The news that dozens of UN staff have reported being sexually harassed and assaulted by their employers does not, unfortunately, come as a shock to me. Nor to many others working within the aid sector who have been fully conscious of the extent to which acts like these are seemingly brushed under the carpet for the sake of saving the noble and squeaky clean image of the United Nations. As has been shown by survivors within the aid sector, sexual assault in this industry is all too common – as is lack of accountability.
Underlying this is a deep and uncomfortable hypocrisy that unfortunately pervades the sector in many areas. An aid organisation may pride itself on successful programme interventions on gender based violence, yet at the same time their own staff members are guilty of harassing their colleagues or of beating their wives. These incidents – and most of us all know someone who is a victim or who has been accused of perpetrating these acts – so often pass by unnoticed, or worse there is a conscious effort to ensure they never see the light of day and no one is held accountable. These are organisations that spend huge amounts of time writing financial reports to donors to demonstrate they are meeting the needs of their beneficiaries. What about the needs of their staff?
The broader issue of staff care remains far down on the list of priorities of aid agencies whose modus operandi is assisting populations where there is widespread suffering and destitution. In the scramble for funding and for speedy relief efforts, aid agency staff often become cogs in a machine – implementers, brokers, agents; not real people with real emotions. And so they are not granted the same respect or dignity as what they themselves are constantly reminded must be shown to aid beneficiaries. Aid workers may suffer from many problems related to their work: job insecurity, trauma, bullying, burnout, sexual harassment. But to admit they are struggling because of any of these factors breeds discomfort among many aid workers, who fear they may be seen as too weak or incompetent to do their jobs, or too self-indulgent in the face of the immense hardships experienced by the populations they assist.
Not only this; experience has shown me, and I’m sure many others, that no matter how much we feel we are being mistreated in the sector, employers will carry on as they have done for years. We can feel like we are easily dispensable; we have to put up with what we are subjected to in the knowledge that someone would happily fill our role anyway, such is the attraction of working in a sector where people are viewed so heroically in the public eye. This allows organisations to get away with treating their staff in a way that is completely at odds with the ethics and ethos they loudly proclaim in their marketing material. The attitude is – if you don’t like it, get out and we’ll find another willing foot soldier.
In my last job working for an international NGO, I started out on a 3 month contract which excluded me from some of the benefits afforded to my longer term colleagues, and which was renewed sometimes on a month by month basis. This meant I was unable to plan ahead or respond in the most effective way to the needs of the communities I worked with; unable to take proper annual leave; and unable to truly feel part of the organisation, even though I stayed there for well over a year. This unfortunately is all too common in the aid sector, and staff put up with these forms of mistreatment because they feel their needs are less important, and that there is little they can do to change things anyway.
My last blog post highlighted the value of self-reflection and self-care for aid workers who are suffering from chronic stress, burnout or PTSD. But whilst self-care plays an important role in managing the many challenges associated with aid work, aid organisations themselves cannot be absolved of responsibility in addressing the reasons why staff become disillusioned, exhausted and sometimes damaged by their work. The structure and working culture of this industry – and it is an industry, given its emphasis on raising and spending money, and on meeting donor-led targets and goals – has a lot to answer for. Until new policies are implemented and a more open environment is created that truly listens and responds to the real vulnerabilities and needs of aid agency staff, the aid sector will fail to live up to its high standards of morality and humanity.