A terminal lack of transparency combined with the massive power imbalance in aid work is causing an endless repetition of financial and sexual abuse by members of charities that take advantage of the most vulnerable under the cover of chaos.
The latest Oxfam sex abuse scandal does not exist in a vacuum. It is not the first time that aid groups have been accused of sexual misconduct towards the very people the entities purport to protect, and without significant change, it will not be the last time that such allegations emerge. The current debacle began with the revelation of sexual abuses by Oxfam’s Country Director in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake devastated the island nation. The allegations eventually led to the expulsion and banning of Oxfam Great Britain from the country.
Reuters reports that Oxfam’s former country director in Haiti, Roland Van Hauwermeiren, admitted to using prostitutes at his residence during a relief mission before resigning in 2011. CNN wrote that Oxfam had published an internal report acknowledging that three staff members also “physically threatened and intimidated” a witness during an internal investigation into the issue. The New York Times discussed Haiti’s decision to ban Oxfam Great Britain from operating in the country.
Additionally, a UNICEF consultant and child rights activist recently pled guilty to raping a child under 16, raising further questions about the essential nature of charity work. Any discussion of Oxfam or Newell’s misconduct must recognize the history in which such scandals are situated.
Such abuses have proven all-too-pervasive over the preceding decades, with Disobedient Media’s William Craddick, breaking coverage of the Clintons’ efforts on behalf of Laura Silsby. Craddick reported on Silsby’s illegal attempt to traffic Haitian children in the aftermath of the same 2010 earthquake that has become the setting of the Oxfam debacle, as well as the Clintons’ apparent efforts to intercede on Silsby’s behalf.
In April last year, Disobedient Media also wrote regarding historical abuses tied to the United Nations, noting that the U.N. has faced accusations of sex crimes for decades, ranging from rape and abuse of women and minors in war zones to participation in human trafficking, prostitution and even production of child pornography involving senior U.N. officials and members of foreign governments.
Additionally, Disobedient Media described allegations of child and organ trafficking that emerged in the aftermath of disasters in locations including Haiti, Chad and the Balkans. This author’s report on the matter ultimately queried: “…If this is what was caught, what abuses are occurring that we do not catch?” In light of the latest series of abuse allegations, the unfortunate answer appears to be, “far too much.”
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The question as to whether minors were also sexually abused by Oxfam staff remains open-ended. Oxfam’s 2011 report indicated that: “None of the initial allegations concerning fraud, nepotism, or use of underage prostitutes was substantiated during the investigation, although it cannot be ruled out that any of the prostitutes were under-aged.” In all, seven Oxfam employees have been terminated in relation to the incident. ABC News reported allegations that some of the prostitutes involved with Oxfam staff were minors.
This is not the first time that a member of Oxfam would be swept up in a highly publicized sex abuse scandal. British press reports indicate that Caroline Thomas, who became Chair of Oxfam in 2016, previously served as an executive at BBC during the emergence of the Jimmy Saville sexual abuse fiasco that deeply tarnished the reputation of the BBC.
Some press reports imply that abuses perpetrated by Oxfam staff were much worse than what was officially documented in the now-public 2011 report, citing age of those involved as a particular concern. That abuses against minors cannot be confirmed or denied in the case is disconcerting, considering well-documented sexual abuses of children in Haiti by UN peacekeepers and others.
Since the scandal’s emergence, Oxfam has faced the cessation of financial support from thousands of individual donors and even public funds. The Associated Press reports that: “British government… suspended new funding to Oxfam’s British affiliate. Oxfam Great Britain received 31.7 million pounds ($43.8 million) from the government in the 12 months through March 31, 2017, or about 8 percent of its revenue.”
Amira Malik Miller, a Swiss humanitarian aid worker, came forward in the wake of the Oxfam furor, discussing abuses tied to Roland Van Hauwermeiren with Hardtalk. Miller described witnessing abuses in Liberia in 2004 while working for a British charity, Merlin, where Roland Van Hauwermeiren served as the Country Director. Despite Miller having lodged an official complaint with the charity, Van Hauwermeiren was able to gain employment with other aid groups before finally being exposed in relation to abuses in Haiti while working for Oxfam.
Roland Van Hauwermeiren’s ability to easily gain employment with successive aid groups after Miller’s 2004 complaint suggest a troubling degree of leniency towards sexual abuse in aid work.
Although the current outrage and funding cuts may lead to increased accountability for Oxfam, it does nothing to address the larger problems posed by an amorphous industry of aid groups. If an ample supply of tax-payer funding continues, absent any drastic transparency or accountability measures, the same abuses will inevitably continue ad infinitum.
The heart of the problem is that non-governmental organizations are by definition unaccountable to the public that funds them and impervious to those they ‘serve,’ as humanitarian groups operate amongst devastated populations with near impunity. For Peacekeepers and those affiliated with the United Nations, diplomatic immunity prevents the tiniest a shred of accountability, even in cases of the most heinous sex crimes.
That Oxfam and similar organizations receive sizable government funding while unaccountable to the public represents an existential problem for all NGO’s, charities, and “humanitarian” efforts. As the situation stands, a total lack of transparency creates an environment ripe for abuses of the worst kind.
Oxfam was not the only humanitarian organization to be implicated in recent weeks. The Guardian wrote that Mercy Corp and other charities were also linked to Haitian case, writing that a spokeswoman for Mercy Corps had confirmed the involvement of an individual who worked for Mercy Corp between July 2015 to November 2016.’
The European press reports noted that this was not the first time Mercy Corp had been associated with sex abuse accusations, writing: “A similar but separate issue surfaced last year after Mercy Corps, another EU-funded NGO, publicly announced that it was investigating allegations of sexual misconduct by two of its staff on the Greek island of Lesbos.”
Disobedient Media previously reported on the involvement of Mercy Corp and other groups in Haiti, in an article covering special interest-tied micro-finance and reinsurance groups that used the devastating cholera outbreak caused by UN peacekeepers to profit. The piece noted that groups who appear for all intents and purposes to be aimed at “aiding” Haitians reaped a sizable profit from the instigation of “microloans” and “reinsurance programs,” descending on the Haitian populous before basic sanitation had been instigated.
This author’s previous report explained that microfinancers and re-insurers involved in Haiti in the wake of the 2010 earthquake and the secondary cholera epidemic included Swiss Re, Fonkoze, and Mercy Corp, all of whom partnered with the Clinton Global Initiative to create the Microinsurance Catastrophe Risk Organization (MiCRO). Mercy Corp is Chaired by Linda A. Mason, who also co-founded Bright Horizons, a large child care organization that has previously operated in Haiti with Mercy Corp.
Despite describing itself as a tax-exempt 501(c) charity, Mercy Corp runs a microfinance portfolio including 1,351,511 disbursed loans worth over $1.40 billion, with total assets worth $435.3 million. It seems remarkable that a tax-exempt charity would also found a number of banks, including Bank Andara, Asian Credit Fund, the Agency for Finance in Kosovo, IMON International, Kompanion Financial Group LLC, Partner Microcredit Organization, XacBank and Mercy Corp Northwest.
Mercy Corp’s founding role in banking institutions and engagement in micro-lending may seem like a digression from the core issues discussed in this article. However, the charity’s involvement with for-profit Microfinance operations and the founding of numerous banks as a 501 (c) charity raises serious questions regarding the potential for financial predation by NGO’s against the most vulnerable. Microfinance has been linked to the suicide of dozens of farmers in India, with local press reports describing Microfinance as: “No better than moneylenders [who] have so far been able to operate under the pious garb of poverty eradicators.”
This accusation appears to be borne out, with interest rates on these tiny loans often skyrocketing above the advertised 10% flat rate, reaching as high as 40%. Indian press reports describe the consequences: “The result is a (hidden) final rate of interest of 24-30%, or even higher for the poor who can barely afford a square meal a day.”
Masked in the guise of aid, parasitic “aid” groups are converting populations in severe distress into a new market of debt slaves and earning massive – tax exempt – profit in the bargain. This new vampirism even has a feel-good label: “Financial Inclusion.” In some cases, press reports indicate that poverty-stricken farmers have resorted to selling their organs to pay off mounting debts. Business Insider described the issue:
Reports of usurious interest rates being charged to desperate borrowers came to light amidst mounting criticism of the high-handed tactics employed by loan officers to collect monthly installments. Collective defaults by entire villages were reported around the world. Most disturbingly, in the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh, a hotbed of microfinance lending, dozens of suicides occurred among borrowers under pressure from large micro-lenders, forcing the state to clamp down on the exorbitant interest rates. Recent studies have found microfinance to have had zero impact on poverty alleviation.”
Additional press reports have gone so far as to pose the question: “Is Microfinance pushing the world’s poorest even deeper into poverty?” In other words, much like the sexual abuses revealed to have taken place at the hands of Oxfam staff in Haiti, “charitable” organizations also take financial advantage of vulnerable populations. This is a crucial point, because it removes the smiling veneer from humanitarian work, exposing it as opportunism of the worst sort.
One could go so far as to observe that modern aid work far too often resembles a reincarnation of the same colonizing spirit that patronized even as it laid waste to entire communities and robbed countless indigenous cultures over the bloody course of previous centuries.
Adding to all of this, Disobedient Media previously reported former French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner’s role as head of the United Nations Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK), as well as a founder of the charity ‘Doctors Without Borders.’ That Kouchner straddled the dual roles in the United Nations, as well as a charity, makes him particularly relevant, especially in light of his ardent defense of convicted pedophile Michael Sounalet.
Sounalet had served with Doctors Without Borders after serving part of a lengthy sentence for armed robbery, participating in “humanitarian efforts” in locations including Rwanda, where he “looked for survivors of the families of two hundred orphans.” Sounalet organized the placement of those children and photographed them. In French Press, Sounalet appears to describe having a “crush” on the children he photographed.
Remarkably, instead of condemning Sounalet after allegations of child sex abuse emerged against the aid worker, Kouchner staunchly defended the accused in court. Kouchner had previously gone so far as to call Sounalet’s work a “model for international bodies.” That such a prominent figure in the United Nations, French politics, and charity work would praise a pedophile and convicted armed robber as a “model” for humanitarian work speaks to an endemic culture of abuse in “aid” organizations.
This is not the first time UNICEF has been tied to sexual abuse of children. Disobedient Media previously reported on a particularly infamous scandal that unfolded in the 1980’s, in which the operation of a child porn and child trafficking operation was discovered to have been run from the basement of the UNICEF building in Brussels, Belgium. Members of the establishment were charged in association with the abuses, including one unnamed individual with purported ties to the intelligence community.
A report from The Guardian published in 1987 indicated that the Director of the national committee of UNICEF was charged with “offenses involving what police suspect is an international child prostitution ring.” The Guardian observed:
The Belgian authorities have suggested a link between the Brussels operation and similar organizations in the US and Japan, as well as several other European countries involving children aged between four and twelve. The Government was highly embarrassed by the news that a former Justice Ministry official, Philippe Carpentier, was one of those arrested, together with a close associate, a top government official, working on highly sensitive anti-terrorist legislation.”
Ultimately, thirteen individuals were arrested in connection with the UNICEF scandal. Of particular note was the relationship between the UNICEF ring and the previously mentioned government official who was described as working on “highly sensitive anti-terrorist legislation.”
The Glasgow-Herald described the same network: “A Belgian professor who was involved in a worldwide child pornography scandal has hanged himself in prison… Prof. Mulatin was connected with a vast ring of pedophiles in Europe, America, Japan and Africa. They were supplied from Brussels with photographs of children engaged in sexual acts with adults. Some were taken in the basement of a building used by the United Nations children’s organization Unicef in Brussels. Police have arrested Michel Felu, 45, the building’s caretaker, and Unicef’s Director in Belgium, Jozef Verbeeck, 63.”
The New York Times also reported on the 1987 Brussels outrage, publishing an article titled: “Child sex scandal roils UNICEF unit.” The outlet wrote: “UNICEF said it was investigating charges that the Belgian committee was linked to an organization producing pornographic photographs of children and distributing them throughout Europe.”
Adding to this grotesque image of non-governmental organizations is the previously reported testimony of Greg Bucceroni to Disobedient Media. Greg described in detail the harmful role played by philanthropic organizations in Philadelphia during the 1970’s and 1980’s. He recounted the methods by which multiple organizations were used by well-connected pedophiles to access vulnerable youth under the guise of helping them. Instead of providing a haven for troubled youth, such organizations provided easy access to predators who could then abuse children without consequence.
The sexual abuse of children and adults by apparently respectable charitable and nongovernmental groups is a longstanding issue and one that stretches back decades. Part of the blame for a pervasive lack of oversight lays at the feet of an amnesiac press that fails to connect successive scandals to a poisonous tolerance of abuse amongst aid groups, NGO’s and the United Nations.
The most recent abuses of Oxfam and Newell of UNICEF represent a decades-old trend that appears doomed to repeat itself unless substantial action is taken to make sure such organizations are accountable to the public. Aid groups can no longer be approached as universally positive affairs and must be analyzed with as much skepticism as applies to any group that interferes with the populations of a sovereign nation. Under the banner of aid, the worst varieties of postmodern colonialism, child abuse, and even human trafficking are too easily ignored or excused.
Unless fundamental changes are made, a terminal lack of transparency combined with the massive power imbalance in aid work will lead to endless repetitions of financial and sexual abuses by members of charities that take advantage of the most vulnerable under cover of chaos.
Top Photo | A sign in Haiti depicts a United Nations Peacekeeper in the form of a monster. (Photo: Ramon Espinosa/AP)
Elizabeth Vos is the Co-Founder and Editor in Chief at Disobedient Media.