What problems do we face with mapping a way forward in the current crisis affecting the aid sector? This was one of the issues we were tackling yesterday at a timely and engaging conference – Civil Society Under Attack – attended by practitioners and academics, and organised by Angela Crack at the University of Portsmouth.
Things have gone a bit quiet lately – at least in the media – regarding #AidToo, and the allegations of sexual abuse and exploitation in the aid sector. Although the odd damning revelation or piece of news emerges every so often, such as the recent resignation of the Chair of Save the Children, Alan Parker, amid an investigation into staff misconduct by the Charity Commission. Meanwhile, the Parliamentary International Development Select Committee has been hearing evidence from expert witnesses who have been involved in bringing some of the stories of abuse in to the public domain. And aid agencies have made a public commitment to creating and improving policies and mechanisms aimed at ensuring the prevention of, and accountability for, any forms of abuse or harassment. Under the umbrella of Bond, working groups have been formed by different agencies to take action on five commitments made following the Safeguarding Summit organised by Dfid in March: namely, accountability to beneficiaries and survivors; a step change in shifting organisational culture; safeguards throughout the employment cycle; rigorous reporting and complaints mechanisms; ensuring that concerns are heard and acted upon. Proposed solutions to these areas are to be presented at a Dfid safeguarding conference in October this year.
These are monumental tasks, given the need to ensure any new policies and working practices must trickle down to field offices around the world, requiring extensive training and awareness raising among managers, staff and local populations receiving aid. In the meantime, abuses continue. Perpetrators remain in their positions. And survivors of abuse, and whistleblowers, struggle with the ramifications of speaking up. Many of us in the aid sector know of people who have bravely spoken up about sexual harassment and abuse, and are now being bullied, threatened or isolated in their organisation as a result. And of others who are too scared to speak up for fear of losing their jobs. These problems point to an enduring organisational culture where little space is allowed to express fears or vulnerabilities; where some forms of abuse are brushed aside and dismissed as being ‘part of the job’, or where showing one’s personal self – as opposed to a go-getting, work-all-hours professional one – is seen as a sign of weakness.
What are the causes and symptoms of this macho working culture? This was one question we were discussing in yesterday’s conference. The culture comes from a flawed image of the aid sector: where aid work is glorified in the public domain, and aid organisations peddle an image through their publicity materials of the selfless, squeaky clean aid worker helping the poor powerless other in a bid to attract funds. Whilst aid organisations and aid workers are put on a pedestal, it makes it harder to expose those who are far from squeaky clean. The eventual, but many would argue long overdue, demise of Justin Forsyth and Brendan Cox are classic examples. The risk to an organisation’s reputation – and the implications for funding which provides urgent assistance to thousands of people – ultimately outweigh taking action on what has been mistakenly construed as ‘a few bad eggs’ in the system. To reduce the #AidToo crisis to a few uncouth individuals is to suggest that sexual harassment, in all its forms, is not a systemic problem; a claim that is entirely undermined by the stories of survivors that have been documented by Report the Abuse and others.
The fear of the consequences to the aid sector if more revelations come to light is in some ways understandable, as we acknowledged yesterday; such revelations, particularly regarding abuse of aid recipients – which could become ever more regular if better safeguarding mechanisms are indeed put in place – are at risk of politicisation by the anti-aid camp. They can be used as the justification to withdraw funding altogether from aid agencies who are delivering vital assistance to communities recovering from natural or man-made disaster. More robust safeguarding measures are a good thing, but they could (and should) lead to more complaints from survivors of sexual abuse – thus further tarnishing the protected reputation of aid agencies.
In light of these possibilities, as was admirably suggested by one of the speakers yesterday, we have to consider what we actually want to happen for the aid sector to rebuild itself in an image that stays true to its proclaimed values. We have to avoid merely focusing on all that has gone bad within the sector, and ask ourselves, what does good look like?
This is a challenging question, and one that cannot simply be answered through a one-size-fits all approach. The establishment of a sector-wide ombudsman – one of the possibilities being discussed at the Parliamentary Select Committee hearings – may be worthy of consideration, but is not sufficient to address the pervasive cultural and structural problems to which everyone plays their part. These problems include gender inequality, where the more senior positions and top-level decision-making concerning vulnerable aid recipient populations are still dominated by men. They include the macho culture to which I’ve already referred, where bullying managers (both male and female) expect their staff to do as they do and work all hours and through the weekend; and where staff themselves try to prove their worth through ever riskier emergency deployments, often at the cost of their mental health. And they include aid structures which perpetuate further inequalities between international and national staff, and between aid giver and aid receiver; where aid workers are increasingly cut off from the populations they assist, through securitised compounds and vehicles which send out a very clear signal to local populations of the sector’s belief in its authority and exceptionalism.
Changing this culture requires self-reflection on the part of all aid workers, both managers and staff. It requires open and honest discussions about personal and institutional responsibilities in addressing inequality in the system. And leadership that is willing to create listening spaces for staff; where what happens in the office is not solely about maintaining the public image of do-gooders that get results, but about acknowledging the vulnerabilities and limitations of being human. We need to be talking to each other more, supporting each other and seeing the value in human relations as part of the humanitarian agenda; how we relate to each other as colleagues and how we relate to the people we are wishing to help. Inner reflection, plus honest discussions within and across organisations, are a starting point to transcending some of the power imbalances inherent in the aid system and encouraging a joint, inclusive, vision of what a ‘good’ working environment within the sector could be.