EUR professor calls for an ombudsman after sex scandals Oxfam

Thea Hilhorst naar ISS

A humanitarian organisation involved in sexual misconduct. The world was shocked after recent revelations that Oxfam employees organized sex parties during humanitarian missions in Haiti (2011) and Chad (2006); the ones in Haiti possibly involving minors. Oxfam has since announced independent investigations into the subject. On NOS.nl, Thea Hilhorst, professor of humanitarian aid and reconstruction at the International Institute of Social Studies, calls for an ombudsman.

The stories of sexual misconduct around Oxfam are not the first sex scandals related to humanitarian aid organisations. In 2003 it was revealed that aid workers asked children in refugee camps in Guinee, Liberia and Sierra Leone for sex in exchange for food. ‘After that, humanitarian organisations set up all kinds of codes of conduct,’ says Hilhorst to NOS.nl. She believes the humanitarian sector is capable of improving despite these excesses: ‘When aid workers misbehave, rules and codes are almost always tightened.’

After the Haiti scandal Oxfam also changed its code of conduct. Not only sex with minors, but any exchange of money, jobs, products or services for sex is prohibited for aid workers. To prevent future transgressions, Hilhorst calls for an ombudsman, ‘so that every area that receives humanitarian help has a point of contact for victims or aid workers to report misconduct.’

According to Hilhorst’s own research, aid workers and locals exchanging sexual favours for material favours is quite common in some African countries. She says to NOS that it doesn’t always entail abuse of power. ‘When there’s a power imbalance, or if the person granting the sexual favour doesn’t have a choice, we talk about misconduct. But transactional sex can also be a way for people to temporarily support themselves. Those cases are a grey area.’ She does severely criticize the behaviour of Oxfam employees in Haiti. ‘Natural disasters and other humanitarian crises are always accompanied by unequal power relations. What’s more is that highly-ranked employees were involved in these sex parties, which by definition means that boundaries were crossed.’