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Responding to scandal in Oxfam

By Oriel Kenny.

The correct response to someone who needs food is to give them food. That is a basic function of humanitarian assistance in acute situations. Given more time, its better to facilitate their access to food, ideally by helping to secure their means of livelihood thus giving them some agency or choice over the food they eat, because over time its not appropriate to ignore the human need for some control over one’s life.

I am dismayed by every aspect of the story that has emerged of the conduct of the previous head of Oxfam’s operations in Haiti after the earthquake. (A situation where the performance of & lack of co-ordination between humanitarian agencies has been under scrutiny for a long time). The idea of supposedly humanitarian workers taking such cruel advantage of the implied superiority of being a global north male controlling essential resources in a crisis situation in the global south infuriates me. This predatory behaviour destroys our assumptions of the altruism of people who put themselves forward to work in dangerous places far away. And it links uncomfortably to the racism & misogyny of the colonial era.

‘But that was in another country & besides the wench is dead’. I came across this line from Christopher Marlowe at school, I think because T S Eliot used it as a header in one of the ‘Wasteland’ poems. (That’s a very long time ago so I may not have remembered it well). I puzzled over it a long time – what difference did it make being in another country if the crime was the same? But being far away is a key part of it. There are men who will act in a way they would not ‘at home’ for fear of being found out or shamed when they know their behaviour is unacceptable. Its part of seeing ‘other’ people, notably women, as less than equal to themselves. It’s even regarded as a bargain because it costs like £1.50…

It raises questions about the robustness of the recruitment processes that enable men like this to get repeated postings working with vulnerable people. Development work does attract a certain cohort of people who do not fit in in their home country & they become known as ‘that eccentric expat’ but especially in a humanitarian situation this clearly needs more scrutiny. Even when these posts are very hard to recruit for & relevant experience is essential.

But there also seems to be a certain amount of deflection going on in the bandwagon-jumping of the past few days. Questioning the ethics & credibility of aid agencies is an easy win for those who want the aid budget much reduced. And chips away at their reputation which yet remains higher than that of politicians. Despite the fake news put out in recent days. When they should be looking urgently at the robustness of their own procedures. There is no way this is confined to the NGO community. Remember what came out about UN Peacekeepers in several post-conflict situations in recent years.

Kevin Watkins of SCF writing in the Guardian on Tuesday suggested that humanitarian workers should have a passport system and/or a vetting procedure as for teaching and social work. And that there should be a way of sharing information between agencies so that predators cannot hop from one to another. This would be a good start. The medical profession already have a skills register for humanitarian work which could be a basis for this. Perhaps the medics need to extend their vetting too given the vulnerability of the people they work with.

So, back to the apologists who claim these men are helping women to earn a living where there are few jobs. The correct response to someone who is hungry is to give them food.

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