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19 February, 2018 00:00 00 AM
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The Oxfam abuse scandal

Stuart Coles
The Oxfam abuse scandal

Few people in the aid sector will be greatly surprised by the allegations surrounding the conduct of Oxfam staff in Haiti. But what has shocked and angered many is the fact that the charity apparently concealed the findings of a 2011 inquiry into the behaviour of their senior aid workers. This issue is not about to evaporate any day soon, nor should it. It will shine a glaring flashlight into the darkest corners of not only Oxfam  but the multi-billion dollar aid industry and its practices, historic and current. The allegations are certainly not unique to the aid sector but they throw up many pressing questions as to the very nature of development and how such large organisations are governed.

The Haitian ambassador to Britain, Bocchit Edmond, said the handling of the case was “an insult” to his country – and he is right to be indignant. I worked for a similar sized NGO to Oxfam – Plan International – for five years. I completed two deployments to Haiti, including one as part of an emergency response team a day after the devastating earthquake in 2010.

We were among the first international support teams to get in and start emergency aid on the ground. Many, many other organisations followed, leading Haiti to be sardonically dubbed "the Republic of NGOs". But the reality (as with all disasters) is that it is the local people who are first on the scene, the first to drag their loved ones, alive, maimed and dead from the rubble, often hours or days before any foreign aid arrives.

The Haitian earthquake was unexpected. The country does not experience regular earthquakes and it came at a time when it was trying to pull itself up from its knees and shake off a reputation as the "basket-case" of the region, a failed state rocked by political instability, poor trade and endemic poverty.

It was a seismic kick in the teeth. The situation on the ground was horrific. An estimated 220,000 killed, several hundred thousand were injured and some 1.5 million were left homeless. It is as vicious a demonstration of cruel fate inflicted upon a people as I have witnessed.

The 7.0 magnitude quake was indiscriminate, wiping out senior members of both the UN mission, national government and security forces. It broke open the prison in Port-au-Prince, spilling hardened criminals onto the capital’s streets in a time of chaos and insecurity.

The international aid response to Haiti was as heartfelt as it was unwieldy. The streets cleared to cut paths through the canyons of rubble in the capital were quickly clogged up with the 4x4s of NGOs. Demands for undamaged buildings pushed rents through the roof. It’s the same thing that happens in cities where the international aid community descends en masse, from Juba in South Sudan to Kabul in Afghanistan.

Aid is a messy, complex business. It operates in countries which are often dangerous, insecure and corrupt. Money (both publicly donated and grants) goes missing, misappropriated by militant groups, mafia or through staff fraud. Money can also be wasted. It is an accepted norm that a percentage of aid is written off in this way. All organisations aim to keep this to a minimum as much as possible, obviously. And, like any sector with hundreds of thousands of workers, you will always have a few "bad apples". What you don’t expect is that they will be at the top of the tree – and are kept there with impunity.

The writer is a public relations advisor and former head of media of the NGO Plan International

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Editor : M. Shamsur Rahman
Published by the Editor on behalf of Independent Publications Limited at Media Printers, 446/H, Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1215.
Editorial, News & Commercial Offices : Beximco Media Complex, 149-150 Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1208, Bangladesh. GPO Box No. 934, Dhaka-1000.

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