I have written fairly extensively on the moral dimensions of aid work and how what is ‘good’ or ‘bad’, in terms of aidworker motivations, is not as clear cut as often assumed (examples here and here). I would like to return to this issue in light of recent reports of sexual misconduct at Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF). These reports of course come on the back of many others over the past several months, which have exposed the entire sector to widespread condemnation.
Why such outrage? This is a question asked by many, given the fact we all know sexual harassment exists in every workplace, and use of sex workers is pervasive no matter the country context or the profession of the person who hires them. Abuse is abuse is abuse (and here I’m putting aside for now the debate as to whether sex work is a form of abuse). So should we be judging aid workers any more than other perpetrators?
The answer, I believe, is yes and no. Yes, because aid workers have a moral responsibility that comes with the job; their own ideals (at least for most of them, at some point) and the mission of their organisations emphasise being of service to, and reducing suffering of, vulnerable people. Institutional codes of conduct reinforce staff’s status as aid giver, in terms of how they interact with affected populations and avoid overstepping ethical boundaries. The entire aid sector is built upon moral authority, guided by well established humanitarian principles and human rights standards.
So yes, abuse by an aid worker is different from abuse by someone, for instance, from the corporate sector. Whilst both must be held to account, the bar is set higher with aid workers because of the nature of what they do. So outrage is likely to be more vocal in these instances, as are calls for the sector to reform.
And yet….is this assumed moral authority actually realistic in practice? The problem with arguing that all aid workers must act morally, all the time, is that it forgets that not every decision made or action taken by people in the sector is guided by purely moral, altruistic intentions. The image of the selfless, heroic aid worker unfortunately continues to dominate in the minds of the general public – at least in the western, aid giving world – even if it is regularly debunked by aid workers themselves. The reality of aid work is often far from actions guided purely by self-sacrifice. People go in to aid work for a variety of reasons, as my own research in Kenya has revealed, and motivations may change over time. To paraphrase some of my informants, motivations can include wanting an adventure in unfamiliar cultures (Italian woman), wishing to help others overcome what they themselves had overcome (Ugandan woman), and wanting a stable income to support their family (several Kenyans, men and women). Whilst these sorts of motivations may seem to have nothing to do with aid workers committing sexual abuse, what these examples highlight is that the squeaky clean image of the heroic, selfless aid worker is deeply flawed.
There are also other advantages that come with being an aid worker, particularly as an expatriate, ranging from living allowances to the use of a comfortable, air conditioned four wheel drive to a house and domestic staff that would not be affordable back home. Do these material gains make aid workers morally reprehensible?
I have written elsewhere that these benefits can at times breed a sense of exceptionalism, whereby some aid workers abuse their privileges because they can; because, in fact, aid structures and policies protect them from getting found out. In disaster areas in particular, the ubiquitous humanitarian compound may, arguably, serve to protect aid workers from security threats; yet at the same time, it increases the spatial and social distance between themselves and the communities they are there to serve. In these environments, socio-economic differences and power imbalances become even more pronounced; and it is within these contexts that many of the abuses currently being reported have occurred.
I am not trying to suggest that sexual abuse and exploitation is somehow excusable on the grounds that “even aid workers have their flaws.” But what I am wishing to demonstrate is that whilst aid organisations continue to peddle an unrealistic image of what ‘do-gooders’ are, this creates a working culture where anyone who tries to challenge this image by calling out abuse is silenced. Ultimately, the outrage is likely to be far greater in a sector whose public image is largely above moral reproach.
As one contributor at a conference I recently attended rightly said, if you put yourself on a pedestal, you have a greater distance to fall.