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30 Mar
  • By Brian Cassidy

NGO Corruption – an ugly truth

Corruption is an ugly word, and a worse realization. The last month have revealed a number of disheartening incidents of it in developmental charities, stories of abuse, misuse of funds and sexual misconduct in humanitarian aid non-governmental organisations (NGOs), chiefly focused on Oxfam International personnel, but with more groups coming under fire as the stories continues to unfold.

For those who haven’t been following the original scandal, the story broke on the 9th of February when the UK Times released a front page exposé, alleging that senior Oxfam staff had used prostitutes in Haiti. The incidents were alleged to have occurred in the 2010-2011 period, soon after Oxfam had begun a major development program in the hurricane stricken nation. 300,000 people had been killed, the island’s infrastructure had been devastated, and millions of euros had been given from across the globe to help the survivors, Oxfam leading the way to help, backed by their extensive practical experience. The two most obvious issues here are the misuse of donated funds, and the sexual exploitation of a vulnerable population, followed by a list of related concerns for the ethical standards that Oxfam and other charities profess to uphold.

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More details were revealed as the weeks passed. An internal review by Oxfam had led to the retirement of several staff, including the country’s director of operations, Roland Van Hauwermeiren, and the outright dismissal of several others. The incidents were not made public, the Haitian government was not informed, and those involved faced no legal repercussions, so Mr Van Hauwermeiren and several others were left with no black mark on their records, and were in effect free to return to work in the charity sector for other NGOs.  Reports are now being made that Oxfam executives misled the Charity Commission, the charity watchdog for England and Wales, about the severity of the incidents in order to protect the Oxfam brand.

Following the public outcry, the Charity Commission contacted 179 charities that it overlooks, requesting assurances that vulnerable people were being protected from abuse by their members. At this point, 26 groups have responded with reports of serious incidents, coming to a total of roughly 80 cases relating to safeguarding issues. According to the Commission, they are now reviewing around a hundred such reports every week, roughly double the amount they received before the Haiti story was released, and received from across the charity sector that they govern. It seems clear that there is a systemic issue here, and that a great deal of work will need to be done to further regulate aid groups.

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The entire reason behind the existence of aid focused charity groups, whether NGO or otherwise, is to help and protect people that are seen to be danger or distress. Everything that these charities and their members do must be done with this knowledge foremost in mind, to prevent the abuse of those that they are there to aid. Charity workers and volunteers have a responsibility to act in a manner that reflects well on their group’s reputation at all times, especially when they are working in an environment where their association with their organisation could be used to their own advantage. To do anything contrary to this damages the implicit trust that their organisations need to operate, and often leads to the very abuse which they are there to mitigate and prevent.

Bearing this in mind, the good that NGOs, including Oxfam, have done is still indisputable. They have saved lives, built infrastructure, provided medicine and shelter, and improved the lives of millions over the years. The abuses perpetrated by NGO and charity members is a disgrace, both for the hurt done to the victims involved by people in a position of power and trust, and the difficulties that now arise for those in the organisations who are genuinely there to help. The damage that has been done to the charity sector is extensive.  Thousands of donors have cancelled their regular gifts. Public trust of charities is low. A balance has to be struck, where groups that work with vulnerable people must agree to an increase of vetting, regulations and oversight by an impartial third party, in return for the public’s trust and support. An international registry for all charity sector workers might also be an option, to prevent abusers simply hopping ship to another organisation due to a lack of information about their misdemeanours.

This will be a difficult task, but one that must be undertaken to continue the great works that many charities have dedicated themselves, for no other reason than their recognition of the need to help others in trouble.

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Brian Cassidy holds a BA in World Religions and Theology, and an LLM in International Humanitarian Law, Peace Operations, and Conflict. He is dedicated to raising awareness about International Non-Governmental Organisations (INGOs) and the International Refugee Crisis, along with a few other topics, through writing and discussion.

Email: brianphcassidy@gmail.com