Aid workers must not prey on the vulnerable

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The British arm of the international charity organisation Oxfam is reeling from claims that emergency and humanitarian workers engaged the services of local prostitutes while they were helping the stricken nation of Haiti recover from earthquakes and natural disasters.

The scandal has already led to the resignation of one senior official, and has tarnished the work and undertakings of Oxfam in the field. Before the scandal broke, Oxfam was considered to be a leading example of how western aid bodies manage to successfully provide much-needed assistance on the ground in the days and weeks after disaster strikes.

Sadly, Oxfam is not the only such group that has had levels of misconduct and sexual impropriety levelled at those who are charged with aiding and abetting those most in need.

The United Nations, and the peacekeepers who wear its famed blue beret on international aid missions, have a less-than stellar record when it comes to their behaviour in Haiti also. Similar accusations have also been levelled at UN peacekeepers during missions to central Africa. A series of damning reports produced by the UN itself has led to a slew of criminal prosecutions against erstwhile wearers of the blue beret.

There is no doubt that humanitarian and natural disasters create circumstances that are challenging for not only those on the receiving end, but also for the well-meaning aid and relief agencies that line to help those in the darkest hours of need. In these circumstances too, societal values are often upended, creating conditions of distress and discomfort for the many. And sadly, there are those who are weak and see opportunities for personal satisfaction and sexual gratification amid those vulnerabilities.

While aid workers do generally agree to a code of moral conduct, the breakdown in law, order and civil society in places of desperation and poverty means following that code is a personal choice. Certainly, in the case of the United Kingdom’s operations of Oxfam during the reconstruction of Haiti, there appears to have been little oversight, with those responsible for the mission turning a blind eye to the activities of those relief workers who indulged in these activities.

Those who aid and abet the commission of physical, fiscal and sexual abuses against vulnerable refugees are undermining the very concept of being there to help. These abuses must never be tolerated under any circumstances – and anyone involved must face the toughest penalties as a result.

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