By Vinay Samuel and Chris Sugden
AT THE heart of the issue raised by Oxfam’s activities in Haiti in 2011 is the imbalance of power in any charitable engagement with powerless and poor people. Aid workers need far more oversight for the use of their enormous power in contexts where there is no local accountability.
This is particularly obvious in contexts of emergency relief: on one side are people who are in desperate straits and on the other people who have all the resources. This imbalance is difficult to negotiate and creates moral challenges.
People who have been long in the field can become hardened to the constant challenges and are often frustrated that they are not able to achieve their stated goals. Their moral sensitivity gets hardened. Dr Kevin McKemey who has spent over 40 years in the aid sector notes: “We expect a great deal from aid workers who are willing to work in dangerous and risky areas.
“Experience and expertise is a vital requirement in staff who lead aid work on the ground. To gain the required levels, many have sacrificed their marriages and what many would consider a normal social life.They are badly burnt socially.
“Many of the most experienced senior staff have become hardened by their experience of addressing human suffering and addicted to the risks of living on the edge.
“In this context one’s moral compass can become confused. It can lead to the types of behaviour highlighted in the Oxfam Haiti case. This issue affects all agencies in these areas of constant stress. Far greater care needs to be taken in monitoring and supporting field staff.
“Aid agencies need to put more emphasis on moral governance, not just on ensuring a secular apolitical stance in order to attract the widest possible donor base.”
Younger people who have never tasted the use of power and are often the only ones prepared to undertake this work have no background or maturity to deal with the moral challenges or discipline required.
Local monitoring bodies
It is the responsibility of the charity to develop systems for monitoring their staff in relief and the recipients as well. It is here that Oxfam has now been called to account.
Does Oxfam have local partners whom it respects and to whom is it accountable as they are an operational charity when it comes to relief? This does not mean their local offices in country will also get drunk with power even if they have local people running them.
The best charities develop independent local partners who can bring a moral system and structure by which employees and recipients must be accountable. Where no independent entities monitor the work it is likely that these and similar problems will recur.
It is the responsibility of the aid agencies to set up such partnerships. Many local Christian and religious organisations engaged in relief have substantial ability and experience to assist. This is where lessons from the missionary tradition of Christian churches that have built partnerships with local churches can assist.
Over time the mission agencies built up local churches to whom missionaries are seconded and accountable. They may not have the best marketing skills but they do have structures of management, safeguarding and of being honest about what is really happening on the ground.
The number of problems faced by external partners has been reduced through these partnerships of accountability.
It will not be good enough to claim that any questioning of the aid industry will lead to the recipients of aid suffering. This is the ‘too big to fail’ argument. Did Oxfam and others fail in addressing the flagrant behaviour that has been uncovered because of the negative public relations effect on donations? And should the British Government revisit the way in which it supports the ‘aid industry’?
The compassion of British people will always find ways of giving. Western agencies are still needed to gather and disburse aid with strict financial accountability.
Funds are best distributed on the field by local people with local accountability and subject to local independent monitoring. In some extreme situations where local personnel and expertise are not yet available, foreign expertise will be still be needed while such expertise is developed locally.
Local partnerships need developing where neither local bodies nor Governments are able to exercise adequate monitoring or accountability.