François Audet is a professor in the school of management at the University of Quebec at Montreal, and executive director of the Canadian Research Institute on Humanitarian Crisis and Aid.
The Oxfam scandal in Britain is shaking up the entire international aid industry. This industry is made up of development agencies and humanitarian aid organizations. What is happening to Oxfam can or will happen to others. No local organization is immune.
The fact that individuals have used their positions of power, and the resources of an organization, to commit these abuses is taking the #MeToo movement to a whole new level.
Undoubtedly, the power conferred by the heroic image of Western humanitarians, particularly white men, is considerable and unique, and can lead to a situation where victims find it difficult to report cases of aggression and abuse. Humanitarian professionals must demonstrate an unambiguous sense of ethics, and organizations must be vigilant. To use this power wrongly is reprimandable.
In the case of Oxfam Great Britain in Haiti, it is alleged that employees were involved in the hiring of prostitutes and engaged in sex parties while working on earthquake-relief projects in the country. These events happened seven years ago, but have only now come to the attention of the public. Why? We must ask this question.
Critics who make widespread accusations about aid agencies are not justified.
To accuse the whole community and all of these organizations will not help the industry move forward. Rejecting aid and condemning an entire organization for the behaviour of a few individuals is also not a solution.
Despite all the efforts, policies, investigations and requests for references, bad people will fall through the cracks – and will continue to do so. What's reprehensible, however, is keeping silent the whole time, hoping that the story would never come out. But the story is out in Haiti. Also in Chad. Today, it's Oxfam's turn, tomorrow, it may be another organization. Many organizations have already been tainted by these deplorable incidents, including Quebec police serving in Haiti as peacekeepers.
It should be noted that development agencies and humanitarian-aid organizations are vital. They play a role that governments do not want to, or cannot, play.
As we drink our coffee in the comfort and safety of our homes, humanitarian professionals and other aid workers are on the front lines in complex, unsafe conditions, to provide assistance to victims of natural disasters and armed conflict. To condemn them all is to condemn millions of people who have no sounding board but to organizations such as Oxfam to make their voices heard.
Nevertheless, in the #MeToo era, a new paradigm has just arrived for international co-operation agencies and humanitarian-aid organizations: We can no longer keep silent, we cannot hide, we can no longer hope that people forget. On the contrary, we must condemn this cover-up. We must blame those who hoped for silence. The aid industry must enter the #MeToo era and denounce every incident, use judicial tools to punish crimes and provide support and compensation to victims. This is an opportunity. All aid workers know it. There is a taboo that must be broken.
Organizations must not depend on their survival instincts: They must make victims the priority. By asking its supporters to renew their trust, Oxfam is sending a mixed message.
The trust of supporters, namely donors, will come back when there's evidence that the organization has returned to its core mission of protecting victims and helping them to restore their lives.
As with other communities and industries, humanitarian-aid organizations and international co-operation agencies must respond to the demands of the #MeToo era and protect the girls, boys and women under their care.
In the aftermath of the Oxfam Great Britain scandal, the British government issued a warning to organizations, demanding that they co-operate with investigations and shed light on known incidents. In the wake of these numerous allegations, The Guardian has even created an e-mail account to collect the confidential accounts of people in the community.
Are Canada and its international-aid agencies ready to do the same? One thing is certain: Aid agencies sorely need to get their houses in order. This is the only way to regain the public's trust.