One NGO's way to stop staff paying for sex? Hire fewer single men

A worker for Caritas with a refugee. Photo by: Ben White / CAFOD / CC BY-NC-ND

BRUSSELS — Jan Weuts, a humanitarian adviser at Caritas Belgium, says the NGO has a way to avoid its staff engaging with sex workers in developing countries.

“Ninety percent of our representatives in the field nowadays are women or couples,” Weuts told Devex. “In the recruitment process yes we ask for recommendations, but more and more we go for relatively young women, or men in a stable family situation.”

The family then joins the employee overseas and they live together. “It’s couples with children,” the 62-year-old said. “It’s more expensive, OK, but it’s stable.”

Weuts, who began his career at Médecins Sans Frontières in Belgium in 1990 before moving to Caritas Belgium in 2006, also teaches a course on humanitarian management at the Catholic University of Louvain, near Brussels.

He is a staff member at Caritas Belgium, supporting desk officers working on humanitarian operations. Caritas Belgium, one of 165 members of the confederation of Catholic charities, Caritas Internationalis, employees 12 people on overseas aid projects in Democratic Republic of the Congo, Thailand, Bosnia, Burundi, Niger, Haiti, and Uganda. These include six women, four of whom live in a couple, and six men, with all but one living in a couple.

Weuts said Caritas Belgium’s hiring strategy came about gradually, also reflecting the growing number of women in the development job market, and remains unwritten, “since this could be perceived as discrimination towards other candidates.”

“But it’s in the selection process,” he said. “If certain persons present themselves, you make an analysis, and one of the analyses is ‘how will this person behave in an environment where there is a lot of prostitution?’ That’s something I can guarantee. That’s one of the elements through which we analyse the CV.”

A spokesperson for Caritas Belgium confirmed this.

“We pay for the home, we pay for the school for the children, so it kind of guarantees that there is more stability and you don’t have a bunch of guys with a lot of testerone living together in a compound,” the spokesperson said.

Under the Caritas Internationalis Code of Conduct, staff in its agencies must avoid using their position of power for sexual gain, and “ensure their sexual conduct is appropriate at all times.” Recreational drugs and excessive drinking are banned.

Its child protection policy also prohibits “exchange of money, employment, goods, assistance or services for sex, including sexual favours or other forms of humiliating, degrading or exploitative behaviour.”

The aid world has been in turmoil since The Times newspaper published an account earlier this month of Oxfam staff having sex with prostitutes at accomodation paid for by the organization in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake.

Weuts said he did not recall meeting Roland Van Hauwermeiren, the Belgian aid worker at the center of the scandal who ran country missions for Merlin — which later merged with Save the Children — in Liberia in 2004; for Oxfam in Chad in the mid-2000s and later Haiti; and for Action Against Hunger in Bangladesh between 2012 and 2014.

Van Hauwermeiren was dismissed from Merlin and Oxfam after investigations found evidence of sexual misconduct, raising questions about how he was able to move between jobs in the sector.

Action Against Hunger said it did not receive reports of misconduct during Van Hauwermeiren’s time in Bangladesh, but it is now scrutinising the period anew.

After the news broke, Caritas Belgium found that Van Hauwermeiren had worked in its Brussels office from 1995 to 1999 in a logistics role, which required only rare, short missions abroad. In a statement, Caritas Belgium said it had no record of misconduct by Van Hauwermeiren, who joined the organization from the army.

Van Hauwermeiren told Belgian media last week that coverage of his behaviour contained “lies and exaggerations.”

In an open letter to a Belgian broadcaster, seen by Reuters, the 68-year-old wrote "I am not a saint. I am a man of flesh and blood and I have made mistakes (not easy to admit) and I am DEEPLY ASHAMED."

He denied organising “sex parties” and visiting brothels in Haiti, but acknowledged a sexual relationship at his Oxfam house with a local woman he met through giving her younger sister milk powder and diapers. He denied giving the woman money but wrote that the relationship “fuelled rumours” and “compromised” his leadership at Oxfam.

He acknowledged being fired from his post in Liberia in 2004, but wrote that he only attended a party where two prostitutes were present, and that he “danced and flirted with them.”

Rumours of staff paying for sex in Chad in 2006 were "complete nonsense," he wrote.

"I feel I have done wrong, but not in the way that some media are reporting," Van Hauwermeiren wrote, adding that he believed the reports were based on allegations by a disgruntled former staffer whom he fired in Liberia for being drunk and abusing staff.

Six out of 10 leading aid agencies answered a request from Reuters last week for figures on the number of sex abuse cases and how many staff were sacked as a result: Save the Children fired 16 people over the past year, while Oxfam dismissed 22. MSF said 20 people were sacked last year for sexual abuse or harassment, and 10 in 2016.

World Vision reported 10 incidents in 2016 involving either sexual exploitation or abuse of a child involved in its activities. It recorded four cases of workplace harassment and did not say how many people had been fired.

The Caritas Belgium spokesperson said it had not recorded any cases of sexual misconduct in recent years.

Weuts said another reason Caritas Belgium preferred to employ women in the field was security.

“Potential hostility, whenever something goes wrong, is less towards women than towards men. And they are also perceived in many of these contexts as being more innocent,” he said. “Other organizations will go for specific nationalities that fit best: For a Ukrainian mission you would choose an Uzbek, for instance.”

“I’ve worked in Nairobi, I’ve worked in Monrovia,” Weuts said. “You know that there is a lot of prostitution ongoing, so ... you try to have a selection process through which you try to prevent people being too involved in those activities.”

About the author

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    Vince Chadwick

    Vince Chadwick is the Brussels Correspondent for Devex. He covers the EU institutions, member states, and European civil society. A law graduate from Melbourne, Australia, he was social affairs reporter for The Age newspaper, before moving to Europe in 2013. He covered breaking news, the arts and public policy across the continent, including as a reporter and editor at POLITICO Europe.