Aid agencies can’t police themselves. It’s time for a change by Dorothea Hilhorst

The spreading “Oxfam scandal” will affect the entire humanitarian sector painfully. It brings into plain sight what observers of the internal workings of NGOs have known for a long time: NGOs have an organisational reflex of banning outsiders from their kitchen, and keeping their potentially dangerous secrets hidden.


Abuses of power are common in any situation where vulnerable people depend on powerful service providers. But the key question that still haunts this sector is how organisations should deal with the rotten apples – the abusers of power. Even though Oxfam has taken earlier abuses and misconduct seriously, the organisation has acted alone and resorted to internal measures in dealing with the problem.

The case of the Oxfam country director hosting sex parties in the staff house in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake – perhaps it is only the tip of a rapidly expanding iceberg.

What matters is how organisations respond to such incidents. Have trespassers been sanctioned, and was the harm done redressed? Were the disciplinary procedures transparent, and have efforts been made to avoid the repetition of these events?

Read the full article on Irin News


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Dorothea Hilhorst is Professor of Humanitarian Aid and Reconstruction at the International Institute of Social Studies of Erasmus University Rotterdam. Her blog article ‘Emergency sexwork: should NGOs recognise transactional sex as livelihood strategy?‘ further touches on the topics discussed in this article.

2 comments

  1. In my work career in aid and emergency organisations I have also noticed this problem in many countries. The professor who writes this article must also have her experience in many countries and organisations. What I remember was the high stress under which the staff had to work. My most impressive example was in Darfur evaluation French food aid in Sudan when visiting the ACF office. Hard working staff most Europeans all heavily smoking. I understood their stress. Another example was during the civil war in Angola in the Lubango province where Dutch students were working entering the country on a tourist visa. Their stress was so high that abuse was a coping mechanism for them. That time I was an acting director for ZOA Netherlands. I understood their stress, was responsible for them, gave them some money when leaving the country. The government didn’t accept aid workers who did research on a tourist visa. I wrote their professor about this accident but never got feedback. Later back in The Netherlands I heard of a scandal at the Wageningen University in which the same professor was involved. The university did not react in a proper way because of juridical reasons I was told.
    What I learnt was that abuse scandals exist where people are working. When people work under high pressure one can expect more cases but the management has a high responsibility and have to give a good example.

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