How #Oxfam Can Become Haiti’s #MeToo Moment
The first time I landed in Haiti after the earthquake, I navigated my carry-on bag through throngs of drivers, vendors, and family reunions as the airport doors opened onto Port au Prince. I looked about until I found a driver waiting outside an SUV, a sign with my organization's logo in his hand.
He looked surprised to see me walking towards him. There are few women of color- few people of color period- working in international development. He greeted me formally in French before taking my bag. I smiled and answered him in Haitian Creole. He grinned at me and visibly relaxed his posture, “You speak Creole?!”
When he opened the door for me to climb into the backseat, I made the calculated decision to forgo the power imbalance that this would solidify and sat in the front passenger seat instead. I knew that my driver wasn’t merely a ride from point A to point B, but a guide through the delicate sociopolitical landscape and power dynamics of this country. Drivers were like silent shadows- they heard everything, knew everyone, and went everywhere. During my career, their information was invaluable to me to do my job effectively. They provided me with information and access, helping me navigate sensitive political realities and assess potentially perilous situations.
Once he realized I was Haitian also, he gave me my first lesson on aid work in Haiti. It was a lesson not included in the briefings we got in DC, one that conveyed that the dangers that lay ahead for women often came wearing a shirt with an aid organization’s logo emblazed on it.
He told me candidly which Chief of Parties and Country Directors to stay away from because they had a fetish for dark skinned women, which clubs were thinly veiled brothels, which hotels turned a blind eye to sex work, which men to avoid ever having meetings with alone because they were known to be real handsy, which men preferred Dominican prostitutes over Haitian ones, which ones liked them young, which men lingered too long around little boys, and which men had asked him to drive to the slums and pay a victim’s family off for him.
@@My first hour in Haiti as a Haitian-American female aid worker was a detailed lesson on how sex abuse and exploitation of vulnerable Haitian people is systemic in international development.@@ Roland Van Hauwermeiren, Oxfam’s former Haiti Country Director now facing backlash for a 2011 sex scandal, is not an anomaly. The earthquake opened the floodgates to all types of perverts, predators, and zealots coming as missionaries and aid workers from the West, many without being vetted or a even perfunctory background check.
There are no “cover-ups” in a country as small as Haiti; there is no reason to cover up crimes against the poor, despised, and forgotten. No one is protecting them from organizations with budgets larger than the country’s annual GDP. @@We gave Western men unchecked power and little oversight and then feign surprise when they abused that power and those people in plain sight.@@
Oxfam’s PR machine is working overtime to save its reputation. Oxfam has called the young girls "prostitutes"(one of the women who has come forward was sixteen years old at the time) implying a consensual transaction where none existed. There is no such thing as consent between a person wielding power and access to scarce resources like food, money, water, and shelter and someone who isn't in the position to say no. @@A choice between going hungry and having sex with a greasy middle-aged man for money to buy food for you and your family is no choice at all@@ -it is the very definition of exploitation of vulnerable people (an exploitation that the aid industry has normalized even with children as young as six).
Sex abuse scandals in Haiti have become as commonplace as mass shootings are in the USA. As such, the response is also always the same: rumors spread about sexual exploitation, the abuser quietly moves on to prey on the people of another poor country when the scandal reaches its , there is a flood of media attention for about a week, the aid community denies the allegations, someone in leadership is pressured to step down when facts come to light, the aid community shifts its tone and responds to critics by pointing out that poor people would be worse off without them, everyone forgets, and the next abuse scandal breaks.
As this story already fades from the news cycle, the power imbalance between Oxfam and poor Haitians has given the former unchecked power to heap blame on the victims and center themselves in the pain of people of color. @@It is Oxfam- not the nameless, faceless victims- that has been allowed to shape the narrative around this scandal and decide what justice looks like within their parameters@@ (the scapegoating of their Deputy CEO.) It is Oxfam, an organization that ironically stands for" ending the injustices that cause poverty", who’s PR machine doubles down on that very injustice to stigmatize the victims and position themselves as being unjustly persecuted because “it’s not like we murdered babies”.
The narrative has already shifted in Oxfam’s favor to stories about hard this is for aid workers and aid budgets, dismissing victims as the unintended casualty of the benevolence of aid. Along those lines, a Times headline read “Haiti is ready to shun Oxfam, the aid group that came to its rescue”, seemingly admonishing the Haitian government for daring to take steps towards protecting its own people from predators like Oxfam. The aid industry has become accustomed to a lack of accountability and oversight into their interventions in the lives of the world’s most vulnerable people, allowed to police itself when it chooses with "safeguards". The aid industry needs to ask itself why it was that, despite their "robust" safeguards" Roland could abuse girls in Haiti in 2011, Chad in 2006, and Liberia in 2004 and then just get on a plane and go to his next post each time without facing charges even after local staff reported the abuse.
For this to be Haiti’s #MeToo moment, we need a seismic shift that signals to men like Roland and organizations like Oxfam that justice will be swift not only when you sexually assault pretty starlets in Hollywood, but also when you exploit poor children and when you strip women of their dignity and force them to do the unthinkable to feed their families. Haiti’s government has made moves in the right direction by signaling a full investigation into Oxfam, but it needs to put background checks and procedures in place that prevent those who “come to its rescue” from becoming the same ones who prey on its people for years. The government needs to also remove the stigmas that blame the victims and make it easier for women and whistleblowers to come forward with the knowledge that justice will not bend to the will of the powerful.
And, finally, @@Haitian authorities need to kindly escort Oxfam and organizations like it that have shown poor moral judgment and a disregard for Haiti’s laws and its people to the airport on the first flight back to where they came from.@@