The media is currently ablaze with reports and commentary about allegations of sexual misconduct and impunity at Oxfam and elsewhere. And government officials are taking this opportunity to give the entire aid sector a bad name; suggesting that sexual abuse is an institutional problem that requires a dramatic and uncompromising response, such as cutting foreign aid.
OK, so ever since the #MeToo campaign got going, multiple industries – including the aid sector – have been speaking up on sexual harassment and impunity within its ranks. Oxfam is not the first to be exposed; only last month there were reports of the sexual abuse of staff members from UNHCR. Organisations such as Report the Abuse (now dissolved because of lack of funding) and Feinstein Center also documented hundreds of cases of aid workers being harassed and assaulted, either by colleagues, professional associates or people from the local community where they worked.
Does this make sexual harassment rife in the sector? It is true that most aid workers have a story to tell – about witnessing, or falling victim to, sexual harassment of one sort or another. This includes knowing of colleagues who use prostitutes from the local community whilst working in the field – a claim made by some of my own informants in Kenya. But we have to be careful about the language we are using here when describing how the aid sector operates, and who should be blamed for allowing sexual abuse to occur. With some government ministers now threatening to withdraw funding from Oxfam and other aid agencies, there is the real risk that organisations such as Oxfam are subject to a form of collective punishment due to the behaviour of a very small percentage of people, from an organisation of over 5000 staff whose aid interventions reach an estimated 11.6 million people globally.
It is important instead to consider what needs to happen next. I myself do not have all the answers to this, and I know from discussions currently happening among aid practitioners that this debate continues to roll on. However I would say that we have to see the bigger picture of why incidents such as the ones reported at Oxfam are happening. Institutional pedophilia, as the right wing tabloids would like to suggest? No – the bigger issue here is lack of proper accountability structures and codes of conduct, which are fully understood, respected and implemented by all staff in any aid organisation. As discussed in one of my previous blog posts, impunity occurs in many forms; whether we are talking about sexual harassment or misconduct, staff bullying, or aid worker safety and security. In my own research on stress and burnout among aid workers in Kenya, it has become clear that many people will not speak up about mental health problems – which are often as a result of malpractice, negligence or unfair treatment in the workplace – for fear of losing their jobs. And in my experience as an aid worker, I’ve seen that people don’t speak up on some of the other problems listed above because there is increasing cynicism; the belief that there is no reliable person to report to, and no real commitment to address these problems in a professional and sensitive manner.
Without the existence of a safe space, and a working culture, that encourages disclosure of malpractice and abuse, policies and codes of conduct are meaningless. In this respect, everyone in the aid sector – from field staff to managers – has a responsibility to create a listening environment; one where people feel they are heard if they wish to discuss a personal issue that goes beyond fulfilling their organisation’s commitment to the populations they serve.
In addition, on a more formal level, there needs to be better training, preparation and post-deployment debriefing that seeks to support aid workers throughout the course of their work. This is particularly important in field offices, and even more so for national aid workers; because we should not forget that they are the ones who are most likely to be the victims of violence in the course of their work, and at the same time have less capacity – due to their professional status and the limited bargaining power they hold – to respond to or prevent such incidents from occurring.
In short, the Oxfam scandal raises important issues regarding the ways in which large aid agencies can become more accountable, and how to ensure all their staff act in accordance with the humanitarian values their organisations are promoting. Collective punishment is not the answer; if anything, there needs to be a serious and committed discussion among donors and agencies about earmarking funds to provide better internal monitoring, support and reporting systems for staff. This would go a long way in showing appreciation towards the efforts of thousands of aid workers who are just getting on with their jobs as best they can despite the institutional injustices they witness and experience; and would also work towards avoiding a repeat of the misconduct reported at Oxfam and elsewhere.