Racism and abuse in international aid: with a sense of history

I came across terrible stories of child abuse when I worked in a child protection NGO in Africa, Asia and Latin America. Violence against girls, boys and women in homes, the street, communities and workplaces constitutes an epidemic – in every country, cutting across class and geography. They seem to get little attention in the twitter wars generated by the Oxfam scandal. Among the abusers were development workers themselves. A retired American told me that if  she had a picture of the abusive men she came across who joined street children charities in the 1990s in order to abuse children, she could fill a wall. The most upsetting were the stories I heard about children being abused and raped during emergencies, for example in the Asian Tsunami of 2004. Mary Beard is right to draw attention to the breakdown of values during disasters, because people can get away with crime more easily in the chaos.

Some misunderstood her as meaning values associated with Europe. Bearing in mind that her current TV series is all about questioning such assumptions of superiority, it seemed to me that she was saying something quite different. I thought she was asking how and why such a terrible moral breakdown could happen, asking the question with a sense of history. This matters because it helps us to work out how to prevent abuse. And, it might discourage people from condemning all those working in aid, as if tainted by the proxmity of crime. I read her tweet as taking sides against those who want to use the Oxfam scandal as an excuse to close down international aid completely.

People who work in the dark world of challenging abuse do face terrible dilemmas. Whether aid workers in someone else’s country, or social workers in their own, it does endlessly test their judgement. I have faced my fair share of such decisions. When a whistleblower alleged financial corruption in a partner NGO in Asia, I could either break off the partnership – ensuring the reputation of my own organisation would not suffer and we’d look good in the eyes of donors, but putting several hundred children on the streets where at least a few would be bound to return to being sexual exploited and others would probably die – or try and pressurise the partner organisation to fix the problems. I chose the latter and did not report them to the police. I just couldn’t live the possibility of being responsible for child deaths and exploitation.
When Pauline Latham (MP) was questioning Oxfam representatives in the the House of Commons yesterday she asked how it could happen that staff could exploit women, adding that they are supposed to be ‘good people’. Why should ‘aid workers’ be good to be working in aid-receiving countries? In my experience they are no different from any other group claiming to do service for the public – MPs, teachers, social workers – influenced by a mix of positive and negative imperatives, with a small number acting in ways that I’d see as at extreme ends of the moral continium. But the aid world they work in is racist, still strongly shaped by postcolonialism, and those that fail to see it then reproduce it through their collusion.
Furthermore aid workers from the UK come from a country where racism persists and got a shot in the arm from Brexit. It is hardly surprising, then, that it is not just the public but people who work in development who descend into the ‘white saviour’ mentality that Afua Hirsch writes about eloquently in the Guardian 
today. She repeats the misrepresentation of Mary Beard as saying that former empires are short of ‘civilised values’. Beard was writing about a disaster in the sense of earthquake, not that Haiti is perennially a disaster zone. Those committed to challenging racism need all the allies we can get so it is unwise to alienate those who abhor racism, misogyny and associated hate-filled mindsets.
We need allies because ‘international development’ needs more than better safeguarding processes; it requires a transformation into a world of co-operation, not assistance, between those interested in deepening justice, peace and democracy in every country (included our own). This will require huge changes in thinking, funding, and the way partnerships are created – let’s invest more, but differently. Surely this is where our energy should go?
For those interested in anti-racist and decolonizing agenda in international development here is some stuff:


Deepening democracy

I'm starting a new project on 1 October with Richard Axelby (SOAS), and Meheret Ayenew (Forum for Social Studies, Addis Ababa), Ruth Fox (Hansard Society, London), Niraja Gopal Jayal (JNU, New Delhi), Cristina Leston-Bandeira (University of Leeds), Mandy Sadan (SOAS), and Myat Thet Thitsar (Enlightened Myanmar Research Foundation) funded by a £2m grant from the Arts and Humanities Research Council. The title is: Deepening democracy in extremely politically fragile countries: networking for historical, cultural and arts research on Parliaments and people.


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