Harassment at UNAids and Save the Children and what needs to change

In the last 24 hours two aid agencies – both highly resourced, with considerable global influence – have come under fire for failing to act on staff claims of harassment and abuse. UNAids was found by the International Labour Organisation to have failed in its duty of care towards a senior member of staff who was forced to go on sick leave for eighteen months in 2015 following multiple incidents of unreasonable work pressures, delegation of tasks to other team members, and in her words, ‘gaslighting and mobbing.’ These claims were made against the then Deputy Executive Director and two other staff members in senior positions – all of them women. The findings reinforce what I have heard from many other aid workers, and witnessed myself in different workplaces; burnout is largely associated with a toxic work environment where staff feel unsupported and undervalued, and unable to share their problems with colleagues or managers for fear of judgement or reprisal.

The UNAids case highlights how macho, bullying behaviour repeats itself through the chain of command in aid organisations, whether the protagonists in question are women or men. Whilst the accused in this case were all women, the man at the helm of the UN agency when these accusations were made – Michael Sidebé– repeatedly dismissed claims of sexual harassment and assault against his former Deputy, Luiz Loures; at one point making the bizarre suggestion that staff making these claims lacked morality and ethics. He also recommended the case brought by the complainant in the ILO inquiry be closed after an internal investigation failed to substantiate her allegations.

For a profession that prides itself on humanitarian ideals, this is particularly worrying. As are the findings of the Charity Commission in relation to Save the Children UK’s failures to fully investigate and respond to accusations of misconduct by several staff members against two men in senior roles; one of them the former CEO and the other its Policy Director.

Whilst the Commission reported several failures in the way Save the Children handled these complaints in 2012 and 2015, these findings provide only a very vague snapshot of a much bigger problem of bullying and toxic working practices within Save the Children and beyond it, throughout the sector. By focusing largely on the actions of two individuals – actions which are, strangely, described by the Commission with vacuous terms such as ‘inappropriate’ when what we are talking about in most of these cases is sexual harassment – there are echoes of the damaging narrative that undermines meaningful change in the sector. It is a narrative that argues these are just a few ‘bad eggs’ who, once held accountable, can allow the organisations under scrutiny to continue with business as usual. As the Gender and Development Network recently found in its evaluation of the sector’s recent efforts to improve safeguarding measures, many aid organisations – despite having a gender equality focus in their programmes – still suffer from dynamics of denial, deflection and disbelief when dealing with allegations of sexual abuse from staff or aid recipients. This includes the tendency to avoid systemic problems, for which everyone must take some responsibility, and instead focus on individuals who can be named and shamed.

In this respect, whilst the ILO findings in relation to UNAids, and the Charity Commission’s findings in relation to Save the Children UK, may to some degree be reassuring to brave staff members who lodged these complaints; the wider system of bullying, silencing and abuse that made it so difficult for the complainants to come forward in the first place, or to have their grievances taken seriously, remains in place.

We know this because in spite of assertions made by multiple INGOs to have improved safeguarding measures and harassment reporting procedures, it is only a small number of staff who feel they can speak up on the abuses they experience or witness. There are, I believe, two related reasons for this. One is the desire by managers of INGOs to pursue the reduction of reputational risk over justice for victims of misconduct or abuse. The likes of Save the Children do not want to see their image as do-gooders and saviours to children and other vulnerable people tainted by actions that completely contradict their raison d’etre. After all, this seriously threatens their funding streams, which then impacts on their efforts to assist these vulnerable populations. As was found with Save the Children and UNAids, this results in clumsy efforts to defend an organisation’s moral standing, whilst undermining those who try to challenge it. This leads inevitably to staff feeling their stories are not important, and then further silencing.

The other reason why staff are more likely than not to remain silent as a witness to or victim of abuse, is that many can see that ultimately the top management who make the key decisions regarding how the organisation conducts itself do not represent their interests. Whilst approximately 90 per cent of field offices in the countries where aid agencies operate are comprised of national staff, it is still white managers in the agencies’ head offices in Europe and the United States who run the show; the final say on policies and systems, whether pertaining to programme interventions or internal procedures, ultimately falls with them. Further up the chain of command is the Board of Trustees; yet they are also too often comprised largely of the same white minority and are as guilty of covering up and mismanaging complaints as NGO senior management – as the Charity Commission found in the case of Save the Children. Although efforts have been made by Save the Children to increase the diversity of its Board, its white male CEO, Kevin Watkins, has remained in post since 2016 in spite of numerous claims that he mishandled allegations of sexual harassment and bullying at the organisation.

The inquiries into UNAids and Save the Children both pertain to claims made against senior managers originating from their head offices in the Global North. These are high profile cases that have taken years to fully come to light. What about other incidents of harassment and abuse that we can assume continue to take place today, in the field offices of organisations such as these? If it’s this difficult for women in European or American head offices to have their claims taken seriously, it’s likely to be far harder for women who are national staff in field offices in the Global South – and also women of colour in those head offices in the Global North – to speak up. In an organisational culture where the opinions of the white saviour, the originator of this unbalanced aid system, still matters more than anyone else, routing out the ‘bad apples’ is not enough. They can still be replaced with others who continue to perpetuate particular hierarchies and working practices that keep the old boys club in place, alongside its macho and abusive working culture.

As Rosebelle Kagumire writes in African Feminism:

This inequitable power breeds the laxity in accountability and the repercussions are immense for those at the bottom of the power ladder. Some of us cannot count the times we have sat with an African woman working in the aid sector and heard the inequalities and abuse in the workplace. Sexual harassment in the sector is getting the attention it deserves but what makes up a toxic working environment includes bullying and the everyday micro-aggressions that are meant to put you in ‘your place’. Those that show you the old boys- club is not old at all; it is alive and well. 

These developments at UNAids and Save the Children UK should serve as (yet another) wake-up call for the sector. Covering up or dismissing abuses for the sake of reputation is not acceptable, and only serves to reinforce the powers of an age-old hierarchy which aid organisations working on gender equality should be challenging. Without change happening from within, the noble values espoused in humanitarian programmes seem increasingly hollow.

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