Sam Leith: The Oxfam sex scandal shows why doing good should never save you from scrutiny.
the Evening Standard, Feb 12, 2018
The scandal now enveloping charities and overseas aid agencies – with allegations of sexual harassment and worse – has caused an eruption of shock and outrage. Outrage, yes – but shock?
The central case of Oxfam – where workers are alleged to have used prostitutes, some of whom were under age, in Chad and Haiti – seems to speak to a culpably carpet-sweeping culture in at least one charity. But that a minority of aid workers behave badly when they think they’re off the leash? The only surprise is that we are surprised.
My Spectator colleague Mary Wakefield wrote a fine and fierce article recently arguing that, as an enabler of sexual abuse, the United Nations makes Hollywood and the Trump White House look like amateur hour.
All of it is well documented. A 2004 memoir by three UN workers, Emergency Sex and Other Desperate Measures, detailed abuses.
Mary mentioned several since: “rape-for-food” in the Central African Republic; a child sex ring in Haiti; systematic child abductions in Kosovo. Whistle-blowers have been suspended or sacked. Yet, as she pointed out, none of Manhattan’s #metoo marchers took much interest in the big building on 1st Avenue and East 42nd Street. Was her article much picked up? It was not.
This bears out a point first made by Aristotle: that ethos, the way the public sees a person or organization, hugely skews how they will interpret them.
We think of charities, foreign aid workers and international peacekeeping bodies as good things – and therefore presume they are staffed by good people. We give them the benefit of the doubt. Regardless of the good they do, the exact opposite should be the case.
They should be scrutinized more closely precisely because we are so inclined to think well of them.
Look at it from the other end of things. If you’re the sort of person who wants access to a large number of vulnerable young people with the minimum of scrutiny, and ideally with an unimaginable advantage of power and money over your victims, what situations will attract you?
In the past, boarding prep schools and the Catholic church have been popular choices but we’re a global world now. Why mooch around the school gates with a packet of Werther’s Originals when you can sign up for aid work in a famine or conflict zone?
Not only do you enjoy the protective presumption of goodness that comes from your association with charity or aid work, you perhaps apply it to yourself: the good you do for these people, you tell yourself, outweighs the harm. You’re showing these young people love and affection, of a kind, and putting money in their pockets. Is anyone really going to say you’re the bad guy? Evil doesn’t, as a rule, think of itself as evil. It makes excuses for itself.
You don’t find the bad guys under rocks, they’ll more likely be under halos. And to hell with the idea that reporting this stuff damages their good work. If the reputations of charities are damaged by journalistic exposés, that’s on the charities for not keeping their houses in order in the first place.