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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.