THE scandals surrounding the behaviour of some Oxfam staff in exploiting and abusing those they are meant to serve is shocking but, with 25 years of humanitarian and development work under my belt, it comes as no surprise. It is obvious that the lessons of similar scandals which hit some non-governmental organisations (NGOs), two UN agencies and the international peace keepers in 2002 in refugee camps in Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea, have not been learned.

Employment policies have to be strengthened to ensure that no sexual predators can be taken on to work with vulnerable people. Those found guilty of the abuse of minors (or the dehumanisation of others) have to be reported to the police and face punishment. Those exploited need the kind of care Westerners would receive under such circumstances.

Part of the problem stems from the fact that many aid agencies do not follow a “partnership model” of care: building the capacity of local community-based organisations (CBOs) in the global South and accompanying them in humanitarian and development programmes so that they assume responsibility for developing their own people out of an intimate knowledge of their values and culture.

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Too many agencies prefer a neo-colonialist model of setting up offices in situ and of running the whole show as “white saviours”, earning large salaries and acting, as one anonymous informant from the Oxfam scandal said, “like small gods”. They may follow a humanitarian imperative but, too often, not a moral one which guarantees the dignity of the vulnerable and respect for them and their culture.

Both humanitarian and long-term development programmes save and improve lives, but the neo-colonialist model has to be abandoned for a proper partnership approach in which Africans, Asians and Latin Americans are treated as equals and are trusted. We from aid agencies are there to accompany and to serve, not to exploit in the way the present set up (ironically supported by the Department for International Development) can so readily make possible.

Duncan MacLaren,

Former Secretary General, Caritas Internationalis,

20 Montrose Street, Glasgow.