Beyond the Oxfam Scandal

This essay first apperead on

The Oxfam scandal has generated much press coverage over the past two weeks, with a good amount of sensationalism. The focus has been positively titillating and hashtag-able: prostitutes, #metoo, sexual harassment, rapes, #aidtoo.

Besides rare mentions, the voices have been from Global North practitioners and policymakers. On February 13, I had a brief interview with the BBC about the scandal. As the President of a Haitian-led organization, I appeared on a panel with two other British women – one academic, the other with a social services background. The question (and the only question) that was posed to me was,

“How angry are you about what happened in Haiti?”


“I’m certainly not happy about it…” I replied, bewildered and annoyed. I recovered and went on to say that Oxfam is taking a beating, but the issues are systemic. Imbalances of power lead to abuses of power.

Our context in Haiti is dominated by international organizations. Bilateral, multilateral, and large international NGOs come into Haiti, often with budgets larger than state agencies, as well as political connections. They command a lot of power.

The host followed with, “You mean, it’s much wider than Oxfam?” to which I answered,

“Yes, it is wider than Oxfam.”

I sent an update about the interview to members of my network, and was surprised by the heartfelt responses from many national-level organizations’ leaders in Kenya, Somalia, and elsewhere.

“That’s so true!!!” said one of them known for her low key and dignified persona.

Another dynamic leader from Africa stressed the need to write about, “this issue [of imbalances of power] and the system of marginalization of local people at all levels.” One leader from Haiti went on to say: “What bothers me is that the scandal is like a movement linked to sensationalism, rather than addressing those victimized.”

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The reality is that in Haiti, and in many other countries around the world, the Oxfam scandal is not a surprise. It doesn’t even warrant much attention. We’ve been all too familiar with these issues. We’ve complained about them for decades and haven’t gotten heard until western journalists chose to cover a few stories. In fact, in the Oxfam scandal, the western media talk about “sex workers and prostitutes”. We know that the young girls and women involved were probably, for the most part, ordinary girls and women operating in a survival mode.

I will tell you why the #Oxfamscandal shouldn’t be “the focus” of our energies any longer. Having had many conversations with Global South colleagues from all over the world involved in humanitarian and development work for the past decade, I can tell you that this incident wasn’t the first. It will not be the last. These scandals are just symptoms.

Both in the global development and the humanitarian fields, local and national organizations of the Global South get a miniscule percentage of the aid funds (less than 1%). It doesn’t matter how much donors and large institutions talk about their commitment to local leaderships, most do not “walk their talk.” Local and national organizations’ expertise and intrinsic value are discounted. Development as we define it, on our terms, is not really supported in ways that count (access to solid funding, adequate overhead allocations, etc). We are told that we cannot access funds because of our “lack of capacity,” but there doesn’t seem to be adequate support for the effective reinforcement of our capacity. What a Catch 22!

We hear that donors have “issues” dealing directly Global South organizations. What the specific issues are and recommendations on addressing them remain to be clearly stated. In brief, the Aid framework needs structural change, a fundamental transformation. Its approach remains problematic if it continues to operate under the assumption that aid recipients (countries or individuals) are in a position where they need help, cannot be fully trusted to understand their issues, nor can they devise effective solutions for their problems.

Haiti is a perfect case for the need to change the paradigm of development and international aid. Three years after the 2010 earthquake, only 0.6% of the billions of public and private monies given to Haiti had gone directly to Haitian organizations and Haitian businesses. Our development context is ridiculously dominated and controlled by International NGOs and international institutions. Worse still, we are not at the table for discussions that impact our future. Decisions regarding our development are made in New York, Washington, Geneva, London.

In Haiti, we need systems of strong governance, accountability, leadership, and empowerment of local communities. These systems are not by any means the sole responsibility of international institutions. On the contrary, as Pierre-Marie Boisson, Sr. Vice President of Haiti’s Sogebank and an economist, stresses,

“We, in Haiti, have a history of bad governance and a need for a structured society with a solid system of checks and balances.”

The Haiti Community Foundation Initiative has been building a Haiti-based, Haiti-led community foundation structured as a national network of regional funds. We construct models of community-led development where local leaders can reclaim the leadership of our communities and of our country. Having done it in the Grand’Anse, our pilot region, we know that it works!

So here’s how I could have also responded to that BBC reporter, even more clearly. As many of us continue to advocate for our country’s and community’s right to self-determination, we have experienced a range of emotion – from anger, rage, and frustration, to depression, grief, and deep sadness – elicited by the very real barriers to social change put in place by the status quo. In the larger scheme of things, the Oxfam scandal doesn’t matter. Really, it doesn’t. But make no mistake. We are very clear about what the core issues are, i.e. a system of power imbalances – a do-gooder industry built on them – that too often abuses us and marginalizes our peoples at all levels.

Until these urgent injustices are honestly and earnestly addressed by Global North and Global South stakeholders, in Haiti and beyond, the UN troopsRed CrossOxfam, and other scandals will only continue to unfold.

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