Features

Why we keep ignoring NGO sex scandals

17 February 2018

9:00 AM

17 February 2018

9:00 AM

One of the oddest things about the Oxfam sex scandal is how little we all seem to care. Even now, the talking heads on TV find it hard to summon much outrage. On Facebook and on Twitter, the Presidents Club exposé caused a far greater fuss. Much was made of the way the Club’s entitled fat cats abused their power over hostesses. But the imbalance of power between a starving child and an aid worker with access to food and cash is immeasurably greater. And what of a charity’s duty of care?

I’ve been half hopeful that progressive millennials might adopt the aid world fiasco as a cause. No generation in history has been more alive to the problem of privilege and the rights of the vulnerable. So where are the woke? Are they sharing the Oxfam story? Are they making placards? Not as far as I can see.

A fortnight ago I wrote in this magazine wondering why the #MeToo movement hasn’t held the UN to account for the terrible crimes committed by peacekeepers against young girls in Africa and Haiti. These terrible crimes aren’t historical or even rare. Last year the UN Secretary General confessed that there had been 145 incidents involving 311 victims in 2016. This, he said, was just the tip of the iceberg. He said it sadly, as if his hands were tied.


The UN wrote a letter to The Spectator insisting that they’ve ‘made good progress in confronting sexual exploitation and abuse’, and that they publish details of allegations and ‘maintain active follow-up with the concerned member states to ensure justice and punishment for criminal conduct’. All very assiduous-sounding. Andrew MacLeod in the Independent last week revealed that the UN’s own data on its own website shows that not one perpetrator has ever been reported back to police forces for prosecution. Not one of the hundreds of child rapists has ever been sent to jail. No wonder perverts keep signing up.

We’ve been warned about the dark side of aid — both charities and IGO behemoths like the UN — for decades. In 1999 the UK’s National Criminal Intelligence Service warned that there were a great many paedophiles working in the international aid world. Yet DfID kept doling out the cash. Well, we have a hefty aid budget, and taxpayers don’t really care.

If we don’t care, what’s the reason? Is it because it’s not our girls at risk? But if we didn’t care about the suffering of children in distant countries Oxfam wouldn’t be so rich. I think we do care about the girls, it’s just that we care more about our friends. More than ever, under the polarising influence of social media, people want to please their like-minded communities. Most educated, decent people have spend their lives assuming that Oxfam is a great force for good; that the UN is staffed by smart and saintly types. This makes any aid sector scandal a very uncomfortable Facebook share. It’s just not going to be liked by like-minded people. There are no back slaps available for dissing the World Health Organisation — though they spent more on travel (often flying business class and booking into five-star hotels) than they did on fighting diseases like Aids, TB and malaria.

We say: it’s just a few bad apples, don’t play into the hands of aid sceptics. This won’t wash. It’s this sort of thinking that creates the culture of cover-up inside a charity: we’re basically good so why rock the boat? This is the thinking that lets abusive aid workers slide safely from agency to agency though everyone knows what they’ve done, just as public schools and parishes once passed perverts quietly on. Moral licence is a dreadful thing. Woe betide any organisation that thinks of itself as especially good. It’ll give itself leeway to behave in a terrible way.

One bright note in the whole sordid scandal has been the recent news that Minnie Driver, the actress, once an Oxfam ambassador, has handed back that honour. Celebrity power is at its peak right now. The ladies of Hollywood have broken their silence on Weinstein, and wouldn’t it be terrific if they turned their fire on the aid world as well? Think of all those celebrity ambassadors to the UN: Angelina Jolie. Anne Hathaway. Cate Blanchett. Leonardo DiCaprio. Victoria Beckham. Emma Watson. Katy Perry. Imagine if they used the platform of the Oscars to resign en mass, until there’s proper punishment for terrible crimes.

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