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

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.

Cultural relativity

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.

Response systems

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?

Justice systems

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.

Armed humanitarians

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.

Organisations are made up of human beings, so no organisation is immune to these issues of gender inequality, change in behaviour, racism, exploitation, etc. People (including ourselves) do, however, expect higher standards of behaviour from humanitarians than from those in corporate world, or on holiday. They expect more appropriate, considerate, respectful behaviour from humanitarians than they do from bankers; those who work in oil, forestry or mining; etc. Is this fair? I am not sure. But it happens. And that is why the media inflate this story about Oxfam and do not talk about foresters raping women and girls in Cambodia, oil companies being complicit to rape in Nigeria, mining companies allowing rampant sexual exploitation in mining communities in DRC.


We need to start talking more about solutions. What are the next steps? Megan Nobert - Report the Abuse - was doing what needed to be done, and this was not resourced correctly. Stopping funding to agencies delivering life-saving humanitarian assistance to those affected by disasters and conflict is NOT the solution. (Let's be very clear - donors perpetrate too. I was sexually harassed by a senior consultant working for a bilateral donor in one setting!). Funding, staffing, systems, and interagency collaboration and coordination are all minimum essential requirements to put in place structures and systems that will hold humanitarian agencies to account.

All people in all walks of life abuse their power. More needs to be done to make this stop. The steps that need to be taken to ensure that sexual harassment, abuse, and exploitation are prevented in the future are all the standard components of a programme:

  • Assessment and research, into the: scale; nature and cause of the problem; power dynamics and root cause of power imbalances. This work was already started by Report the Abuse.
  • Discussions with survivors of abuse, exploitation, harassment, and violence - on their experiences and possible solutions
  • Mapping of what is already being done, including evaluation of strengths and weaknesses of previous actions
  • Funding
  • Human resourcing - including putting in place structures of human resource management that are equal to, not managed by head office and in-country senior staff. When Country Directors manage HR Directors the HR Director cannot hold the CD to account for their actions. When the CEO selects and manages the staff who are supposed to investigate and hold her/him to account the staff who are meant to be investigate cannot be independent.
  • Set up of stronger, more flexible systems for data collection and information sharing on the subjects of: Reports of incidents of abuse, harassment, exploitation and violence; Alleged perpetrators.
  • Whistleblowing systems
  • Response and support for survivors. Clear outline of survivor's entitlements for support. Support to include: medical response; psychosocial support; legal and / or justice support; paid leave from work and / or economic strengthening and / or career counselling (depending on context of incident and wishes of survivor).
  • Coordination and collaboration ACROSS ALL ORGANISATIONS - INGOs, UN, inter-agency groups, faith-based organisations, inter-governmental organisations, donors, etc
  • Awareness raising, campaigning, advocacy, communications
  • Behavioural change within all organisations on gender equality, codes of conduct and sexual harassment
  • Continuous on-going monitoring and assessment of any actions being taken. Followed by a practice of genuine learning and adjustment of the strategies to ensure that things are changing and improving.


From Sarah Press: Hierarchy itself, and hierarchical management structures in particular, create dangerous environments for those at the bottom of the pyramid. So many NGOs adhere to a traditional corporate structure at HQ level as well as in field offices, and all societies have some form of hierarchy in place, more rigid in some than others. This hierarchy makes it easy to take advantage of those "below" in any of a variety of ways, and makes it difficult, if not impossible, to report/complain/change the situation. While many companies have tried to build new kinds of management structures--Silicon Valley and the like being the most obvious examples--the NGOs that I'm familiar with, and certainly the UN and similar, maintain fairly rigid hierarchical structures. This fosters exploitation and abuse in so many different ways.

From Hannah Thompson: Another concern is how many organisations at HQ level are predominantly women - without women being at the top. Or one sole female at the tippy top, with senior management/middle management dominated by men

  • Women on average earn 27% less than men in the third sector
  • 68% of the total workforce of the third sector are women
  • 17 of the UK’s top 100 charities by income have female chairs. Compared with FTSE 100 of 14.
  • Among UK’s top 50 fundraising charities by income 36% of trustees are women
  • 7 of the top 100 UK charities have a woman as chair of board of trustees
  • 11 of the top 100 charities by income have more female trustees than males

Data from: https://www.theguardian.com/voluntary-sector-network/2017/mar/06/international-womens-day-women-charities-quiz-voluntary-sector

We preach but do not model diversity: Fewer than one in ten (9%) voluntary sector employees are from black and minority ethnic groups, a lower proportion than in the public (11%) and private sectors (12%).

Data from: https://data.ncvo.org.uk/a/almanac17/workforce-4/

Created By
Hannah Thompson


Created with images by Jeremy Yap - "untitled image" • ANDRIK LANGFIELD PETRIDES - "untitled image" • Veri Ivanova - "Old pocket watch"

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