CENTRAL AMERICA・In the Wake of Haiti: What should be done about sexual assault in the development and emergency relief sectors?

It has been 2 months since news of inappropriate sexual behavior by Oxfam’s staff whilst on a mission in Haiti broke. Since then, Oxfam Great Britain has lost 7,000 regular donors, all missions to the vulnerable community in Haiti have been withdrawn at the request of the local government, and the credibility of aid organizations has been left in shambles[1].

This piece hopes to shed light on the current scandal, past patterns of unacceptable behavior on the part of aid and disaster-relief agencies, and provide a discussion on how to control and mitigate these behaviors in the future. Above all, vulnerable populations should be treated with respect, dignity and appropriate support in the wake of crisis-related shocks and throughout ongoing capacity building projects.

The Evolving Situation in Haiti

In 2011, Oxfam workers deployed to respond to the earthquake and carry out relief efforts were accused of “sexual exploitation and abuse” whilst on mission[2]. The news was broken by the Times (UK) in a front page spread reading “Top Oxfam staff paid Haiti survivors for sex” on February 9th of this year. The article detailed the hiring and use of prostitutes, some of whom may have been underage, in the vulnerable region and further alleged Oxfam’s effort to cover up the situation[3]The publicity launched an investigation into Oxfam’s own response to the controversy, which revealed that four staff members had been dismissed as a result and three others, including the then-director of operations in Haiti, Roland Van Hauwermeiren, were allowed to resign in advance of the investigation[4]Following the intense criticism faced by Oxfam in the wake of the whistle-blowing news publication, Oxfam’s Deputy Chief Executive, Penny Lawrence, released a statement to announce her resignation and outwardly proclaimed that she was “ashamed” of how the incident was handled[5]. The statement, made on February 12th, was also carried out in parallel to The Charity Commission opening a statutory inquiry into Oxfam in efforts to achieve full disclosure of the incident[6]The negative shock continued, as the President of Haiti, Jovenel Moïse condemned the actions of Oxfam by stating that “there is nothing more outrageous and dishonest than a sexual predator who uses his position as part of the humanitarian response to a natural disaster to exploit needy people in their moments of greatest vulnerability.[7]

A generalized problem

Unfortunately, the 2011 Oxfam case is not the first nor the last case of grossly inappropriate misconduct by international relief agencies. It is merely another addition to a growing list of in-country cases where vulnerable populations have been exploited by relief agencies. Oxfam itself has had to investigate 42 allegations of sexual misconduct in 2017 alone[9]. For an agency with 9,000 staff dispersed in 90 countries[10] this figure is striking not only because of the number of allegations, but because of the vastness of the reach of the organization to impose more damages on the local populations that Oxfam serves. One such example includes outstanding allegations of the use of sex workers by Oxfam staffers in 2006 in Chad[11]. This case is still ongoing, as noted in an Oxfam official statement made on February 11th[12]On February 23, in a Statement from International Committee of the Red Cross Director-General, Yves Daccord, Red Cross abuses were also revealed. The statement reads: “since 2015 we’ve identified 21 staff members who were either dismissed for paying for sexual services or resigned during an internal enquiry. Another two staff members suspected of sexual misconduct did not have their contracts renewed. I am deeply saddened to report these numbers.”[13] Another aid organization, Plan International, confirmed cases of sexual abuse of both children and adults by their staff or associates, spanning from July 2016 until June 2017. In the February 21 statement, Plan details it “had 6 confirmed cases of sexual abuse and exploitation of children by staff or associates.”. Plan continues, “in the same period there were 9 confirmed incidents of sexual harassment or sexual misconduct by staff,” that resulted in 7 dismissals. The organization condemns these abuses and noted that health and psychological support was provided to the victims.[14] The United Nations Mission in South Sudan “has recalled a unit of police officers from Wau and confined them to base after a preliminary investigation into allegations of sexual exploitation.[15]” Misconduct also lives within development organizations. In 2015, Brendan Cox, former Chief Strategist of Save the Children, stepped down following allegations of “inappropriate behavior” in advance of a misconduct hearing[16]. Additionally, Justin Frosyth, former Director of Save the Children and former Deputy Executive Director of UNICEF New York, stepped down from UNICEF following allegations of sexual misconduct toward fellow staffers[17].

A call to action: What’s next for the development community in terms of behavior changing devices?

Since the news of sexual misconduct in Haiti broke, Oxfam has responded by establishing the  Independent Commission on Sexual Misconduct, Accountability and Culture Change. The commission is foraging forward with the task of conducting a full evaluation of actions taken in response to the Haiti and Chad incidents[18]. In addition to reviewing the post-Haiti response, the Commission will also formulate a list of future suggestions. Amongst these is an increase in funding directed at “safeguarding” measures[19]. “Safeguarding” refers to a mechanism by which victims can report assaults without judgement or stigmatization[20]. While “safeguarding” aims to provide victims with a reliable channel to report sexual abuses, and may deter perpetrators from behaving inappropriately, this treats the symptoms and not the causes. Other measures suggested by the aid community more broadly are aimed directly at punishment of individuals who are inclined to commit sexual abuses towards vulnerable populations or within development organizations. Such suggestions include “passports” for aid and development workers. These “passports” would be designed to follow individuals throughout their work in the sector to prevent a perpetrator from simply moving from one organization to another, leaving a series of victims in their path[21]. Any allegations and the results of investigations would be published on this document and individuals would be required to present it when applying to development or relief related projects. Mandatory third-party investigations are another item currently on the table in response the Oxfam scandal[22]. The banning of soft punishments, such as allowing perpetrators to step down in advance, is also a stipulation that is currently being analyzed.

Advocacy and Investigation: A step in the right direction

In the meantime, advocacy is an important element in raising awareness of sexual assault in relief contexts. The United Nations published a report in November 2017 outlining concerns faced by women and girls during aid distributions in Syria.The report details: “distribution sites are often perceived as unsafe places, which are dominated by men…examples were given of women or girls marrying officials for a short period of time for ‘sexual services’ in order to receive meals…obtaining distributions ‘in exchange for a visit to her home’ or ‘in exchange for services, such as spending a night with them’.”[23] Reports like these, coupled with better defined and harsh action towards perpetrators of sexual assault toward vulnerable population or internal staff should be investigated as a part of the solution to this critical problem.


Article written by Kathleen JACK




[3] http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-43112200

[4] http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-43112200


[6] http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-43112200

[7] https://twitter.com/moisejovenel/status/963225633332584448






[13] https://www.icrc.org/en/document/taking-action-prevent-and-address-staff-misconduct












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