It was three years almost to the day after Canadian Megan Nobert was drugged and raped by a colleague while working in South Sudan that sexual misconduct among aid workers finally hit international headlines.
Last week, a Times investigation shocked the world with details of “Caligula-style orgies” with local prostitutes put on by Oxfam workers in Haiti. At the time the country was still reeling from a huge earthquake that killed and maimed thousands.
There have been further and wider allegations since: that Oxfam staff exchanged sex for aid, and that known predators seamlessly shifted from one crisis zone to another despite their known deeds.
Nobert is not shocked: not by the scope of the allegations, nor by the apparent attempt to keep the most appalling details quiet.
The Saskatchewan lawyer’s familiarity with the problem goes beyond the personal: she’s spoken to dozens of colleagues who survived various shades of the ordeal that once led her to thoughts of suicide.
Today she sees an incontrovertible connection between the abuse of fellow aid workers, local staff, and the abuse of aid recipients, but with one major difference: “The populations that we serve are far more vulnerable than someone like myself.”
Britain’s International Development Secretary Penny Mordaunt in London, Feb. 6. She says sexual exploitation by people entrusted to help the vulnerable ‘should compel us to take action.’ (Hannah McKay/Reuters)
“Sexual exploitation in humanitarian workplaces is incredibly widespread,” she said in an interview this week.
“This is a problem that we’ve been struggling with for a long time.”
The humanitarian sector’s #MeToo moment, much as in other industries, is rooted in abuse of power and longtime impunity.
But it is further singed by the fact that sexual predators operate best in the chaos of disaster at a time of great need, and that some of them prey on some of the world’s most vulnerable people.
‘Sickens and disgusts’
That includes local staff, who make up the majority of workers operating in emergency relief.
When sexual exploitation of the vulnerable is perpetrated by people entrusted to help and protect them, “it rightly sickens and disgusts,” U.K. International Development Secretary Penny Mordaunt said on Tuesday. “And it should compel us to take action.”
That action is underway, thanks partly to Nobert’s own advocacy.
When in the wake of her horrific experience she discovered her organization was not empathetic, Nobert raised the alarm: she started an NGO called Report the Abuse that highlighted the spectrum of related problems and advocated a fix from within. (Tellingly, the organization has folded because of lack of funding.)
“I couldn’t live with myself … knowing that someone else might have to experience that level of pain and trauma,” she said.
But they still did — including local staff and aid recipients, whose plight is just now coming to the fore.
When the Times story broke, many pointed out they had previously reported one of the ringleaders in the Oxfam scandal in Haiti for misconduct in other countries. (Nick Ansell/Associated Press)
Imogen Wall, an independent British aid worker, saw that power differential with her own eyes when she once walked in on a male colleague on the couch with a local staffer in Indonesia.
She says local staff are severely disadvantaged in reporting misconduct, again due to a stark power differential.
“It’s so difficult for them to come forward,” she said in an interview. “The stakes are so much higher. You may have extended family dependent on the income from that job.”
Even if they wanted to report incidents of abuse, local staff would also have challenges simply navigating the process through headquarters at organizations based far away.
Wall also discovered it isn’t easy for expatriate workers either.
In May, 2015, she founded a private online group for about 15 humanitarian workers to share stories from the field and let off steam. “Very quickly the conversation turned to darker things,” Wall said. That included sexual harassment and witnessing misconduct.
In the span of just under three years, through word of mouth, the group snowballed to some 17,000. “It was very much a needed space,” she said.
In the wake of the Oxfam scandal, another utility of such a community became immediately obvious: many spoke up to point out they had reported one of the ringleaders in the Oxfam scandal in Haiti for misconduct in other countries — reports that clearly fell on deaf ears as he went on to work elsewhere.
After the British Oxfam scandal, some donors even as far away as Canada ended their contributions, said Julie Delahanty, executive director of Oxfam Canada. (Simon Dawson/Reuters)
“We started to see that very few of the reports that were made ever got taken anywhere or resulted in any action and the perpetrators just moved on to another mission.”
To avoid that in the future, says Wall, the industry needs a shared catalogue, a little like a criminal sexual offender database, that organizations worldwide can consult when they’re hiring.
Most of all, organizations need to listen when their people speak up, she says.
Living the blowback
In the wake of the Haiti scandal in 2011 — which Oxfam investigated and in which several staff were fired—the organization implemented a confidential whistleblower hotline and a safeguarding system meant to raise the alarm when incidents happen in the field.
But the organization is still living the blowback — even as far as Canada, where some donors have ended their contributions, says Julie Delahanty, executive director of Oxfam Canada.
“We really hope that we can rebuild their trust,” she said in an interview.
“It’s almost like we need a truth and reconciliation commission, something that really looks at … all of the changes that need to be made, in Oxfam but also across the sector.”
Before all this, dozens of other organizations were already taking steps to implement stronger complaints mechanisms and whistleblowing policies, says Nobert.
The loss of the faith of donors could be devastating, and again, it’s the most vulnerable who pay the price, she says.
“At the end of the day, if funding doesn’t come through it’s not us that suffers the most. It’s the people on the ground that we’re meant to be taking care of.”
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