers in Haiti after the devastating 2010 earthquake. Joining us from London is Sean O’Neill, chief reporter at The Times newspaper in London, which broke the story of Oxfam and Save the Children. In Miami, Florida, we’re joined by Edwidge Danticat, Haitian-American novelist. And here in New York, Taina Bien-Aimé is with us, who is executive director of the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women.

We welcome you all to Democracy Now! Edwidge Danticat, if you could explain — if you can respond to this explosive story that has come out, that you may have known some details of or rumors of, stories of, for years? I don’t know.

EDWIDGE DANTICAT: I wish I could say that it was shocking. I think there is a way that these large organizations work in Haiti in which they bypass the state completely or consider the state insignificant. It was even said by the folks at Oxfam that they didn’t report these violations because they thought the state was too consumed with the earthquake, as if there was nothing else to do. So, in the UN, MINUSTAH has been accused of similar things. And women have said that they have literally grabbed them off the street and raped them, boys and girls. And, you know, the UN, with MINUSTAH, was running a sex ring with children. So —

AMY GOODMAN: Explain what you mean by MINUSTAH, for people who don’t know.

EDWIDGE DANTICAT: Well, MINUSTAH is the UN, quote-unquote, “peacekeeping” force that has been in Haiti the last decade. And they were also accused of running sex rings and raping young women, who were then left with no options. Like, they would go and complain, and they would remove the peacekeeper and send them back home, which seems to be the similar pattern with what happened with this gentleman. He was, you know, gently moved to another post, where he might have continued carrying on these same things.

I think that’s what happens when you have an extremely vulnerable population, where these large NGOs consider themselves, in some ways, a state on their own. So the most vulnerable women and girls will be — are considered prey to them, and they’ll do with them what they want for a piece of food, which is — which, as Mr. O’Neill portrayed so clearly, in what was happening with Oxfam. And possibly, Oxfam is — I would be surprised if they were the only ones, because you have impunity, total impunity. People are not punished. When they resist, they apologize, and they move on. And they leave wrecked and destroyed lives behind them.

AMY GOODMAN: I mean, we’re talking about a time, 2010, in Haiti, the earthquake, where hundreds of thousands of people died. We’re talking about a crushed population, Edwidge.

EDWIDGE DANTICAT: And extremely — you have extremely vulnerable children, who, in some cases, have lost their parents. You have families separated. You have people really in dire need and who are extremely vulnerable. And even in ordinary times, it would be extremely wrong to take advantage of that situation. But at that moment, where people are still trying to find their loved ones, bury their dead, find food and water, to decide that at that moment you want to traumatize and assault people and have orgies, while people are dying, it’s just unconscionable.

And the worst thing is that they will not be punished. It will — you know, there will be this outrage there is this moment, but it will carry on. And we hope that this is a turning point, perhaps, for all these other organizations, that might still be doing this, and that maybe this is a #MeToo moment, as we’re living in this country, for aid workers who do this kind of thing, not just in Haiti, but all over the vulnerable world, where they’re are supposed to go and help.

AMY GOODMAN: Reporter Sean O’Neill, can you explain what’s at stake here, how Oxfam gets its funding? I mean, over — I think around 7,000 people have stopped their donations. But what about countries?

SEAN O’NEILL: I think Oxfam gets something in the region of 300 million pounds a year from various governments and public authorities. So, we’re talking about the British government. We’re talking about US aid. We’re talking about United Nations funding. We’re talking about European Union funding and other governments. The public donates about 90 million pounds a year. It makes about 100 million pounds a year from its trading division. There is an Oxfam shop, a charity shop, on virtually every High Street in Britain. You know, it’s a massive organization, with a huge amount of revenue, operating in dozens and dozens of countries around the world.

So, you know, its global reputation is absolutely on the line here. There’s an awful lot at stake. And that’s why it’s scrambling to — you know, I lost count yesterday, watching that hearing in Parliament, of the number of times people from Oxfam apologized. It was one apology after another after another after another. They’ve completely changed their tone from a week before, when they were saying, “We did nothing wrong. You know, we dealt with these men, and we were completely transparent.”

But they’re under massive pressure here, especially from the British government. The international development minister, Penny Mordaunt, basically said to them yesterday, “You have to be held to account. You have to hold yourselves to account. I want to see the results of how you change, or we will not give you any more money.” And she’s saying that not just to Oxfam, but to every single charity that the British government provides funding to. If you do not demonstrate your ability to protect the vulnerable, to have proper safeguarding policies and practices, and to pursue wrongdoers, not let them swan off into another job — if you don’t take these steps, you will not get British government funding. British government aid will go elsewhere.

AMY GOODMAN: Which is an extremely important point. You have — reports have emerged Oxfam rehired one of the aid workers who was fired for alleged sexual misconduct in Haiti, just months later. An Oxfam spokesperson —

SEAN O’NEILL: Rehired by Oxfam America, I might say. So you wonder what bit of joined-up thinking goes on in that organization. You know, is sacked by Oxfam Great Britain, rehired by Oxfam America. What did they say to one another about this man?

AMY GOODMAN: And then sent off to Ethiopia.

SEAN O’NEILL: Mm-hmm. That’s correct, yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: So, South African Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu stepped down as an ambassador for Oxfam. The 86-year-old Nobel Peace laureate said he was deeply disappointed by allegations of, quote, “immorality and possible criminality involving humanitarian workers linked to the charity.” Last week, British actress Minnie Driver also quit her position as an ambassador for Oxfam, writing on her Twitter account, “All I can tell you about this awful revelation about Oxfam is that I am devastated. Devastated for the women who were used by people sent there to help them, devastated by the response of an organization that I have been raising awareness for since I was 9 years old.”

I wanted to bring Taina Bien-Aimé into the conversation, who is executive director of the organization Coalition Against Trafficking in Women. Your response to these revelations, and what you think should happen?

TAINA BIEN-AIMÉ: Well, I’d like to echo Edwidge’s thoughts, that we have known for decades, we have heard rumors. We have family in Haiti who tell us that blue helmets exchange a glass of milk for raping a child, that international aid workers abuse their power systematically — not all, but certainly a large percentage of the leadership. So this, unfortunately, is not new. This is something that the United Nations has been struggling with. The last three UN secretary-generals have established measures and policies and statements, hoping that a zero-tolerance culture will be embedded in — not only among UN contractors and UN personnel, but international aid agencies and blue helmets, etc. But there is zero interest for zero tolerance of exploitation of women and girls, of abuse of power in the most egregious and violent way, as we’re seeing with the Oxfam situation in Haiti.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you think they should be defunded?

TAINA BIEN-AIMÉ: No, I don’t think that they should be defunded. I think this is an incredible opportunity to have conversations with Oxfam to ensure that the policies that they do have in place, for zero tolerance of purchasing sex, for zero tolerance of exploitation, that they are implemented. We need to see more women in middle management and upper management.

And also, this is an opportunity for Oxfam to invest in the women and girls that they have exploited and brutalized. I think it’s fantastic that Oxfam managers are apologizing to the Haitian government, but they are not the ones who are owed an apology. Oxfam owes an apology to the women and girls — and boys, I’m assuming, as well — who have been exploited and trafficked and prostituted. There’s an opportunity to have exit programs and programs for these people so that they do have the ability to rebuild their lives and move toward economic self-sufficiency.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to go to the statement of Oxfam’s executive director. We did invite her on the show, Oxfam International Executive Director Winnie Byanyima. They said she couldn’t join us, but they sent us a statement, where she said, “From the bottom of my heart, I’m asking for forgiveness.” She said, “Of course words are not enough. I’ve agreed [to] a plan of action with Oxfam’s board of international directors, which will see us double the number of people who work on safeguarding the people we serve. We’re also asking respected women’s rights experts to lead an independent commission which will take a long, hard look at our operations and tell us what we need to change about our culture and practices. And we’re setting up a new database of people authorized to give references. Right now I have two utmost priorities for Oxfam: continuing to provide support to the millions of vulnerable people we work with around the world, and learning vital lessons from our past mistakes to make sure such abuse and exploitation does not happen again.” Taina, your response?

TAINA BIEN-AIMÉ: Well, we look forward to these kind of measures, and I think we have to welcome. Again, this is in a #MeToo moment. Why has this been hidden for seven years from the public? We don’t really know the answer to that. Perhaps Sean O’Neill has an idea, since he’s the one who spoke closely to the sources, as to whether it is the environment of holding its mostly men, obviously, accountable to the exploitation and violence that they’ve perpetuated against women and girls, from sexual harassment to rape. And so, I would welcome a conversation with Oxfam to help them develop gender-sensitive policies and ensuring that this doesn’t happen again.

AMY GOODMAN: Edwidge Danticat, I mean, you have Haiti, ground zero for just devastation — over 300,000 people died in the earthquake alone. You had organizations like the Red Cross, that raised almost a half a billion dollars for Haiti — what was it? — ending up building six permanent homes? You have the UN forces — you’re talking about sexual abuse — the issue of cholera, bringing cholera, even if obviously not intentionally, to Haiti, that killed how many people? How do you hold these international organizations accountable?

EDWIDGE DANTICAT: Well, I think, in some ways, these sexual assaults that we hear about, whether through this scandal and through what the United Nations forces have done in Haiti, they’re almost a metaphor for the rape of Haiti, which continues through these organizations. And I think the Red Cross, on another scale, is a manifestation of that, that all this money was raised on behalf of Haiti after this moment. That’s another kind of violation.

And apologies are fantastic, and I’m glad that there’s been so many, that Oxfam, for example, has gone from denial, as Mr. O’Neill reported, to some acceptance and the stream of apologies. But we also need some action. And the impunity has to stop. The fact that people — these organizations feel like they can come to Haiti and do everything they want, anything they want, to anybody they want, to the most vulnerable of the population, that needs to stop. And that won’t stop until people are held accountable for what they do.

I think the UN was a terrible model in terms of all their actions. And they also — you know, there was an apology from them, as well. But they didn’t follow up, in ways that were concrete, about all the people, like nearly a million people, who were affected by the cholera. Ten thousand people died. And an apology is not going to do anything for those people. So, the apologies are fine, but I think the impunity has to stop. The fact that these people feel like they can go to Haiti, because it is Haiti, and do whatever they want, that needs to stop.

AMY GOODMAN: Al Jazeera reports António Guterres, the former [sic] UN secretary-general, confirmed there’s been a total of 145 cases of sexual assault and abuse across all UN peace missions in 2016, up from 99 reported cases in 2015. The countries with the highest number of reported allegations include Haiti, Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of Congo, South Sudan. Legal battles against the UN mission from within Haiti and globally face a legal catch: Peacekeepers are given immunity to any criminal liability in the countries they serve. Edwidge?

EDWIDGE DANTICAT: Well, that’s the — you know, that’s at the core of the problem, because you have people who are already extremely poor, who are vulnerable within the society that they are, and I guess there’s a sort of a predatorial attitude towards them, because people know that nothing will happen to them. And even this gentleman, he was moved to another post to continue his work. But what about the people, you know, whose lives he affected? They didn’t even mention it to the state. You know, nobody in Haiti knew.

I’m happy to see that the government has come out very forcefully about that, and maybe, hopefully, that will lead to some of the actions that the — that one of the heads of Oxfam mentioned that. But it will also, I hope, lead to these other organizations really having a deep look within their structures and how they work and to — so that the most vulnerable people can be protected, because they often have no recourse. And I have a sense that, even in Mr. O’Neill’s report, it’s a very small group of people that were able to speak out. There are people who will be too fearful to speak out, and their stories will never be told. And we also have to think about these people and the future encounters that the vulnerable population, the women and girls, will have with others who come along, after the Oxfams and the others.

AMY GOODMAN: Taina Bien-Aimé, you look at these issues across the world. You deal with the exploitation of sex trafficking in women and girls, and so you see these countries, the most vulnerable countries. What are you demanding right now?

TAINA BIEN-AIMÉ: Well, I think, like everyone else, we are calling for an end to impunity. But we’re also calling for a deep look into our culture of acceptance of prostitution, because if you look at what — the reaction of social media, a lot of people are saying, “It’s Haiti, for God’s sakes. How else are they going to eat?” And that is the crux of the question. And that is also a culture that Oxfam and the UN need to examine. Sexual harassment within those organizations is rampant, so they also need to clean house.

There is the culture of male sexual access to women. And just the way the media is portraying these stories of exploitation and rape and sexual exploitation, it really is as to whether they were paid or not, or whether they were under age or not. There are no stories about these women and girls, about how their lives are devastated, whether they’re still alive or not, how are they surviving. And I think we need to change the conversation around the culture of impunity and the culture of male sexual access to women’s bodies.

AMY GOODMAN: And, Sean O’Neill, you talk about Save the Children, 30 people just fired over this issue, as well?

SEAN O’NEILL: Yeah, I think 19 people fired over sexual harassment cases, and that seems to be in the Save the Children workforce, and another 11 fired in the 120 countries they work in over child protection issues. So, I think this problem probably cuts across the entire sector. One of the things that shocked me last week was we did have one major charity come out and say, “We did not — we have no issues. No cases have been reported to us of sexual misconduct.” And I just thought, “Well, you’re not looking for them. You’re not proactively looking for these cases, if you think you haven’t got any, because every workplace has these problems.” And what we’ve seen and what everybody in the aid sector knows, or seems to know, when you research this, is that sexual exploitation happens especially in emergency zones, in disaster zones, where civil society has collapsed. And charities need to be aware of that.

I find it — can I just say, that the statement from Oxfam, saying, “We’re drawing up a plan of action, and we’re going to do X, Y and Z,” I kind of think, “Well, look, you have known, in Oxfam, that you had a massive problem since 2011. Why didn’t you have a plan of action already? Why is it that not implemented? And why is there not a joined-up mechanism across the aid sector, where every charity — and, you know, there are maybe 10 or 12 massive charities dominating this field — why don’t they have a register of who has worked for them, have they had issues? Why can’t they cross-check that and find out if somebody is safe to work for them in a vulnerable position with vulnerable people?” You know, some of these reforms should have been put in place years ago, because everybody in this sector seems to know that the problem was there.

AMY GOODMAN: And, of course, the issue of criminal prosecutions is another one. Well, we’ll continue to follow this story. I want to thank Sean O’Neill, chief reporter at The Times of London. We’ll link to your pieces; Edwidge Danticat, thank you for joining us from Miami, the great Haitian-American writer, and Taina Bien-Aimé, head of the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women. This is Democracy Now! Back in a minute.