British organization Oxfam is under fire across the world of media after a report emerged showing evidence that the organization’s country manager, while serving in Haiti, had engaged in paid sex. Well, having physical intimacy is not a crime per se but, reportedly, the man in question, Roland Van Hauwermeiren, used the villa provided by his office, paid from the charity’s funds, and lured women by offering them aid.
The main accusation is that a humanitarian worker used development aid as a bait to bring women, and, eventually, kept quiet about it.
It’s the suppression that outrages
Again, someone wanting to have physical pleasure is certainly not a crime. Wearing the puritanical mask of morality, many may lambast the need for casual sex, though in reality, the requirement for physical release is just as important. Otherwise, brothels would not be allowed by the authorities and sex workers plus their patrons would be deemed offenders.
However, in this specific case, with a development organization in the spotlight, the issue becomes complicated because it is evident that the misdeeds of the country director were hushed up.
After a 2008 report on the alleged misconduct came into light, the episodes in Haiti, just after the 2010 earthquake, came to the fore. So far, the responses of the charity in trying to address this aberration have been rather ambiguous.
What is evident is that a slipshod attempt was made to carry out a perfunctory investigation after which a smooth exit was arranged for the perpetrator, who was later hired by a French humanitarian body and posted to Bangladesh.
The question obviously is why the complaints against the person in question leaving an organization faced with serious allegations were swept under the carpet? In the recruitment process of most development bodies exists a rigorous probe into a possible candidate’s past work history.
If said person managed to work in Bangladesh for another two years post Haiti, then it’s safe to speculate that the rather sordid past was either erased or deliberately suppressed.
The backlash from the public stems not from the revelation that the country manager had involved in paid sex but from the fact that, even after the truth was found out, a calculated effort was made to hide it.
Development organizations are steeped in irregularities, and we come to know of them when something massive is reported in the media
Empowerment to exploitation to suppression
The embattled charity organization’s chief executive apologized in a recent interview, expressing his dismay and surprise at the intensity of the global reaction to the revealed facts. Perhaps he needs to be told that the scale of the rage is because no one took any action against the country manager and in a bid to save the charity’s reputation from being scarred, decided to look the other way.
Plainly put, this is complicity.
And therein lies the rub. And, it’s not just the fault of one charity alone. Today, the finger being pointed at one body though proper investigation will bring out skeletons from the cupboards of a lot of other, similar “humanitarian” organizations.
What is abhorrent is that the man accused of inappropriate sexual conduct was allowed a dignified exit from one body to find work in another. This means, in the due diligence carried out on top-level development workers, there is little transparency.
After the revelation of the Haiti incident, several high-level development experts who worked for the charity in question were asked by the BBC as to why the country manager was not terminated with immediate effect.
Sadly, not a single person could come up with a credible answer.
Some resorted to prevarication saying that a probe committee was formed, an ombudsman was sent, and all that. The reality is, investigation committees which are formed within a development body never try to bring out the dirt, their task seems to be to produce an ambiguous report taking an awful long time by which the accused is allowed to leave the organization without facing any disgrace.
They specialize in producing red herrings. By the time that report comes out, the man in question is no longer there, with the whole complaint losing much of its initial impetus.
Exploitation is not just sexual
Today we are arguing about one facet of exploitation/aberration but there can be many others types of abuse. What about covert racism in a development body which differentiates between locally employed workers and foreign based staff?
Hypothetically speaking, if the perpetrator in Haiti had been a local worker, would he have been sacked immediately or would there be an elaborate charade to save his skin?
Development organizations are steeped in irregularities, and we come to know of them when something massive is reported in the media.
After the recent incendiary finding, there is frenetic talk of a global watchdog to monitor humanitarian agencies. One may ask: Will this be another layer to the already-existing excessive amount of phases that obfuscate a problem?
Watchdog groups need to be local, formed of civil society/media members with no (and I repeat, no) link to any NGO or development agency whatsoever.
In the Bangladesh context, many development plus humanitarian organizations keep a distance from the media, which is even more suspicious. Some euphemistically use the term “media shy.” The bottom line is, if someone is evading the media, then they are trying to hide something.
Full public disclosure is a must
Development plus humanitarian bodies need to have full transparency with the masses of a country where they work having complete knowledge about the work culture and the sort of people who are appointed from overseas.
Shockingly, in several development agencies, fledgling, inexperienced, foreign-based staff are working as managers to much-skilled, senior local people. This is one grave anomaly that soon needs to be addressed.
The Oxfam incident is a wake-up call -- the sex scandal, merely a tip of the iceberg.
Towheed Feroze is a journalist, teaching at the University of Dhaka.