Senior figures in the humanitarian world have described the allegations of sexual exploitation that have embroiled Oxfam as the tip of the iceberg and the aid sector’s #MeToo moment.
In interviews with the Guardian, humanitarian officials with experience working across the globe have told largely similar stories of colleagues’ use of sex workers, suspicions of the exploitation of vulnerable women for sex – including minors – and a unwillingness of their organisations to properly tackle the issue.
Many said that despite repeated warnings – going back 15 years to a then controversial report by Save the Children on the prevalence of sexual abuse in west Africa that include aid worker abuse – the issue has long been ignored by managers.
How dependent are UK NGOs on the government?
Last year the UK government dedicated £13.3bn to international aid, with a significant chunk spent through UK charities. But these millions of pounds of aid money are now at stake, following reports of sexual exploitation by Oxfam staff in Haiti.
The government has threatened to cut funding to Oxfam unless the charity shows “moral leadership”. In 2016-17, Oxfam’s total income was £408.6m, according to its annual report, which includes £31.7m from the UK Department for International Development (DfID).
In addition to money from governments, international organisations and foundations, Oxfam generated £90m last year through its shop and trading network.
Around £1.2bn of UK aid is spent annually through NGOs. In 2016, Save the Children secured multi-year contracts worth £91m with the UK government. It describes itself as one of DfID’s “key civil society partners”, which implements around 60 UK government-funded projects in countries such as South Sudan, Somalia and Yemen.
In the same year, the British Red Cross received £16.3m in DfID funding. Around one fifth of Christian Aid’s income came from the department, which provided £20.1m in the year 2016-17.
Christian Aid reported in its 2016-17 annual report that donations had dropped 13%, which it said was due to “fewer high-profile humanitarian crises”.
Some have voiced concerns that as NGOs have become more reliant on government funding, they have also become less willing to criticise its policies. Charities are also nervous that the UK’s aid budget, even before the Haiti sexual misconduct scandal, has been under increasing scrutiny. Last year, the UK was one of only six countries to spend 0.7% of gross national income on aid, a target set by the UN decades ago.
Penny Mordaunt, secretary of state for international development, has said the UK remains committed to this target, despite some conservative MPs calling for it to be dropped. In a recent interview with the Telegraph, she said Britain will cut foreign aid spending to wealthier developing countries if they fail to “take responsibility”.
Interviewees, who include aid staff who have worked in Africa, Asia, the Middle Eas, and Haiti – which has been at the centre of the most recent humanitarian sex scandal involving Oxfam – painted a picture where the use of sex workers on missions is commonplace, often known to the workers’ agency and brushed under the carpet.
The spectrum of behaviour described to the Guardian runs from transactional sexual relationships with “temporary” girlfriends and straightforward use of sex workers, to the exploitation of women seeking refugee status and – at the most serious end – to individuals seeking humanitarian roles as an opportunity to abuse.
Many of those who were prepared to speak were only willing to do so off-the-record, describing a continuing hostility to whistleblowers over the issue.
One senior female aid worker – who has worked with Oxfam and other international agencies – described taking calls from six of her colleagues over the weekend as the story broke.
“I think the last 24 hours have been triggering for a lot of people not least the idea – although it has been denied – that Oxfam provided references for some of these guys.
“Personally, I’ve seen senior staff act appallingly. I’ve seen bullying and harassment and I’ve seen those staff protected and moved on, while the victims have not been protected.”
Echoing many of the same complaints made in the Hollywood #MeToo scandal, she added: “It is part of a wider management problem where there are lots older white men who continue to be protected. It feels like a #MeToo moment for the sector.”
Another senior female aid worker with an international agency, who has had postings in Asia and Africa, added: “I also heard a lot of stories of exploitation of women including the UN – men using the fact that they could help to pressure women into sleeping with them.
“And colleagues were all saying internal investigation systems in place were not working.
“A classic story for all agencies is to send the person accused to another duty station. It means impunity.”
She added: “The problem is the NGOs and UN agencies think it’s better to keep things under the radar because otherwise their fundraising will be compromised. So they just send the guilty person to another duty station.”
Like many interviewed by the Guardian, she believes the humanitarian sector needs to promote more women into senior roles to sweep away its old boy network.
“Personally, I think the solution is more women employed because they will report the cases when they see them. Often men won’t because of the ‘buddy’ [system].
“And of course the women are accused or being ‘old, un-fuckable and jealous’ when they complain, but I think [having more women in senior roles would] create a barrier to abuses.”
Brendan Paddy, who worked for both Save the Children and the Disasters Emergency Committee, including at the time of the Haiti earthquake, says that warnings over the issue have been too-long ignored.
Paddy cites a report Save the Children was involved in producing, published in 2002, that looked at sexual abuse in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone on the prevalence of sexual abuse – including by aid workers – which, he says, many tried to discount at the time.
“The report was an examination of the prevalence and the feeling was that it was very prevalent. The thing is that people hold them to a higher standard.”
What is surprising for Paddy is that, in improvements in accountability and transparency over such issues, he would have put Oxfam at the top of his list, he says. “15 years after that report the fact Oxfam is in this situation suggests how far we have to go.”
For now Oxfam insiders – as well as those working for other British agencies – are waiting for the dust to settle, not least the impact of this crisis will have on both bilateral funding from the Department for International Development and from the public.
“We are waiting to see what happens,” said an Oxfam insider. “When you read that Theresa May wants our blood and hear board members are coming back from holiday you know you are in trouble.
“We can only hope that it does not impact our work on the ground and the work of other agencies as there are so many bush fires going on around the world and so many vulnerable people we are trying to help.”