The Oxfam sex scandal in Haiti is nothing new. International forces occupying Haiti are steeped in a culture of sexual entitlement towards the people who live under their thumb.
In his book Hideous Dream: A Soldier’s Memoir of the US Invasion of Haiti, veteran Stan Goff writes about his experiences in the US Special Forces mission in Haiti in 1995 that was intended to restore the elected government that had been overthrown in a coup in 1991.
In a disturbing passage, Goff describes one of the soldiers under his command who kept slinking off to slake his sexual appetites with young local women.
In 2005, a year after United Nations forces occupied Haiti following the overthrow of its elected government, there was a sex scandal in Denmark. Filmmaker Jørgen Leth, who had a second home in Haiti since the 1980s, published a memoir in which he described his relations with a 17-year-old girl living in his household, the daughter of his cook. “I take the cook’s daughter whenever I want,” Leth wrote, “it’s my right.”
The sexual exploitation of Haitians by ‘internationals’ on the island continued on-screen in a film directed by Leth’s son, Asger. The 2006 film Ghosts of Cité Soleil follows two boys (Billy and 2Pac, both of whom died violently after the 2004 coup) from the Haitian capital Port-au-Prince’s poorest neighbourhood, and features a French NGO worker in a sexual relationship with one of them.
In December 2007, 100 Sri Lankan soldiers accused of the sexual abuse of underage girls were deported from Haiti. In September 2011, a video emerged of Uruguayan soldiers sexually assaulting a Haitian boy.
The sex scandal in which Oxfam is currently embroiled is mainly about NGO workers paying for sex with locals, then covering it up. Oxfam was in Haiti to respond to the cholera epidemic brought to the island by the UN after the 2010 earthquake, an epidemic that killed thousands of Haitians and affected tens of thousands.
The UN showed the same sense of entitlement and refusal of responsibility as the other international institutions, denying everything until forced to concede, then claiming legal immunity.
The UN went to Haiti after the US, France and Canada sent troops to overthrow Haiti’s elected president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, in 2004. Aristide’s ouster was part of a series of coups that the US has led in the Americas. Coups are classified as ‘soft’ or ‘hard’.
In the past two decades alone, there have been coups in Venezuela in 2002 (failed), Haiti in 2004, Honduras in 2009, Paraguay in 2012 (‘soft’) and Brazil in 2016 (‘soft’). Even the ‘soft’ coups came with violence and deaths.
The Haiti coup led to the death of hundreds, if not thousands. Once Aristide was overthrown, the US stepped back and the UN took over, occupying Haiti for more than a decade.
Even before the 2004 coup, Haiti’s government was constrained in what it could deliver to its people. Loans from the International Development Bank were blocked through US intervention in the form of sponsored right-wing groups and austerity policies. Haiti depended on foreign aid, and with few exceptions, such as Rwanda and Israel, donor countries don’t give aid to governments, even democratic ones, instead preferring to give aid to NGOs to provide social goods.
The NGOs are accountable to those who pay their bills rather than those to whom they provide services. They also spend a considerable amount of the money they receive on staff whose job is to secure more money, and other forms of ‘administration’, where governments could have simply got on with the job.
The tale told by donors is that it must be this way because local governments are corrupt. But in light of constant sexual and other scandals, there is no reason to think that NGOs are anything other than profoundly corrupt themselves.
The idea of ‘wholesome foreigners’ and ‘corrupt locals’ is one of a series of racist myths that leads to the scandals we are seeing today.
After the coup of 2004, the UN stepped in at the top of the pyramid that governs Haiti, providing the armed force, while NGOs are left in charge of social services and donor countries in charge of finances.
The Haitians who work under the supervision of foreign administrators are subordinate, local faces. For the foreign administrators, the sovereignty Haitians fought for in the first successful slave revolt in human history is to be avoided, lest it lead to local corruption.
Though the UN mission finally ended in 2017, Haitian institutions, including the police, are still under international supervision.
In the years leading up to the coup, many foreign NGOs backed the overthrow of Aristide.
They did so in the name of ‘civil society’. The alliance to overthrow Haiti was a coalition of foreign-funded NGOs, political organisations funded by the US National Endowment for Democracy, the International Republican Institute, the National Democratic Institute, and subcontractors for multinationals – some of the wealthiest men on the island.
A group of NGOs often considered to be ‘progressive’, including ActionAid, Alternatifs and Grassroots International, also took positions interpreted as offering support for the coup.
Whatever the intentions of the progressive NGOs who joined this coalition, they helped destroy any possibility for a popular government and contributed to the myth that Haitians cannot do it for themselves.
They helped change Haiti from a site of struggle between local democracy and US-led imperialism to a dictatorship of NGOs, from a government fighting for sovereignty to one run on charity.
And as one group of activists put it in a statement about the Oxfam scandal, “charities thrive on the poor, not on ending poverty”.