Liblink: Shas Sheehan on Oxfam

Baroness Sheehan, Liberal Democrat international development spokesperson, writes for Politics Home that the UK must lead the fight against institutionalised abuse wherever we find it.

The revelations emerging about the behaviour of some staff in Oxfam, and other aid organisations, are shocking. People who were sent to rebuild communities and get people back on their feet in the wake of a major natural disaster have betrayed those very people they were sent to help.

Those senior staff in Haiti who abused young women whilst they should have been helping to rebuild shattered lives after the 2010 earthquake, have rightfully shaken the public’s trust in respected household names and high street brands such as Oxfam and Save the Children.

And it appears that this is just the tip of the iceberg.

If this problem is indeed endemic in the sector, we risk a situation where Oxfam is held out for opprobrium, precisely as a result of their investigating complaints, producing a report and taking action – limited perhaps –
against those involved.

Calling for a wide-reaching independent inquiry, Sheehan argues

We must also face a potentially painful truth, did the aid sector abuse under-age girls? And if so, is the development sector subject to institutionalised paedophilia?

Inevitably, unless answers to the above questions are forthcoming, attacks against the 0.7% of GNI that is devoted to overseas aid will increase. But this would be a kick in the face of not only the vast, vast majority of aid workers who work tirelessly to alleviate extreme poverty, but also jeopardise some of the really worthwhile programmes bringing health, education and sanitation solutions to those who are in desperate need.

I do find it troubling that so much reporting of this issue is lumping the consensual employment of a sex worker in with exploitation, abuse and paedophilia. The guardian article linked above speaks darkly of temporary girlfriends and transactional relationships – but these exist in the rest of the world, and can be abusive or consensual. Do reporters not know or not care whether we are talking about consensual sex work in this case – or whether, for instance there is exploitation of the power of being in a position to provide aid or not. I hope this inquiry will make this distinction clear, if that is possible.

And will we hear from the sex workers? The Liberal Democrats have a policy on sex work based on testimony from sex workers regarding what will minimise the dangers they are subject to. That policy is legalisation, and moreover to stop shaming them and their customers. Perhaps if we didn’t shame the customers of sex workers, then abusers and exploiters wouldn’t have such a crowd to hide among.

On the other hand perhaps the power imbalance between aid workers and locals is inherently so great – a parallel with teachers and their adult students – that it is right for us to demand professional standards of conduct in all dealings between the two groups. Fly your sex workers in, if you must, from your home countries, or at least from a region you are not working in.

* Joe Otten was the candidate for Sheffield Heeley in June 2017 and Doncaster North in December 2019 and is a councillor in Sheffield.

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This entry was posted in LibLink.


  • nigel hunter 13th Feb '18 - 11:01am

    Are we not all human and have human weaknesses when not at home.? If others give ‘reward’ for services rendered (aid) it is up to our humanness to accept or decline. Our Overseas Aid does a lot of good, it should not be exploited for political gain.
    Prostitution is also a way of earning money. It can pay for University fees, bills etc.. The Bible is full of comments on human nature.

  • Sorry – is it just me? Did I read the last line of your article correctly Joe? Please clarify!

    In general I despair that party policy does not recognise the imbalances of power that set the context for prostitution.

  • Within any organisation there will be those who abuse their position…NHS, Welfare, Police and not least political figures…

    The faux outrage by the right wing press and the likes of Rees-Mogg is sickening. By all means deal with those who abuse their position but using their failings to try to cut/stop aid worldwide is not acceptable….

  • Some good points Joe. I can’t understand why is this being described as ‘abuse’ either.

    Some Oxfam workers used prostitutes – which is hardly the crime of the century. They were then disciplined by Oxfam. Aside from any excuse for faux outrage from people who hate foreign aid, I really can’t understand the fuss.

  • I agree with those saying this is becoming overblown – but neither politicians nor media are famed for a sense of proportion.

    To those of us who are saying this is all beyond the pale, and an example of low standards at charities, I suggest never asking what happens when army or navy troops are visiting, nor what certain British tourists get up to in the far East, and closer to home certainly never asking why there is a spike in domestic violence after England are knocked out of a football tournament.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 13th Feb '18 - 1:37pm

    I think that in the midst of this reflective article from Joe, is a missing point slightly made.

    We do not yet know which we are talking of here, legal prostitution , a trade, amongst adults, however sordid in such poverty stricken areas, or child abuse and exploitation.

    As the excellent Shas says in good points in her sensible statement
    ” did the sector abuse under age girls ?”

    We, nor the media, do not know. We and they should find out.

    And amidst the comments, one , that from Ruth, is important , she is right to raise it , wrong to be too troubled.

    Ruth, we as a party need to buck up on all these areas, the criminality , exploitation and abuse of women would be better served by a bit more of the sort of thing we get from shas and Floella, and a bit less of the emphasis we get from Jo lately.

    Jo is correct, but she would do better talking abut the release of the evil perpetrators of violent rapes and assaults and injury of women, the leniency of the system of parole , the poor consideration of victims, than the nonsense of highly contentious and trivial reporting of silly and vulgar charity events.

    What took place at the Presidents Club event was a pathetic disgrace, but there are charity events organised by women and clubs frequented wholly or mainly by women , that raise money for charities and employ male , almost nude butlers, google it and find many such services.

    If the crass stupidity of the Presidents Club event can close that charity, this , as Shas says, potential illegality and exploitation, could and , morally, more so than that event, should, for Oxfam.

    I would like neither to close down if they mainly do good work, but get their house sorted.

  • “We do not yet know which we are talking of here, legal prostitution , a trade, amongst adults, however sordid in such poverty stricken areas, or child abuse and exploitation.”

    Seeing as there has been no real suggestion of anything other than legal prostitution thus far, why should any of us pre-emptively get outraged? Its just jumping to assumptions based on nothing.

  • So if a girl *chooses* to dress skimpily, and ‘teases’ on the F1 circuit, or a darts championship it’s bad, but if a girl *chooses* to take cash for full on sex, it’s good.?
    So female *choice*, is endorsed, (or not), but some curious liberal moral construct? O.K., got it. I think?

    I have to agree with Ruth about the last line, and I’m somewhat troubled by Joe Otten’s ~ ‘Holiday reminder list’

    ~Travel socket adapter
    ~Tee shirts
    ~Travel wash
    ~Sex worker
    ~Sun screen
    ~Condoms (one)

    I really do wonder about the poor state of some folk’s minds sometimes?

  • I thoroughly agree with Ruth and Sheila and can only think the author ‘s comments are an extreme and rather eccentric form of neo-liberalism.

  • Joe and others make the valid point that we don’t quite know what it is that these charity workers have actually done, but what ever it is it has got the media and just about everyone else in a real lather. The change sheet seems to include paedophile acts (clearly appalling if remotely true), abuse, harassment, bullying (all a bit vague…) and using prostitutes. While visiting prostitutes is not the kind of behaviour we instinctively favour, or would encourage in those we love, the liberal in me says that if it is a consenual arrangement between the sex worker and “punter”, well………
    So, can I have more details please, because at present I don’t really know what to make of all this.

  • Jayne mansfield 13th Feb '18 - 8:40pm

    @ Ruth Bright,
    No Ruth, it is not just you.

    I was so hoping that this issue was raised on here. I was sure that it would be a fascinating insight into liberal moral reasoning.

    When it comes to power imbalances, one does not need to wander abroad.

    One only has to look at how desperate prostitutes in this country are prepared to take the offer of higher payment for unprotected sex to understand how imbalances in power work.

    One only has to look at reports of exploitative behaviour by volunteers in Calais to understand how desperation facilitates abuses of power.

    The rumours about abuses by some UN peacekeepers have circulated for years.

    According to Priti Patel, instances of sexual abuse in the charity aid sector were well documented, adding that the disclosures were just the ‘tip of the iceberg’, so why did government not take action?

    When it comes to ‘moral leadership’, where were the politicians when it came to safeguarding vulnerable individuals in this country and abroad ?

    My one concern, is that instead of jumping on bandwagons, politicians do not cut the aid budget, thus making the plight of those who benefit from it , even more precarious.

  • Martin Walker 14th Feb '18 - 8:03am

    I’m afraid I find the comments on this thread as profoundly disheartening as our policy on prostitution. Sex as a ‘reward’ from recipients of aid in one of the poorest countries in the world after an earthquake? Sex with girls / women without knowing whether they are underage being ‘hardly the crime of the century’? Some classic examples of whataboutery? I’m with Ruth / Sheila / Jayne on this one.

  • “Sex as a ‘reward’ from recipients of aid in one of the poorest countries in the world after an earthquake? Sex with girls / women without knowing whether they are underage being ‘hardly the crime of the century’?”

    And some classic examples of taking issue with things that you’d rather people had said because its easier for your argument, rather than what they actually said.

  • Katerina Porter 14th Feb '18 - 11:39am

    What about our very own Members of Parliament and other inhabitants of Westminster? What goes on in many institutions can be/is shocking
    but the reaction this time felt to me as an opportunity to attack an institution not much loved by the government and perhaps even an opportunity to save a little cash…………….

  • James can’t you see how a woman’s “choice” to be a prostitute is a different matter in a disaster zone? I am sure 999 mothers out of a thousand would make that “choice” were their children starving and sex the only available currency.

  • Re: James & Katerina Porter – My first thoughts when the Times lead with this with the basic facts as stated by James, were: what is the real motivation of the Times to pin this on ‘Oxfam’ and thus who had Oxfam upset… Because it is clear someone has an agenda to kick Oxfam, rather than improve the standards in the aid sector.

    Concerning the more recent allegations and the release of further information, it would seem there is a major issue with the way we implement Safeguarding. Oxfam seems to have been caught with it’s trousers down, but I expect it is no different to many other organisations, just that their policies and procedures haven’t been tested and any actions taken haven’t been examined by the media.

  • Jayne mansfield 15th Feb '18 - 10:21am

    The most sensible comment that I have heard on the subject has come from the Policy Director for women at the UN in a criticism of Penny Mordant.

    She argues that the answer is ‘not to shut down organisations doing really important work, but to examine our own practices – whether that is the UN or the British Government’.

    I agree, because whether one is buying a woman or renting a boy, attitudes to abuses of power know no geographical boundaries. It is not surprising that some who hold them , even in the Aid sectors, take their attitudes with them, to whichever country they visit.

    If firms etc., cancel donations so that work with some of the poorest most vulnerable people in the world is cancelled, it might make them appear morally superior, but at what cost to those who will suffer from the loss?

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