Why Are Humanitarians Exploiting the People They're Supposed to Help?


It was the final night of my vacation in Costa Rica last week when the sickening news story flashed across my hotel TV screen: “Oxfam sex scandal: Oxfam denies cover up, does not confirm nor deny sex crime allegations.”

There’s nothing like a headline like that a to rip you out of vacation mode—especially when you work for a non-profit that seeks to mitigate sexual exploitation.

By the time I came back home twenty-four hours later, exchanging palm trees for parkas and sandy beaches for snowy streets, Oxfam was already setting up a commission to investigate the allegations, including the case in 2011 when the Oxfam’s director for Haiti hired prostitutes … that he paid for using charitable funds from his organization.

This should leave us outraged. Especially since Oxfam and other agencies were being warned about aid workers sexually abusing children in Haiti a decade ago. While we don’t know details about the people who provided the sexual services in the Oxfam Haiti case from 2011, there’s always a chance that these people were children or trafficking victims.

That’s right—aid workers abusing and exploiting the very same people they came to help.

News stories like these are exactly why I wrote my first book, When Justice Just Is—because, as much as I’d like to believe that the non-profit sector is exclusively filled with good-hearted, well-intentioned people, the bitter truth is that we’re not all Mother Teresas and Mahatma Gandhis. All of us have demons. Many of us hide behind a virtuous veneer, shrouding greedy motives and corrupted strategies. Some of us even use and abuse our power and privilege for terrible self-serving reasons.

I still have days when I’m shocked at how poorly justice workers sometimes treat each other and their clients. It’s even more disillusioning when it happens within faith-based organizations. For the better half of last year, I dealt with a Christian volunteer so hostile towards our staff and hellbent on bringing disrepute to our organization that it interfered with my sleep and overall quality of life. And yet, I shouldn’t be too surprised because I know that working for a cause doesn’t make us exempt from having flaws, making mistakes, and causing hurt.

The truth is, we can’t expect perfection from humanitarian workers. The people I’ve met in the fields of anti-trafficking and poverty relief and refugee resettlement are just as dysfunctional as people in the for-profit world. You’ll find selfishness, deceit, pettiness, addiction, mental health issues, corruption, bigotry, manipulation, hatred, bullying, backstabbing, and betrayal in the justice movement, just as you would in any other sector.

Still, I struggle with the tension between humanity and accountability. I know we need to leave some room for our human errors and failures, even in the non-profit industry. But there’s also a limit to what we should allow.

Sexually exploiting the people one is meant to help isn’t an endearing little character flaw. That’s blatant participation in the very same oppressive systems the person is supposed to fight against. That would make about as much sense as a doctor with an aid agency injecting HIV into a patient. Or an international development worker demanding one of the former child labourers she’s rehabilitating to sew her a coat.

And yet, I’ve seen these kinds of irreconcilable behaviours time and time again across the full spectrum of humanitarian and non-profit service providers:
UN peacekeepers who sexually exploit and abuse civilians.
Orphanages that are shut down due to abuse, embezzlement, and corruption.
Aid workers who are sexually assaulted by their co-workers.
Anti-trafficking agencies who practically enslave their own staff by underpaying and overworking them to advance the cause.

I know all too well that the non-profit sector is held to a different moral standard than other industries, which is unfair and unhelpful. Working for justice doesn’t mean we’ll always get it right, and it definitely doesn’t mean we need to be saintly—but we do need to make the effort to be consistent with living out our values.

Wouldn’t it be odd if a person working for the government didn’t vote? Wouldn’t you expect that a pastor would have some sort of relationship with God? Isn’t it a little strange when your doctor is obese or your nurse ducks out for a smoke break?

The same principle applies to humanitarians. We all have our moments when we don’t live up to our own standards, but the point is that we strive to do our best to harmonize our values with our lifestyles.

If you support women’s rights, don’t sexually exploit women and girls. If you’re working to end human trafficking, you probably shouldn’t make a habit out of buying slave-made chocolate. If you want to eliminate global poverty, you might want to consider the people who are hungry and homeless in your own neighbourhood.

It’s not about perfection, it’s about consistency.

It Starts With Us

In the wake of the Oxfam scandal, it would be easy to completely write off the entire organization. But I believe there’s room for grace.

We’ve got to remember that not all 10,000 Oxfam employees around the world use charitable funds to buy services from prostitutes. Not all aid workers sexually exploit the people they work with. The actions of a few have tarnished the reputation of many, and it’s likely going to take a long time for Oxfam—an organization I have personally supported for well over ten years—to recover.

Sadly, it took them a decade and an awkward dose of public humiliation to start implementing better measures to monitor and eliminate sexual misconduct among their staff. And unfortunately, this incident will likely bring the entire humanitarian sector under even greater microscopic scrutiny than it already is—meaning non-profit workers like myself will have to work even harder than we already are to practice transparency, prove impact, and convince people to support our cause. In light of all this, let’s hope Oxfam and other aid agencies will be quicker to respond and make more efforts to prevent these kinds of incidents moving forward.

That’s the challenge: how to accept our humanity and practice grace while also keeping ourselves and each other accountable.

Whether it’s Oxfam or the UN or my own small anti-trafficking non-profit, humanitarian organizations need to do their due diligence to create cultures where all personnel are held to a certain code of ethics and where misconduct is handled in a timely, appropriate, and effective way. That’s basic.

But at the end of the day, we—individuals—are the only ones who choose our own motivations, who decide our own actions. We’re the only ones who have an honest perspective of what’s underneath the warm, fuzzy layer of our benevolent desire to help others. We’re the only ones who can ensure we’re engaged in a cause for reasons that aren’t destructive.

What it goes back to is this: as we work to change the world, we also need to confront how we need to change ourselves.