By now, many Haitians must be asking themselves: What is the price we have to pay for foreign aid? The Oxfam sex scandal is just the latest humiliation heaped on this poor country by those who claim to be helping it.
Reports that senior Oxfam staff members paid prostitutes — including, possibly, underage girls — to participate in orgies in the aftermath of the devastating 2010 earthquake have stunned the universe of charities and international aid organizations.
But they are hardly a surprise in Haiti.
Haitians have long known that foreign intervention — whether it be military or charitable — comes at a price to one’s sovereignty, as well as one’s dignity. The American military occupation of Haiti between 1915 and 1934 built much-needed infrastructure, but it created an indigenous military organization that would interfere in Haitian political life well into the 1990s. President Bill Clinton’s invasion in 1994 restored Haiti’s first democratically elected president to power, but the United States extracted concessions from President Jean-Bertrand Aristide on import duties that destroyed much of Haiti’s agricultural self-sufficiency. United Nations peacekeepers were sent to maintain order in Haiti after the devastating earthquake of Jan. 12, 2010, but instead are believed to be responsible for an outbreak of cholera that has since killed thousands of Haitians.
The earthquake itself killed 225,000 Haitians and injured 300,000 others — and brought a flood of foreign assistance. By some estimates, as many as 10,000 nongovernmental organizations, NGOs, provided emergency medical care, fed survivors and built temporary housing. Haitians were genuinely touched by the outpouring of support and the pledges of aid that reached $10 billion. It seemed that Haiti, the proud black republic and the first nation in the New World to abolish slavery, would get a well-deserved boost toward a more positive future.
Eight years later, most of the optimism has disappeared. Much of the rubble caused by the earthquake has been removed, but little has been rebuilt. A majority of Haitians never saw the benefits of the promised billions. The country remains nominally democratic; fewer than 20 percent bothered to vote in the last presidential election. Since then, factions within the legislature have fought over perks and traded accusations of corruption.
The idea of charity workers engaging in sex trades in vulnerable countries is not new. Oxfam apparently had failed to act on previous reports of officials paying for sex in the African nations of Chad, South Sudan and Liberia. And it’s not just charities that have been accused of sexual misbehavior in Haiti.
The Associated Press reported last year that Sri Lankan soldiers operated a sex ring in Haiti, part of “some 150 allegations of abuse and exploitation by U.N. peacekeepers and other personnel reported in Haiti alone between 2004 and 2016.” They also involved troops from Brazil, Pakistan and Uruguay. Beyond the jurisdiction of the United Nations or Haiti, few of the accused soldiers were punished.
At the center of the issue is an imbalance of power. Large charitable organizations, such as Oxfam, and UN military missions operate in a bubble of private security, a sense of immunity and deference from their grateful hosts. It is easy for men on the ground to take advantage of poor young men and women — some of who engage in “survival sex” out of desperation or intimidation. The list of countries where these acts allegedly took place reflects some common conditions: chaos, weak institutions and an absence of international scrutiny. Haiti’s President Jovenel Moïse characterized Oxfam’s actions as “an extremely grave violation of human dignity.”
After the earthquake, Haiti was in no condition to monitor the thousands of NGOs that descended on the country, nor did it have an established mechanism to track the aid groups. A government starved of funds, even now, has little capacity to exercise oversight over hundreds of foreign organizations. The Haitian government has expressed a desire to prosecute the responsible Oxfam officials, but that is unlikely to happen. Foreign governments, no matter how contrite, are not likely to place their trust in — or subject their citizens to — Haiti’s barely functioning judicial system.
The best Haiti and other poor countries can hope for is that the wave of indignation over the behavior of certain aid workers will translate into real reforms in the charities’ home countries and stricter controls within these organizations. For its part, Oxfam has announced that an independent commission will investigate the culture of sexual predation within the organization and set up mechanisms to prevent future acts. But if those promises do not result in real change, Haitians will not be shocked when the next scandal bursts into the headlines — a harsh reminder to beware of those who say they come to help.
Joel Dreyfuss is a Washington Post Global Opinions contributing columnist.