As with many others within the humanitarian sector I have been greatly pre-occupied by the election of Trump and subsequent funding cuts to work on sexual and reproductive health rights, the #metoo campaign, the #timesup campaign, and most recently the revelations relating to senior staff members in Oxfam and Save the Children. I work on child protection and SGBV. I worked at Save the Children for nine years. I also happen to have experienced harassment and abuse - as have almost all my female friends - and many men, boys, and LGBTIQ. (I recognise that whilst I have had some pretty bad experiences - I am in a position of relative power - I am white, informed, educated, with the resources to access services.) This has happened to me in a range of contexts - in richer and poorer nations, when working as a humanitarian, when on holiday, when at "home." Humanitarians, donors, and others who work in the private sector have been the perpetrators.
I have read news articles with analysis of the situation. None seem to capture for me the full picture of WHY violence is happening. One article pointed out that many of the theories put forward do not explain why inequality, harassment, and abuse have been occurring and been tolerated in head offices - where issues of racial inequality, abuse of power over affected populations, and stress from working in emergency contexts away from family and home do not apply. Agencies are in a panic but I see few concerted, collaborative efforts to tackle the issue and ensure that this will be prevented as much as possible in the future. Can an investigation or review process designed and set up by an agency be truly independent of that agency?
I thought I would share some of my thoughts to see if this resonates with others. Many of these points have been raised, I know I am not saying anything new, but I wanted to put together some of these different theories, understandings, and perspectives. I am sure there are other contributing factors I am overlooking. I KNOW there must be solutions I haven't thought of. But I needed to write some of this down, so here we go…
Why is sexual harassment, abuse, and exploitation being perpetrated by humanitarian actors?
There is significant intersection of a number of factors that work together to make abuse, exploitation, and violence possible in many settings. In summary these include:
- Internal sexism, racism, and discrimination within all companies, organisations, and agencies
- Cultural relativism
- A culture of impunity
- Weak systems for prevention and response
- Lack of funding for addressing these problems
- Lack of staffing to address these problems
- Poor inter-agency coordination, collaboration, and information sharing
Gender inequality in power and pay continues in all companies, agencies, and organisations throughout the world. Humanitarian agencies are no exception.
The gender inequality and sexual harassment that continues unabated within our organisations feeds and enables the even more serious sexual violence and exploitation that happens both internally and externally. The fewer women and individuals of diverse sexual orientation or gender identity in positions of power there are (even more particularly individuals who are also from marginalised, minority, indigenous or less powerful groups - those with disabilities, younger, older, etc) the less the risks faced by these individuals are really understood by those with authority. The less action is taken for prevention and response.
The people making decisions on how to invest unrestricted funds, on how to staff the organisation, and on how to prioritise development of new systems are not the people who survive violence and harassment. The people in power are typically white, males, with education, from backgrounds of high socio-economic status.
This means it is hard for them to really see or witness the violence. Very often the people in management are "good guys" who would not want harassment, abuse, exploitation, and violence to occur - but they may not see, hear, or know about it, simply because they are men. Or they may not understand the signs of harassment and violence when they see them.
Alternatively, the men in power are the ones perpetrating or perpetuating a culture that allows it. Filling every stereotype of what it is to be a man. Being macho, masculine, and strong. Hiding (most of) their feelings (aside from anger, ambition, and sex drive). They face, and do not fear, danger. They go up against the establishment in research, advocacy, and emergencies. They believe it is their job to be tough.
Holiday from social norms
I have seen many people - men, women, girls, boys, young, and old - when they are "away" behaving very differently from the way they normally behave at "home." People may break laws, drink more alcohol, take drugs, drive recklessly, take risks with their lives - not wearing seatbelts or helmets for example, or even exploit others. I have seen this change in behaviour when people leave their own culture and community behind when people are on holiday, engaging in commercial activities, have a two-year work visa, do volunteering, or are engaged in humanitarian work. I have seen this in myself too (greater risk taking in one context, more alcohol in another). Why this is I am not sure. We are looking for new community, new social norms? We are not held back by old social norms.
Racism and prejudice
There is a form of racism in the way that individuals will treat those from other countries. Treatment they would not tolerate for their friends, family members, and community members - people who are like them - they will much more easily perpetrate against someone from a different country, culture, or race. There is a form of inter-sectionality - women and girls, who are younger or from a lower socio-economic group; who have already experienced abuse; who are from a racial, ethnic, or religious group that holds less power than the perpetrator; etc. are certainly the most at-risk. They are at-risk of both harassment and violence within the workplace and exploitation and abuse as part of the affected community. Some expatriate workers believe they are above the law in the countries in which they work simply because they are humanitarians.
I have whistle-blown on numerous occasions - for sexual harassment, sexual exploitation and abuse, and for fraud. In all the instances where it got swept under the carpet an explanatory statement along the lines of "there are cultural differences and sensitivities" accompanied the dismissal of any wrongdoing… "This is acceptable and normal where they are from." Zero tolerance is not implemented. Sometimes people want to be nice. People want to see the best in others. People don't want to believe the bad stuff. Other times people can't be bothered. It's a hassle. It rocks the boat. And on other occasions managers don't want to risk the reputation of their programme or office, so they hide things.
Working in humanitarian settings
Humanitarians work in extreme conditions. There is a sense of pressure - our work is life saving and essential. In rapid onset crises the hours are exceedingly long. We live most of our lives far from family, friends, and community. We frequently have to reinvent ourselves and start from scratch in building a support network.
We may live in cramped conditions, with often very basic facilities. We share accommodation with other colleagues and staff. Some we get along with. Others we don't get along with. This can expose us to harassment and abuse from colleagues we live with, or are very close to (in the same hotel, in the same compound, etc.). This can create a tension where individuals have to be complicit, or are dragged in to inappropriate behaviour of others through peer pressure.
Sometimes, certain inappropriate behaviour is tolerated - as it seemingly relates to staff having personal mental health challenges (stress, trauma from previous postings, challenges in an individual's personal life).
Money and power
Expatriates and nationals alike often earn much more than affected populations. They have the money to buy what they want. They have things (food, housing, water, etc.) that affected populations do not have but need or want. They may use this as a way to buy favours. They often have more education and knowledge than the organisation's clients. They have an ability to manipulate, provide false information, or withhold knowledge. All of which may enable them to perpetrate with impunity.
Continuum of abuse
In addition exploitation is not clear-cut. There is a continuum of sexual violence. There are sexual relations for love but many a relationship or marriage the world over is based upon money, goods, power, connections, and security - not love. Staff may feel they are engaged in a fair and equal loving relationship, but outsiders may see dynamics of inequality. Clarity is needed in an area where there are many shades of grey.
Lack of clear policies and reporting schemes
Some agencies have clearly spelt out policies on sexual harassment, abuse, exploitation, and violence - both in relation to abuse of the agency's clients but also when the victims involved are interns, volunteers, partners, or staff members. Some have strong systems documented that are not put into practice. Other agencies have weak or no systems in place.
Failing complaints mechanisms
Many complaints mechanisms are extraordinarily slow, lack transparency, do not provide feedback, require travel to access, may be costly, and may be in a foreign language. Cases I have been involved in where complaints have been formally made, where we have been able to follow up, submit evidence, and try to seek justice have often dragged on for years. They have seemingly not had any conclusive outcome. The staff following the cases do not get updates, the affected individuals are even less likely to hear any return. Many of those in decision making positions or who determine how these complaints systems work may never have worked in country offices or may not have been to the country, district, or local offices for a long time. They don't understand the real life challenges of reporting. The staff who submit the cases on behalf of the survivor often move onto another posting before there is any conclusion to the case. This may lead to it being forgotten and no further action being taken.
Staff who perpetrate the violence may have the power to block any survivor's access to complaints mechanisms. Or alternatively they may create fear of reprisal if survivors access complaints mechanisms.
The systems often require that survivors repeat their story again and again, and may often not provide solid assistance to survivors in the concrete ways they need due to lack of professional services - causing distress and even trauma to survivors.
Few agencies have clear policies that everyone is aware of relating to the response plans for survivors of harassment, abuse, and violence in the workplace or perpetrated by humanitarians:
- How they ensure safety and protect survivors who report
- What leave entitlements are for those who report an incident
- Medical support
- Confidential, qualified, psychosocial support
- Justice and legal support
- Economic support to survivor in the form it may be needed - cash, alternative career advice, or economic strengthening?
In many humanitarian settings there are no functioning national level justice systems. Customary law may cause further harm to survivors. Legal systems may put perpetrators at such great risk of human rights abuses (in some cases even death) that agencies do not feel able to seek formal justice procedures. Even in richer nations justice systems are not 100% free of a culture of blaming the survivor. In cases where no physical evidence exists it is hard to envisage a complaint successfully leading to negative repercussions for the perpetrator. The social and personal costs of seeking justice restrict survivors from complaining about violence, exploitation, abuse and harassment.
International nature of the work
The human resource systems, policies, and laws governing international NGOs and UN agencies differ. They are not harmonised, they do not synchronise. Often things have to be done at such a fast pace that someone applies for a role, is recruited, deployed, and their contract ends and they move on to another setting before the rumours, their history, (and sometimes complaints) catch up with them.
Human resource - management
In most settings Human Resource teams - who are responsible for addressing issues of misconduct and handling vital information relating to staff performance - are line managed by the country director or another member of the senior management team. It is rare that the HR manager is - on a permanent basis - the most senior staff member in country or equal to the most senior staff member. This means that it is hard for HR to hold the most senior staff member to account.
Human resource - staffing
In many organisations and settings where I have worked - in country office and in headquarters - the HR staff are more junior, younger, and more likely to be female than other members of the senior manager team. The same system of oppression applies to them. Older male staff are more likely to have greater power in the workplace. HR staff have less capacity to challenge the senior staff members if there is inappropriate behaviour.
Human resourcing - sensitivities around providing references
All organisations I have worked with exercise extreme caution in giving bad references for fear of litigation and lawsuits. This is especially true where they have insufficient evidence of wrongdoing. They hope when writing references that the receiving agency will read between the lines. Not all recruiting staff are astute or aware enough to do this. They may be young and inexperienced or they may be recruiting at speed.
Human resourcing - mobility and turnover
Due to short term funding structures and the nature of emergencies many staff are deployed on short-term contracts. There is always a new crisis. Staff are required at lightening speed. HR staff are desperate to fill posts as fast as possible and may have to by-pass their systems for checks and balances to be able to fill essential posts. HR staff performance is measured on the ability to fill roles.
Senior staff with sufficient experience, who are willing to be deployed in hardship postings are few and far between. This may require that staff who are "not perfect" are recruited, even if it is unclear why they may have a less than glowing reference. It may also lead to people with very limited experience being recruited into senior positions. Thus they do not have the power or strength to "fight" against individuals who are perpetrators of abuse or violence.
Staff who are whistle-blowing or reporting cases may have contracts that require they move on before any investigation is concluded or even launched. And so these cases are not followed-up.
Staff who are new may be giving references when they do not even know the full history of the individual they are giving the reference for.
Let's be honest, not everyone who works in the humanitarian sector is doing so for humanitarian reasons, because they believe in justice, equality, because they care for all fellow human being, in order to help people, because they believe in human rights for all, or out of a sense of love for all. Some work for humanitarian organisation because they are seeking adventure or thrills, escape, or because of a desire to travel. Some work in the aid sector for power and money. Some just want to go against the tide, by doing something alternative. Not all humanitarians have compassion and empathy.
Some perpetrators who are "humanitarian" are armed. They have power. They are scary. They face real life and death situations. They are separated from their spouses and partners. They seek thrills and connections - and engage in exploitative behave to satisfy physical urges.