The allegations that members of staff at Oxfam participated in acts of sexual exploitation and abuse in Haiti and Chad are distressing.
Unfortunately, they are not surprising. Sexual exploitation and abuse is prevalent in all sectors and is particularly liable to be rife whenever you have significant imbalances of power and weak accountability processes: both defining characteristics of any humanitarian context. Scandals have hit the United Nations and now Oxfam, but it would be naive to believe that this is where the problem ends or that the problem is limited to the humanitarian aid sector.
Sexual exploitation and abuse is a complicated issue that defies easy answers; tough talk around ‘zero tolerance’ can play an important role in preventing abusive behaviour from becoming normalised, but for the affected communities it rarely provides workable solutions. In the long term only a world of more equitable relations will provide the opportunity for a world free of sexual exploitation and abuse. The work of charities like Oxfam, and of UN agencies, remains vital in working towards such a world.
In the meantime, accountability – particularly criminal accountability in the cases of sexual exploitation and abuse that involve criminal acts – can provide survivors with a sense of justice and punctures the climate of impunity that enables perpetrators. This is not always easy. When it comes to UN peacekeeping troops, the campaign we have launched – Mission Justice – promotes policies to fill jurisdictional gaps and provide due process and the possibility of prosecution. This might be an approach the humanitarian sector could learn from.
Yesterday the International Development Secretary announced a review of safeguarding approaches to sexual exploitation and abuse across the sector, and rightly praised the steps the UN Secretary-General has taken to combat the issue at the UN. Greater scrutiny can only be a good thing, but as the Secretary of State has said, we must not lose sight of the vital role that charities play in building a better and more sustainable world, which benefits both people overseas and here in the UK.