Charities have a duty to act with moral leadership

The actions of a few cast a long shadow over other aid organisations

A sign is seen above a branch of Oxfam, in London, Britain February 12, 2018.   REUTERS/Peter Nicholls
Powered by automated translation

After a week of shocking revelations about sex scandals at the very heart of some of the most creditable aid organisations in the world, it would be fair to wonder if we can still have faith in any of the institutions set up to protect the most vulnerable members of society. The reputation of Oxfam lies in tatters after it emerged its country director for Haiti, Roland van Hauwermeiren, and half a dozen employees had hired prostitutes while on the ground, apparently rebuilding the country after its devastating earthquake in 2010. Van Hauwermeiren – who had fended off similar allegations while working in Chad in 2006 - was simply allowed to resign, his reputation intact, and went on to take up another senior post in a different charity. Nor was he alone in his questionable behaviour. His successor was sacked last year after "inappropriate behaviour" while Medecins sans Frontiers revealed it had sacked 19 staff last year for sexual harassment or abuse.

These issues are not unique to the aid sector, nor are they restricted to Haiti. They have been witnessed from Liberia to Chad to Sierra Leone, wherever there are boots on the ground and people desperate to eat. But what they are is symptomatic of a sickness endemic in society, across multiple institutions and public sectors. Where there is power, there is potential for its abuse and as the example of Oxfam shows, it went right to the top. One charity worker in Africa said there was "an aura of arrogance" among international aid staff, who felt they could act with impunity. What was most shocking was not simply the wrongdoing which took place but the subsequent cover-up. Working at the coalface and facing the extremes of human existence can lend a distorted reality and a God-like complex to those who hold the power of life and death in their hands. Authority can be corrupting, as we have seen in cases involving sexual abuse by Catholic priests, teachers who harm their pupils or film producers who take advantage of their status. When that flagration is committed by the very people charged with protecting those most in need, it is particularly disturbing. The actions of a few cast a long shadow over other aid organisations, whose primary purpose is to do good. Charities have a duty to show "moral leadership", as Britain's international development secretary Penny Mordaunt said. It is up to the aid sector now to put in place the necessary checks to ensure such abuses never happen again.