The recent exposure of Oxfam staff in Haiti using the services of prostitutes is disturbing, but maybe not for the reasons most expect. You can question the charity’s procedures when dealing with the issue, and definitely when dealing with the media once the story broke. That’s not to say the men weren’t wrong to act like they did. As one of the world’s leading relief agencies, the staff must have known how women are trafficked or forced into prostitution. Then there’s the mental and physical scars working in the profession can have, sometimes lasting many years. Those Oxfam staff involved were right to be disciplined.
Some will say that prostitution isn’t illegal. That may be true in many countries, but not in Haiti. There are also allegations that some of the women “used” were under age. Some illegal activity has taken place. The fact that prostitution is illegal but accepted as a norm in some countries makes no difference. It may be seen as a way for women to make a scant living, but when doing so risks their very being it is wrong on so many levels. It’s still against the law and those found breaking it should be brought to justice.
The danger of this tragic episode is that many will see this as an opportunity to withdraw financial support from Oxfam, and perhaps other charities by association. And all this at a time when many charities face funding decisions that are the difference between life and death. If that happens it will be tragic, but also misguided.
For a start there is no evidence that Oxfam directly paid the prostitutes. This was the men acting as individuals. Admittedly they were paying for services with their Oxfam wages, but that’s not sufficient case to chastise the charity. If I worked for the International Vegan Rights Alliance, but decided to buy a burger from McDonalds, that up to me.
For me the issue we should be debating is how charities like Oxfam educate their staff about what is acceptable, and ensure robust procedures are in place to deal with staff who digress. The disturbing thing about this case, is how a group of men responsible for providing relief in one of the poorest countries on this planet, thought even for a second, that it’s acceptable to act the way they did. Oxfam should make it crystal clear what is acceptable to staff, and have procedures in place to quickly and effectively investigate cases where employees are suspected of digressing.
This case raises certain questions:
- The allegations against the main culprit, their Country Director, were known before he was sent to Haiti. In fact there were concerns he was using prostitutes whilst stationed in Chad.
Why was it thought acceptable to assign him to another country?
- The Country Director apparently used a Haitian villa provided to him by Oxfam to meet the prostitutes. Such a flagrant misuse of Oxfam’s facilities must have raised eyebrows, yet this all happened in the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake.
How come this continued for several years despite rumours of such activities by Oxfam’s own staff on the ground?
- Finally Oxfam have admitted that the use of prostitutes wasn’t “explicitly contrary” to their code of conduct.
It should have been. Why wasn’t it?
One thing is for sure: Oxfam’s procedures were found wanting. These have started to be addressed, but it’s too late for those involved and the adverse publicity created. There will be those who withdraw financial support as a result. Perhaps that’s understandable.
My issue here is that the charity does fantastic work around the world. It provides help to millions of people when they need it most. Whether they are refugees fleeing from war, a province dealing with a natural disaster, or a country dealing with famine. Oxfam and other charities provide the basics of human life. They provide shelter and food, and care for the sick and dying. They also campaign to get the status quo changed.
All of this takes money. It is understandable for those funding Oxfam to question what they knew about this affair, and what changes they’ve made to ensure it doesn’t occur again. However the money is needed. So if you’re thinking of cancelling that monthly Direct Debit, think again.