The past two years have been tough for the larger humanitarian aid organizations; they have had to struggle to keep their aura of altruism intact. A number of them have had to fight accusations of sexual harassment, employee harassment and mismanagement of donor funds.
Last Monday, a confidential report by the United Nations Ethics Committee was leaked to the media and with it the panel’s recommendations to censure the leadership of the notorious United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) for “abusing their authority for their own benefit, suppressing legitimate internal opposition, and achieving personal goals in inappropriate ways,” as well as for misusing the funds raised for humanitarian aid.
For decades, the human-rights industry has touted a halo that over the years became a defensive wall against any criticism, at home or abroad.
The senior officials in these organizations were automatically perceived as angels and anyone who dared criticize or call for reform in major international organizations such as Amnesty International or Human Rights Watch was blasted for trying to undermine their good work.
But the immunity enjoyed by these bodies soon became destructive to the very human rights they are sworn to protect. Professionals have been replaced by extreme political activists, rights campaigns and aid projects have given way to media campaigns, entire populations have been excluded from the focus of these organizations and the concept of human rights as a universal value has dissolved into political interests.
A year ago the world learned that Oxfam, one of the largest international aid organizations, had compiled a confidential internal report documenting how senior Oxfam officials abused their position to operate a prostitution network exploiting underage earthquake survivors. The report was kept from Oxfam’s donors, especially donor countries, so as not to damage the organization’s reputation.
Oxfam, by the way, was very vocal in its demand for an international boycott of Israel’s SodaStream over its “immoral” operations in Judea and Samaria.
Amnesty, which refuses to deal with anti-Semitism in Europe and which is obsessed with Israel, is currently at the center of an employee abuse case so severe that two of its employees have committed suicide.
As with the cases of UNRWA and Oxfam, Amnesty’s investigation was conducted secretly and far from the eyes of the donors and the public, so as to avoid tarnishing the organization’s reputation.
Irresponsibility, lack of transparency and lack of oversight are common in the human-rights and international-aid industry, where many groups have long abandoned the principles of neutrality, promoting universal values and independence from political interests.
The cases of UNRWA, Oxfam, Amnesty and many other groups underscore the claim that in these types of organizations ideology trumps ethics, proper management and the values that they have pledged to promote.
By the way, it seems that the Swiss government has decided to suspend its funding for UNRWA—allegations of financial mismanagement were apparently successful where proof of anti-Semitism, support for terrorism and the indoctrination of hatred failed.
The same phenomenon exists on the donor side as well, especially in foreign governments. The funds are tainted by ulterior motives, and it is not always possible to know how appropriation decisions were made.
One must remember that human-rights and humanitarian-aid groups are ordinary organizations, and their employees human beings who are not necessarily more (or less) moral than others. It is precisely because of their pretense of moral superiority that they must be subject to increased scrutiny, thereby protecting human-rights values from political abuse.
Such organizations must be completely transparent. If they have been able to hide sex and embezzlement scandals from governments and countries, one can only imagine what they might be hiding with respect to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and other issues.
Itai Reuveni is the director of communications at NGO Monitor.
This article first appeared in Israel Hayom.
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