Demons of Disaster

Why the foreign-aid world attracts sexual abusers.

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When them big man go loving with small girl for money. Them big men can go loving to small girls, they can call girl when she walking along the road, and then the girl go and they go in house and lock the door. And when the big man has done his business he will give the small girl money or gift.”

This was how the children interviewed for a report on refugee child abuse by aid workers in West Africa defined sexual exploitation. The report is not from the most recent scandal concerning aid workers using prostitutes—that would have been the revelations in February of this year that senior Oxfam staff members procured sex workers in a Haitian disaster zone after the 2010 earthquake. Most of the girls from this earlier report (it was published in 2002 based on findings by the UN Refugee Agency and Save the Children-UK) were only thirteen to eighteen years old and were from Liberia, Guinea, and Sierra Leone; they were among those hapless, vulnerable children whose misery, Westerners like to believe, is assuaged by the dollars they throw at aid organizations following every catastrophe or cataclysm.

Their exploiters—the big men the children described—were employees of international governmental organizations (IGOs) and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), local and international, including several UN agencies. These were men who dashed around global trouble spots in SUVs emblazoned with the vaunted logos of one esteemed aid organization or another. They wound up using the bodies of young girls in exchange for a tarp, or food, or a bit of money. As one of the adolescents put it, “It’s difficult to escape the trap of those (NGO) people; they use the food as bait to get you to sex with them.”

Abuse, Rinse, Repeat

The report, with piles of closely typed pages, is one of dozens produced over the years, each one setting off a predictable Kabuki-style show of official outrage, followed by earnest avowals of reform and perhaps a layoff or two—and then a return to business as usual. Many of the abuses documented in 2002 were similar to those later exposed in the Oxfam scandal. That sordid saga began with the disclosure that Roland Van Hauwermeiren, the head of Oxfam operations in Haiti, and other staffers had brought prostitutes into a villa rented by the charity. Since then, there have been reports of more such incidents, some layoffs, and (yes) promises to repair the corrupt culture of aid work. In the months to come, there will also be, as is the established practice at the higher echelons of the global aid-industrial complex, reports, commissions, investigations—and then, in all likelihood, a reversion to the old patterns of predation and abuse.

Time and again, the cornered culprits of humanitarian aid assure critics and investigators that in the wake of devastating reports on their actions, things will be different. And as has been the case over the past decade and a half of rampant abuse, their confident forecasts of reform will fall flat. Bleeding money and losing support from Western donors now skittish about incurring fallout from the “me too” crusade, they seem willing to promise virtually anything to survive.

Oxfam, now vulnerable to losing some of the £180 million of governmental support it receives, has said it is “strengthening the vetting and recruitment of staff” and wants to “address the underlying cultural issues” behind the organization’s sorry track record of sexual misconduct in the field. The charity’s leaders also pledge that they’ll widen the scope of an independent inquiry already under way to include sexual misconduct within its purview, while collaborating with other NGOs to overcome legal difficulties in sharing information about aid workers accused of sexual misconduct.

Cocksure Colonialists

Over at the United Nations, whose member organization UNAIDS recently lost its deputy executive director Luiz Loures amid allegations that he sexually assaulted a female colleague, there is a similar official minuet of remorse and remonstration. Indeed, Newsweek reported in August that eight male complainants alleged that UN official Ravi Karkara sexually harassed them on the job. The quasi-Orwellian twist here is that Karkara heads up the agency’s iniitiative for the global empowerment of women—against, say, things like sexual harassment. Weary observers of the Western aid scandals can by now fill in the blanks themselves: promises to investigate, earnest assurances of better vetting to come, a pledge to bolster protocols of internal reporting, and similar refrains of collective reassurance ring through tense hallways frequented by grim-faced aid bureaucrats.

Like the organizations themselves, the recommendations for reform are thick with jargon, and billowing with vague talk of improved bureaucratic vigilance and executive transparency. All this will be carried out at great expense, and after a great passage of time—the sum of it all designed to drag out the underlying allegations until they’ve mostly been forgotten.

Real reform, an actual overhaul of practices for aid workers in the field, would involve much more than this round-robin byplay of commission meetings and further study, which tend to succumb gradually to ever-deeper levels of bureaucratic inertia. One of the key factors to understand is the way the structural and moral architecture of the aid industrial complex provides perfect cover for sexual abusers. It would take an unprecedented leveling and ground-up reconstruction of the international aid network, at the baseline levels of philosophy and culture, to prevent future pedophiles and rapists from making their home within them. And such measures are unlikely to gain any serious traction as long as the relevant authorities in the aid world are permitted to continue policing themselves.

The recommendations for reform are thick with jargon, and billowing with vague talk of improved bureaucratic vigilance and executive transparency.

One glaring reason for the longstanding tolerance of sexual assault among aid workers has to do with the de facto moral absolution that such figures enjoy as they come to the assistance of the disaster-stricken. The colonialist image of the richly resourced and selfless Western savior provides perfect cover to those looking to exploit helpless children and women. In addition, the basic enterprise of aid work is steeped in legal ambiguities regarding jurisdiction, which compounds confusion in countries receiving aid over which official body has the authority to investigate complaints.

In this respect, aid work parallels the culture of abuse that has taken root within the private-sector world of military contracting, which also operates in a netherzone of blurry-at-best jurisdictional authority and agency oversight. And it’s long been true that the personality profile of swashbuckling Western male aid workers uncomfortably echoes that of their counterparts in the demimonde of global private soldiering—both kinds of aspiring Western savior figures share an unswerving faith in their own personal heroism and the superior virtue of their mission, while regarding the legal protocols of accountability in their host countries with a certain studied contempt.

Indeed, the structural and jurisdictional quandaries protecting predatory aid workers prove an especially toxic breeding ground for the increasingly macho culture of global aid as it continues to blur indistinguishably into the arrant nation-building worldview that undergirds global humanitarianism and military intervention. Viewed from this perspective, it’s no great surprise that the Western aid world tends to attract men who feel entitled simply to take whatever—or whomever—they have power over.

Humanitarians sans Humanity

The label of humanitarian, applied either to an organization or a field worker, carries with it an agreeable air of saintly good faith. The job of aid work, as most of the world beyond the NGO elite imagines it, involves jetting off to parts of the world struggling to survive in the face of disaster—be it a catastrophic earthquake or a devastating flood or a near-genocidal ethnic-cleansing campaign. As no end of cable news footage has suggested, these daring-yet-compassionate souls provide stunned and bereft populations with the basic material and medical support they so desperately need. There is no ambiguity here—just the celebration of a higher moral calling that inspires charitable supporters of such groups in the West to donate five or ten or twenty dollars a month to do heroic good by proxy.

Humanitarian aid workers are indeed deployed as the charitable equivalent of diplomatic “honest brokers.” Their broader social function is to connect those who look at catastrophe from the comfortable distance of the West and those everywhere else who must actually live amid its aftermath. The trucks full of food, tents, and medical supplies are evidence that the blessed of the world are “doing something.” In sending aid, Western governments and their citizens can feel a bit less embarrassed about their wealth and good fortune and assure themselves that they are indeed, still and forever, the “good guys.”

Good Guys Gone Wild

The emergency situations and disaster areas that aid workers throng to are also what academic types call “liminal zones.” As aid workers parachute into exotic, desperately needy social orders turned upside down by disaster, they intuit they’ve gained a great deal of power in a setting where the moral constraints and constructs of home no longer apply and anything goes. Research conducted by Gemma Houldey among aid workers in Kenya found a reluctance to report the use of prostitutes and the “compound lifestyle” given to excesses and indulgence, all-night partying, and drinking. Houldey also reported, not surprisingly, that such behavior carries none of the opprobrium or disciplinary risk in an aid setting that would be the case in other workplaces back home.

The “aid worker,” then, is the selfless agent distributing the proof of Western caring, a symbolic repository of heroism in a world otherwise besieged by self-seeking cynicism. International charities work hard to preserve this image of the usually white and always Western savior: the emissary of all those who have donated to assist the devastated. The virtue signaling born from all of these optics of selflessness has in the present moment of compulsive sharing become contagious as a form of moral branding. Even those who go on vacations in the developing non-Western world now post Instagram photos of themselves frolicking alongside half-naked black or brown children; if you can’t be an aid worker, you can still look like one.

Meanwhile, of course, those who actually do the job of foreign aid work and don shirts emblazoned with the United Nations logo or drive cars for Oxfam, are steeped in the sacrosanct trappings of administered virtue abroad. In this sense, aid workers within a particular context are an “us” pitted against a “them”—the hordes of suffering catastrophe victims who need their help, as well as the various bad actors who want to keep it from them. As scholar Kurt Mills points out in his research, humanitarian organizations, like other large organizations, are vulnerable to a particular kind of groupthink “where the in group perceives itself as having a particular inherent morality of its own.” This, in turn, prevents aid workers in the field from thinking of the consequences of their actions or evaluating them as they might if they were to indulge their appetites outside the charmed circle of aid work. “They are the good guys, the do-gooders, and thus whatever they do must be good,” Mills writes.

It all adds up, in other words, to a perfect climate for those who wish to do something wrong while pretending, and possibly even believing, that it is in fact the right thing to do. Cans of food given to girls who go into rooms with them, paying prostitutes with the proceeds of aid, and even having sex slaves who cater to their sexual whims are all OK in this liminal context because they, as aid workers, are the good guys. And the good guys always win, are always right.

Whistleblowing into the Void

The world of international humanitarian aid is littered with dizzying organizational charts.

Aid work seems designed to daunt and confuse—unless, of course, you have something to hide or are clever enough to find within these cracks an essentially guilt-free zone in which to rape and abuse.

Each new project and deployment takes shape amid a whirlwind of contractual and sub-contractual relationships, temporary assignments, and associations. As a result, most aid work occurs within a legal zone of nearly indiscernible jurisdictions. All of it seems designed to daunt and confuse—unless, of course, you have something to hide or are clever enough to find within these cracks an essentially guilt-free zone in which to rape and abuse. Those who may wish to complain will be smacked down with a distressingly knotty series of questions: who has jurisdiction over a particular aid worker or contractor? Where must a complaint be made? And what kinds of remedies and justice are available to the exploited? For all intents and purposes, these remain unanswerable questions, deterring even the most determined complainants and social-justice advocates.

In a study bearing the horrifyingly depressing title “Regulating Sex in Peace Operations,” Gabrielle Simm recounts one sordid tale illustrating just how deep-seated the aid world’s built-in resistance to accountability can be. In the 1990s, the U.S. government entered into an agreement with the military contractor DynCorp to provide trainers to the United Nations. The UN was at the time charged with training police—er, excuse me, “peace keepers”—in Bosnia. Kathryn Bolkovac, a police officer with extensive experience in child abuse and sexual exploitation, was hired in 1999 as a police monitor. When she got there, she found in short order that women were being trafficked into Bosnia, where they were forced to have sex with clients—including, among others, members of the International Police Task Force, along with other international and humanitarian employees in Bosnia.

Shocked at this state of affairs, Bolkovac immediately sent an email to at least fifty people within the joint orbit of United Nations and DynCorp, presenting her findings in graphic detail. Following the email, Bolkovac was immediately redeployed and then, shortly after in April 2001, dismissed. Despite other allegations of abuse, some of which included rape and sexual slavery, no action was taken against any member of the International Police Force.

As Bolkovac’s case reveals, the aid industrial complex has no tolerance for whistleblowers. A recently released UN internal survey from December 2017 (i.e., prior to the Oxfam scandal becoming public) questioned thousands of employees across UN agencies and found that less than half (45 percent) felt “confident that staff will be protected from retaliation for reporting misconduct or cooperating with audit or investigation.” Another solid half of respondents said, not surprisingly, that the agency’s culture didn’t hold people accountable for unethical behavior. Taken together, these findings elegantly illustrate the double-bind of would-be reformers in the aid world: people know what must be done, but they’re reluctant to ensure that it actually gets done, thanks to the all-too-likely prospect of workplace retaliation.

Incentivizing Cover-ups

These grim conditions stand out in still starker relief when you factor in the views of UN staffers of their institution’s organizational “agility”—i.e., the capacity to change and adopt substantive reforms to its status-quo operations. Only 41 percent agreed with the statement that “the UN Secretariat adapts well to changes that affect how we operate” and that there was “effective cooperation” across the agency’s departments and sections. Resistance to change, retaliation for whistleblowing, and fearsomely tangled webs of accountability: all these institutional failings add up to a perfect refuge for those looking for helpless populations to exploit.

At Oxfam or UNAIDS, an exposé that reveals the exploitation of girls and children endangers the aid industry’s creation myth of selfless Western heroism and compassion.

Large international NGOs, many like Oxfam, mirror the structures of the United Nations and face similar challenges. And just as at the great global-aid mothership, NGO administrators won’t ever institute meaningful change via a fistful of face-saving reports vowing procedural reform and an enlightened change in leadership. Internal systems designed to securely report misconduct rarely work in self-policing bodies; indeed, they’re better suited to cover up a compromising battery of complaints for the simple reason that organizational revenue depends on the organization’s brand.

At Oxfam or UNAIDS, an exposé that reveals the exploitation of girls and children endangers the aid industry’s creation myth of selfless Western heroism and compassion. This existential threat, combined with the bureaucratic inertia endemic to large and international organizations, creates an incentive to cover up and/or downplay any and all allegations of abuse.

The problems fester, and the abusers are emboldened by the broader climate of inaction and denial. Jurisdictional confusions over whom to report to are augmented by supervisors who are unlikely to follow up on credible reports of wrongdoing. When reports do somehow gain traction internally, the fear of an Oxfam-style scandal further bogs down the already baroque machinery of official complaint.

Cover-ups thus appear safer and surer courses of action, with the corollary message rendered all too plainly to would-be whistleblowers that, on balance, it’s not worth the risk of speaking out. In short, the brand-damaging scandal of sexual abuse in any aid group’s upper ranks usually represents a greater liability, from the standpoint of an agency’s brand managers, than a sexual abuser deployed in the field, exploiting faraway women and children in the most unfortunate corners of the world.

Caste and Complicity

“I do wonder how hard it must be to sustain civilized values in a disaster zone,” mused renowned classicist Mary Beard on Twitter in the days after the Oxfam scandal broke. Her speculation launched an earnest social-media outbreak of remonstration (and an apologetic follow-up blog post by Beard herself). But it also revealed the uglier face of aid work and its colonialist antecedents. As historian Bernard S. Cohn wrote in his 1996 book Colonialism and Its Forms of Knowledge, British colonists were greatly preoccupied with the task of appearing as beneficent overlords, bringing civilization and enlightenment to the subject populations in their colonies.

In order to keep the conceit of Western benevolence afloat, it was crucial that the white saviors took on the role of the morally good—and that the natives served as the grateful savages (noble and otherwise) awaiting reform and civilizational uplift. If the former group was prey to certain excesses in the vein of Roland Van Hauwermeiren in Haiti, it was because of the encroachment of those uncivilized and primitive mores into the ranks of the civilized. The colonial administrator bearing the white man’s burden was always at risk of “going native,” in other words.

What colonists did then, aid workers and agencies do now. As they replicate the colonial hierarchies of old, white bosses preside over staffs made of expatriates and locals in the “field,” where aid work gets done. A 2016 investigation by university researchers found that there could be up to a 900 percent pay disparity between local workers and generally white expatriate administrators. This eye-opening gap was not based on skills or training, which were often comparable; rather, it was entirely based on nationality, with white Westerners usually inhabiting senior positions in the global aid hierarchy even when they had the same skills and training as their local counterparts—and yet getting paid more even when they weren’t in senior positions.

Nor is the caste system of white saviors lording over local workers restricted to matters of pay. Foreign expatriates also got accommodation allowances, longer paid vacation time, household staff, children’s school fees, and health insurance—none of which was available to local staff.

In short, the aid world has faithfully revived most bad-old forms of colonial privilege, from unequal pay to caste-like disparities in social standing. And this dynamic, in turn, resurrects other moral constructs of the colonial era pertaining directly to the sexual exploitation of local women and the colonial lord’s sexual entitlement over them. Haiti, the site of the Oxfam scandal, has a long unsightly history, dating to the original French colonial settlement, of local women sexually catering to white slavers. In her 2005 study The Libertine Colony: Creolization in the Early French Caribbean, Doris L. Garraway looks at a host of colonial narratives to argue that there were central “roles of desire and sexuality in mediating colonial power relations.” In this context, Haitian slavery was not simply a system of sexual domination but also a critical institutional expression of white political and sexual supremacy.

Undoing the Global Droit du Seigneur

The point is a crucial one: while sexual exploitation is the underlying crisis that’s ushered in a climate of covering up and complicity in the global aid world, the behavior of colonial sexual conquest is embedded within a far more imposing and still largely unchallenged system of political supremacy. The “neutral” and “savior” stance of aid-giving organizations belies, in many cases, the complicity of donors and donor nations in the disasters to which they are called and to which they contribute. And this unacknowledged complicity rules out, almost by definition, any substantive effort to directly address how global domination insures the persistence of global poverty and the very conditions that the aid industrial complex is ostensibly working to eliminate.

The sack of flour that induces a little girl to submit to rape represents more than just the spoils of colonial sexual assault.

Put another way, this erasure of complicity is the entirely foreseeable, and never affirmed, outcome of the aid narrative—a transposition, if you will, of baseline colonial relations into our own neoliberal world system. The sack of flour that induces a little girl to submit to rape represents more than just the spoils of colonial sexual assault; it symbolizes a state of chronic subjugation and beggary, which is directly bound up with the no-less chronic colonial belief in the humanity and goodness of one population and the barbarity and immorality of the other.

The in-house critiques of proposed reforms generated by the managers of aid agencies are generally met with eye rolls (among weary, increasingly fatalistic workers) and dogged defensiveness (among the executives and PR flacks the agencies employ). Aid agencies, after all, do good work, one is told—a trite reminder that on the whole the existence and assistance of an Oxfam or the United Nations is better than nothing. The isolationism of nationalist obscurantists, currently ascendant over much of the Western world, imposes another layer of exhausted silence on those who wish to imagine better possibilities, and organizational safeguards that might rein in rather than empower male sexual entitlement in the “field” of aid disbursement.

And yet improvement is the urgent order of the day if transnational cooperation is to be rescued from the clutches of a doggedly colonialist and blame-shifting NGO elite. The stagnation-friendly proposals that gain ritual favor within the inner circles of the aid industrial complex offer no constructive path toward substantive reform. This, we must recognize, is business as usual—and business as usual has long meant sexual exploitation with impunity. The shame and helplessness of victims placed in the path of these predators should mean something; it should, at long last, break down the thin-lipped smugness of the lords of the aid industrial complex, the stolid enablers who shelter rapists and provide cover to sexual abusers.

Rafia Zakaria is the author of The Upstairs Wife: An Intimate History of Pakistan (Beacon 2015) and Veil (Bloomsbury 2017). She is a columnist for Dawn in Pakistan. She writes regularly for the Guardian, Boston Review, The New Republic, and The New York Times Book Review.

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