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How an uproar over aid and sexual exploitation ignored women's actual experiences

The recent “Oxfam sex scandal” – during which some aid workers were accused of paying for sex with young women in vulnerable conditions – has focused almost exclusively on the aid workers and aid organisations involved. But the perspectives and motivations of the young women who were paid for sex with money or material goods have hardly been discussed at all, and the contexts in which they live have been misrepresented and misunderstood.

The problem of transactional sex in areas hit by disaster, war, or extreme poverty is not strictly specific to the aid industry. Aid workers are not the only men who offer money and material goods in exchange for sex to impoverished young people – other foreigners, and also local men, are involved.

The focus on aid workers and their organisations has led to the mistaken belief that this problem can be solved mainly, if not exclusively, by punishing the culprits and the organisations for which they work. This thinking rests on the conflation of transactional sex with rape and sexual harassment – an issue that dates back to the United Nations (UN) “zero tolerance” policy towards sexual exploitation and abuse, adopted in 2003.

That policy started with noble intentions. But it has achieved little in the way of curbing sexual exploitation by aid workers and peacekeepers. Some have argued that the failure to distinguish between consensual and non-consensual sex is one of the causes of this inability. The zero tolerance policy has been criticised also for framing the problem as a simple question of discipline and conduct detached from the UN’s broader human rights agenda.

The women’s perspective

There is a long debate among feminists on whether sex work is inherently exploitative or not. But even if we concede that it is, we need to recognise one fundamental distinction: unlike other forms of abuse, many of transactional sex’s “victims” accept and even seek out these exchanges themselves as a means of improving their often dire circumstances.

“Transactional sex” is a catch-all term for a wide continuum of different relationships. At one end are relationships between adults that, even if an exchange of money and material goods take place, appear mutually beneficial; at the other end are relationships that are unambiguously damaging and exploitative.

The reporting on the Oxfam scandal often overlooked this distinction. Instead, the selfsame commentators who as a rule rail against the “white saviour” mentality reverted to exactly the same thinking by portraying poor women in conflict and disaster-affected zones as helpless victims.

This is not to say that the worst-case scenarios aren’t real. During my own research in post-conflict Côte d’Ivoire, I witnessed cases at the extreme abusive end of the continuum. Among them were incidents where girls aged 13 or 14 were pushed by the lack of opportunities and family support to sell sex for the equivalent of less than a dollar. Their clients were not just international personnel, but also local men. I was struck by how little support and attention the aid and peacebuilding community gives to the most vulnerable girls and women involved in selling sex, and just how far down the list of priorities they seem to sit.

And yet, not all these contexts are alike. Many testimonies from women involved in these types of relationships in post-conflict and post-disaster settings paint a more complex picture. According to one survey of Haitian women who reported having had sexual encounters with UN peacekeepers in exchange for gifts and money, many “experienced transactional sex to be highly beneficial”. According to the author of the report, these relationships “helped them meet daily life needs and enabled them to access resources and opportunities to improve the economic status of their household”.

Still, many also reported serious episodes of sexual and physical abuse. The report concludes that the individual benefits are offset by the fact that transactional sex “replicates and often magnifies the power imbalance present in male/female sexual relationships” in Haiti.

Others from Haiti described similar complexities. The Times ran an interview with Mikelange Gabou, the only young Haitian woman who agreed to talk about her relationship with a disgraced Oxfam staff member. Gabou did not describe herself as a victim; instead, she drew a distinction between her own experience and that of “other women” whom the man has, in her words, “done wrong”. One might argue that Gabou’s case stands at the middle of the continuum, and the case of the “other women” at the more clearly abusive end.

To be sure, those responsible for sexual exploitation must be punished. But whereas punishing the perpetrators of rape and sexual harassment can put an end to their abusive actions, impoverished people can simply find other men to sell to. The illusion that by simply punishing “our men” we can “save” these women is just another example of how a discourse that aims to challenge ethnocentrism actually ends up reinforcing it.

How aid can help

The only true solution is to transform the structural conditions of poverty, inequality and gender discrimination that push people into transactional sex in the first place. This is far more than aid can ever achieve by itself – but cutting aid, as some sections of the British right proposed in the wake of the Oxfam scandal, surely would not help. Instead, the way aid is administered must be rethought from the recipients’ point of view.

In post-conflict settings, the type of scenario I am most familiar with, aid agencies tend to focus on two groups: those that could disrupt the peace process, and those who can help change things for the better. Teenagers who sell sex belong to neither category. They’re also often difficult to work with; they might have substance abuse or mental health problems, making them unpredictable or even violent. But these are reasons to engage with them more, not less.

Even small efforts can make a difference. In Côte d'Ivoire, a small programme run by two Italian NGOs is providing education and training to teenagers formerly involved in sex work. Programmes like this don’t just offer material support; they help their beneficiaries restore their self-respect and envisage a different life.

The aid industry cannot tackle these problems simply by disciplining its own workers. The international staff responsible for misconduct deserve punishment, but they don’t deserve all the attention. Attention should be given to the people who need it the most: the young women, and in some cases men, who have to make extremely difficult choices in extremely difficult circumstances.

The Conversation

Giulia Piccolino has received research funding from the European Union Research Council, Compagnia di San Paolo and the Alexander Von Humboldt Foundation. She has been from September 2011 to June 2012 a United Nations Volunteer in charge of electoral assistance with the United Nations Operations in Côte d’Ivoire. She has no current affiliation with the United Nations or with any other relevant group.

How solid research is helping to change minimum living standards – and the law

Income shouldn't restrict access to justice. Shutterstock

The Law Society has mounted a major challenge to the legal aid system’s increasingly stringent restrictions that now entitle only those on the very lowest incomes to help with civil legal costs.

It argues that the system is failing to uphold a principle of common law: that people should not have to sacrifice an acceptable living standard in order to afford the cost of getting access to justice. This principle was established by the Supreme Court, based on a quantified measure of a socially acceptable living standard that was produced from my team’s research at Loughborough University.

This measure is a powerful illustration of how systematic evidence can transform how we think about and implement standards. It is commonly accepted that we should maintain stated educational or health standards, and indeed that these should improve over time as society progresses. There is also a desire to maintain decent living standards for the population, but considerable controversy about what this should entail.

Mechanisms for maintaining minimum levels of income, such as means-tested benefits, are not subjected to any type of rigorous inspection – as schools are by the regulator Ofsted, for example – that could show incomes falling below expected standards. When benefits started declining in real terms in 2013 – because they stopped being uprated in line with inflation – no Office for Income Standards handed out a “must improve” rating.

The previous Labour government did pass a Child Poverty Act (since repealed), with targets for reducing the number of children in poverty, defined as being in households with below 60% of median income. But this useful indicator has never fully achieved the status of a “standard”, partly because it is an abstract statistic rather than a description of what an acceptable standard of living entails.

A new way of looking at income requirements

This helps to explain why the Minimum Income Standard (MIS) – a regular calculation for the UK since 2008 – has attracted growing interest and influence. Carried out independently by the Centre for Research in Social Policy at Loughborough, with the support of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, the research behind the standard is based on detailed deliberations by members of the public on what goods and services households of different types should be able to afford in order to cover essential material needs and to have the opportunities and choices required to participate in society. The results are used to draw up and cost minimum weekly budgets.

Those adopting this standard have valued how it determines living standards that distinguish “needs” (for example, a mobile phone that enables an individual to communicate – included) from “wants” (an iPhone, an aspirational item – not included).

In 2016, the Living Wage Commission, representing unions, employers and other stakeholders, concluded that a Living Wage should “accurately reflect the views of ordinary people” about what is needed to live on. It also confirmed MIS as the main basis for setting the voluntary Living Wage, now paid by around 4,000 employers.

The standard has also become the most commonly used tool for charities giving individual grants to help identify who is in need. They are attracted by the idea of using a living standard that allows for and invites social participation – after all, charities greatly value the external validation of criteria to determine who they should support.

The Scottish government has started to adopt the MIS measure. Shutterstock

And so the authority of the standard grows as it becomes more widely used. The Scottish government has also adopted MIS to help measure fuel poverty, and it is being used experimentally to set “living rents”.

The cost of justice

In July 2017, the Supreme Court ruled that it was unreasonable for the government to charge fees for employment tribunals without an adequate system to help workers afford them if they could not do so out of their own incomes. The court ruled that people should not be required to sacrifice “ordinary and reasonable expenditure” in order to access justice – using MIS as the benchmark. As a consequence, the employment tribunal fees were withdrawn.

In the Law Society’s interpretation, this precedent means that the means-test for legal aid should also not force someone to choose between meeting their needs and accessing justice. I have therefore written a report for the Law Society evaluating the adequacy of legal aid on this basis. My findings show clearly that people can be excluded from legal aid even though their incomes fall well short of what they would require to meet their needs as measured by MIS, and even without covering legal costs.

This experience shows that national standards can develop not only via top-down government diktat, but also from the production of evidence-based benchmarks and their incremental adoption by employers, civil society and the courts. The big question now, as the Ministry of Justice considers the Law Society’s case for the reform of legal aid, is whether central government will also heed this evidence.

The Conversation

Donald Hirsch is a member of the Labour Party

Trevor Baylis: the wind-up radio inventor who forced companies to take sustainable design seriously

PA Wire/PA Images

Trevor Baylis, who has died aged 80, left his school in London at 15 without any qualifications. But he went on to become a physical training instructor, an engineer, a stuntman and, at 45, a full-time inventor, eventually finding fame for developing the wind-up radio.

Many of Baylis’s inventions were inspired from his time as a stuntman. He had friends who had suffered life changing injuries as a result of their work. “Disability is only a banana skin away,” he often said.

As a result, he focused his effort on inventing devices to help people with disabilities in their everyday lives. He came up with over 200 of these devices, which he named Orange Aids and included one handed bottle openers, foot operated scissors, can openers and sketching easels.

Then in 1991 he saw a TV programme about AIDS in Africa. The presenter described the difficulty of getting important health information to people who couldn’t afford batteries for their radios. Baylis immediately went out to his workshop to see if he could build a suitable generator for a radio. It only took him 30 minutes to come up with a solution.

The resulting clockwork prototype worked well but he struggled to get anyone interested in producing it. In 1994, as a result of being featured on the BBC’s Tomorrow’s World programme and in an interview on the World Service, a backer came forward to help start manufacturing the radios in South Africa, employing disabled people. The vast majority of these early production radios were sold to aid agencies to distribute freely, but over time they also became very popular with consumers in the developed world and were able to be sold for profit too.

When Baylis’s design was manufactured as the BayGen Freeplay radio, it won him 1996 BBC Design Awards for Best Product and Best Design. It is still considered an iconic piece of British design, featuring in the UK Science Museum collection. Spin offs from this design included a wind-up torch and MP3 player, along with shoes that generated enough electricity from the movement of the wearer to charge a mobile phone.

The wind-up Baygen Freeplay radio. J. D. Pfaff/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

Despite his fame, Baylis felt he had often not received the financial returns he deserved for his inventions and began to campaign for better protection for inventors. He argued that intellectual property theft should be a criminal offence. He suggested that all school children should learn about inventing and intellectual property in the same way that they learn about art. In 2003, he set up Trevor Baylis Brands to help inventors struggling to develop and protect their ideas, helping over 10,000 people and launching many spin-off companies.

Baylis provided some early examples of how design could respond to both social and environmental problems by producing products that didn’t require expensive and polluting batteries. He made his radio very durable and easy to repair so it would last as long as possible, a real shift away from the usual consumption driven product market. A 1998 study of radios with different power sources found that, despite its weight, the Baygen had a significantly lower overall environmental impact over a five-year lifetime than any other radio on the market at the time.

Ripples of change

Sustainable product design still struggles to be recognised and applied by industry today. Yet the innovation displayed by the Baygen radio, initially using human powered energy systems and later supplementing this with solar power, produced a ripple effect in the market and large corporations began to develop similar products.

Although many criticised the product for being unnecessarily robust, it wasn’t created for the same kind of use as typical radios in developed countries and instead was designed to be as durable as possible. Baylis’s radio illustrates the complexities of balancing environmental, social, ethical and economic decisions in design and is still a useful discussion piece for aspiring designers today.

Trevor Baylis embodied the role of the inventor, always looking for solutions to problems and proving his novel ideas through many prototypes. He understood the value of design and considered this to be an important step in the commercialisation of his ideas.

Baylis received an OBE in 1997 and a CBE in 2015 for services to intellectual property. Despite his many successes, he once said he had one big regret: not being selected to swim for Great Britain in the 1956 Olympics.

The Conversation

Tracy Bhamra does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

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