For over fifteen years, I have studied the “halo effect” that shields humanitarian and human rights NGOs (non-governmental organizations) from accountability. The term refers to a bias whereby a person or organisation is pre-judged favorably on the basis of a single trait or label, while other aspects, including actual behavior, are off the radar.
Due to the halo effect, powerful groups such as Oxfam International, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and World Vision are not scrutinised, in sharp contrast to businesses or political organisations of comparable size and influence. Journalists, government officials, and academics tend to give these groups a free pass, accepting their self-image as non-political idealists and altruists. Moral failings, including discrimination, racism, and antisemitism, are ignored or explained away. NGOs, with hundreds of thousands of employees, are subject to the same frailties as any other institution, but without checks and balances.
While NGO misbehavior crops up periodically, the latest scandal involving UK-based Oxfam International, has highlighted the urgency of accountability for NGOs. The serially abhorrent behavior of Oxfam officials – procuring underage prostitutes in Haiti – has broken through the halo. The demand by the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID) that Oxfam withdraw from bidding on government contracts until it is satisfied that the NGO has sufficient safeguards to prevent similar cases in the future speaks to the gravity of the situation.
Oxfam is not the only body that is culpable for covering up or ignoring these crimes. In 2008, when the Swedish government considered funding an Oxfam project in Chad managed by Roland Van Hauwermeiren – Oxfam’s former head of operations in Haiti and the man at the center of the current scandal – it was informed of his 2004 resignation from the British NGO Merlin for sexual misconduct while working on aid missions in Liberia. Stockholm responded to the tip by handing Van Hauwermeiren $750,000 from Swedish taxpayers.
This was prime example of the damage caused by the NGO halo effect. The fact that van Hauwermeiren moved from Merlin to Oxfam to the French humanitarian organization Action contre la Faim highlights a broken system, incapable of policing itself and ensuring that abusers are stopped.
The Oxfam debacle also illustrates one of the consequences of the lack of NGO oversight – reliance on self-reporting. Instead of independent vetting and monitoring, donors, including governments, rely on the NGOs themselves to assess and report on their operations and conduct. A June 2010 report on preventing sexual abuse, put out by the Inter-Agency Standing Committee (an international humanitarian coordination body) ironically lists Van Hauwermeiren and other current and former Oxfam officials as consultants. This is a prime example of how this practice leads to little accountability and reinforces the sense of NGO impunity and privilege.
Oxfam’s decade-long attempt to cover-up the scandal is likewise instructive. This effort exposes an organisation that cares more about reputation management, public relations, and self-preservation than protecting vulnerable children and achieving justice for victims. In other words, Oxfam acted like a powerful and rich cooperation, not like the superior and moral agency of good it claims to be. Preserving its image and budget of more than $1 billion is the primary objective.
In another example, Amnesty International successfully covered-up a major financial scandal involving previous top officials, through the ploy of an “internal investigation.” Subsequently, the failure to vet employees, some of whom were discovered to be linked to terror organisations, led to no major changes. And when an official was caught making antisemitic remarks, he was kept on, again following an “internal investigation.” And these major failures are accompanied by numerous cases of false reporting, ideological bias, and other professional bungling.
The cycle of abuse and cover-up is familiar from other powerful institutions, but without the halo effect and immunity. When immoral activity is uncovered in the worlds of politics, business, or entertainment, the perpetrators are not protected by the myth of a priori ethical or moral goodness.
The same healthy scepticism must also be applied to the powerful NGO industry. Journalists are at least expected to adhere to basic norms and ethical codes (these are also taught in university courses), but NGOs have no equivalent. This needs to be addressed urgently.
Of course, not all Oxfam or Amnesty employees are suspect, but without proper investigations, there is no accountability. As their counterparts in other realms, these institutions employ human beings with the same capacity for malicious behavior, and have the same motivation to hide under the halo effect in order to protect their image and income.
Professor Gerald Steinberg is the founder and President of NGO Monitor, an independent research institute which provides information and analysis, promotes accountability, and supports discussion on the reports and activities of NGOs claiming to advance human rights and humanitarian agendas.