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People Care More About the OXFAM Scandal Than the Cholera Epidemic

The earthquake that devastated Haiti on 12 January 2010, killing 220,000 people, produced a terrible and disgusting failure by those who came from abroad to help the survivors. Among these were UN soldiers from Nepal, which was then in the middle of a cholera epidemic, who brought the disease with them and allowed it to enter the rivers that provide Haitians with their drinking water.

Cholera, previously unknown on the island, killed 7,568 Haitians over the next two years, though the UN denied responsibility for the outbreak. This was despite a report by its own experts in 2012 that showed that the spread of cholera downstream from the Nepalese soldiers’ camps was predictable and avoidable. It was only in 2016 that the UN finally accepted responsibility for starting the epidemic, though it claimed legal immunity and refused to pay compensation.

Compare the lack of interest shown by the international media, politicians and assorted celebrities to this man-made calamity, leading to the death of thousands of Haitians, to the hysterical outrage expressed about Oxfam officials consorting with prostitutes in Haiti in 2011. Though nobody died in the Oxfam sex scandal, it is described as “terrible” and “heart-breaking”, words normally reserved for tragedies such as the enslavement and rape of thousands of Yazidi women by Isis in Iraq.

It would certainly be better if the Oxfam aid workers did not use prostitutes, but how high does this really rate on the Richter scale of moral turpitude? Oxfam was discreet about the punishment of those involved, as are all organisations about in-house scandals, but suddenly the word “cover-up” is used, as though we were dealing with Richard Nixon disclaiming responsibility for the Watergate burglary. This coverage of a minor scandal systematically exaggerates wrongdoings and abandons any sense of proportion in order to discredit Oxfam as a whole.

Few commentators, though bellowing their shock and sense of moral outrage, bother to ask what Oxfam was doing in Haiti at the end of 2010 and the beginning of 2011. This was when The Times and other organs critical of the Oxfam leadership should have been devoting more attention to monitoring the morals and behaviour of their local Oxfam representatives in the capital Port-au-Prince.

In fact, Oxfam was trying with some desperation to stem the cholera epidemic, the first outbreak of which was detected in central Haiti in October, from spreading further. By the following month, it had reached Port-au-Prince and Oxfam was trying to provide uncontaminated water to 315,000 people already rendered homeless by the earthquake. An Oxfam statement on 10 November describes how “Oxfam continues to strengthen water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) infrastructure and activities in the camps/communities where we are working. A cholera strategy is being developed to guide our activities for at least the next three months. At this time, we are reinforcing our water, sanitation and hygiene programmes in camps where we already work in Port-au-Prince, and in Artibonite. We are currently reaching over 400,000 people with water, sanitation and hygiene programmes, and another 100,000 individuals mostly through our emergency food security and vulnerable livelihoods (EFSVL) programmes.”

None of this is as titillating as the sort of thing we have been reading or watching over the last week about the sexual misconduct of Oxfam employees in Haiti, but these do seem to have kept a lot of people alive who would otherwise have died. Curiously, though foreign journalists and politicians claim concern about the alleged exploitation of Haitian sex-workers, few of them seem to have noticed that there was cholera epidemic raging in Haiti at the same time as the sex scandal.

Why has The Times story produced such a media feeding frenzy? The story has the attraction to press and television of being about those who take a superior moral tone, such as aid agencies or the churches, and who are then caught committing sins that other organisations might get away with. The public enjoys revelations showing moral giants to have much the same feet of clay as everybody else.

Aid agencies are easy to attack because there is usually a disparity between the way these officials live compared to the misery of those they are meant to assist. Sometimes, the disparity is grotesque as in the case of aid consultants in Kabul in 2010 who were earning between $250,000 (£178,000) and $500,000 in a country where 43 per cent of the population were living on a dollar a day. Yet such excessive salaries are rare and a more substantive charge is that aid agencies spend too much on administration.

Yet these reasons do not quite explain the lynch mob hysteria with which Oxfam is currently being attacked for what, in the middle of a cholera epidemic, were fairly minor failings. The explanation for this probably has more to do with the public and media mood in the wake of the allegations that the Hollywood film mogul Harvey Weinstein harassed and assaulted women for decades, using his power to make or break their careers. The story was first printed in October last year and provoked a wave of accusations against men in senior positions who used their power to exploit women. The Haiti Oxfam story can be fitted into the same general picture of those in charge exercising their authority for sex, though the circumstances are very different.

In the post-Harvey Weinstein era it is difficult to defend Oxfam because all excuses sound self-serving and all episodes of sexual exploration tend to be regarded as equally grave. This obscures the degree of guilt and the gravity of the crime, though in the Oxfam villa in Port-au-Prince it is not even clear that there really was a crime.

The great 19th-century British historian Macaulay famously said that “we know of no spectacle so ridiculous as the British public in one of its periodical fits of morality”. The same could be said today of the Oxfam sex scandal in Haiti, but the word “frightening” should be substituted for “ridiculous” because the multiple sources of information – internet, television and press – have pumped up the speed with which there is a collective rush to judgement. This is made without regard to the evidence and is almost impossible to reverse once it has gained momentum.

It is doubtful that Oxfam will survive the scandal in its present form as it is being buried under so many imputations of guilt that people might well imagine that the organisation was being run by a combination of Harvey Weinstein and Jimmy Saville. Given Oxfam’s need for public and governmental financial support, it has probably – and to my mind unfairly – suffered a fatal wound. If it does go down then it will be a triumph for hypocrisy, in which pundits and politicians are destroying Oxfam for mistreating Haitians, about whose fate they suddenly express great concern, although few of them have even heard of the Haitian cholera epidemic Oxfam tried to stop.

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Patrick Cockburn is the author of  The Rise of Islamic State: ISIS and the New Sunni Revolution.

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