Now that the trickle of sexual abuse and exploitation revelations against British aid organisations has turned into a flood, much can be discerned by the language used: the way some of the alleged victims of Oxfam staff in countries such as Haiti are being described as “child prostitutes”, when people who have sex with children below the legal age of consent are, in fact, rapists.
We hear so many of the local women whom aid workers paid for sex described as “sex workers” without understanding the context. In countries where aid agencies have a large and permanent presence, people who live in their shadow have been conditioned to believe these organisations are there to offer them help. For example, everyone in Accra, Ghana, knows where the Save the Children offices are; in Liberia, almost anyone can direct you to the headquarters of Médecins Sans Frontières. These organisations are visible, and flashy – with expensive, branded four-wheel drives, and offer locals the possibility of rare and lucrative permanent employment.
In my experience, particularly in the aftermath of disaster, when foreigners are sometimes the only source of resources, women seek from them any help they can get. What’s emerging now is that handouts have been offered, allegedly, in exchange for sexual favours. It’s a transaction that is obviously unequal and exploitative.
We have all been conditioned to believe that aid agencies and charities operate in an uncivilised vacuum. It’s hard to overstate how much influence large NGOs have over the information we receive. These days few newsrooms can afford the cost of sending correspondents into crisis zones without their help. As a result, the news we consume is filtered through the prism of humanitarian relief work, where the civilised help the uncivilised – and if the helpers become deviant, what can you expect in such a climate?
The revelations about sexual abuse and misconduct – long overdue – have prompted a depressing combination of tropical neurasthenia and faux moral outrage. I say faux because this is really all about money. Our interest in these organisations is based on the fact they have received millions from British taxpayers. It is this that has been the centre of our concern rather than the wellbeing of the victims themselves.
Meanwhile, we have remained utterly uninterested in the thousands of incidents of UN peacekeeper sexual abuse that have emerged over the past decade, including a rape-for-food initiative in Central African Republic, a child-sexual-abuse ring in Haiti, regular sexual assaults of girls as young as 12 in Liberia, and other incidents whose depravity is hard to grasp, such as the time blue helmets are alleged to have tied up four young girls and made them have sex with a dog.
What is yet to emerge is the scale with which British and other foreign business travellers prop up local developing economies through prostitution. There are few, if any, official figures on the scale of this, but time and time again I have seen white men with clearly underage girls in hotels and bars throughout Africa, Asia and the Caribbean. I have never been able to understand how this became normalised.