Aid sector forced into greater transparency by #MeToo movement

Kate Hodal
Photograph: Yui Mok/PA

Last year’s sex scandals in the aid sector seemed to come as a surprise to everyone except those working in aid. Rife with power, gender, race and class imbalances, the aid sector has long been a hotbed of abuse and misconduct, with an estimated 86% of aid workers claiming to have a colleague who has suffered sexual violence on the job.

Yet the flurry of action surrounding the 2018 revelations of sexual misconduct at two of Britain’s best known charities, Oxfam and Save the Children, seemed to promise a clean up of the sector. Hundreds of staff from international charities were dismissed for inappropriate behaviour; conferences and summits held to establish industry-wide codes of conduct and safeguarding principles; millions of pounds pledged on a global register to prevent abusers from working in aid; and calls made for an independent aid ombudsman to support survivors.

But has anything actually changed on the ground?

According to ethics expert Dr Suzanne Shale, who authored last year’s report into workplace culture at Save the Children UK in the wake of allegations of harassment and abuse at the charity, #MeToo (and the corresponding movement #AidToo) “has given momentum to a process of change which may have been in the works in some charities but was most definitely not on the agenda in others”.

Some of this change can be seen in the way the aid sector has been forced to become increasingly transparent about the number of safeguarding and sexual exploitation incidents taking place, said chief executive Stephanie Draper of Bond, the UK network for more than 400 international development NGOs.

“Thankfully, due to improved reporting, we are seeing more women and girls feeling safe and confident enough to speak out, and we are seeing more potential exploiters called out or excluded from our sector.”

But not everyone feels safe to come forward, says Shaista Aziz, co-founder of the NGO Safe Space, an intersectional feminist platform seeking accountability over #AidToo abuse.

“Many women who want to make complaints are still being told they’re feeding into a right-wing, anti-aid agenda. Women, and especially black women and women of colour, the ones with the most to lose, are still afraid to come forward because they know that the system and powerful organisations won’t protect them.”

Despite industry promises of zero tolerance in the wake of the 2018 scandals, a number of charities, among them Oxfam, were embroiled in a new sex-for-aid scandal in African refugee camps earlier this year, according to an independent commission set up by Oxfam itself.

“It shows there’s a huge disconnect between all that high-level policy activity post-2018 and what’s actually happening on the ground,” said international human rights consultant Asmita Naik, who co-authored a 2002 report that uncovered extensive allegations implicating multiple humanitarian agencies in a sex-for-aid scandal in West Africa.

Naik described the nature of the 2019 sex-for-aid allegations as “almost a repeat of the 2002 report”.

“It’s one thing to keep funding policy and guidelines – this has been happening since 2002 – what you need is implementation: support for front-liners so that they can tell beneficiaries about their rights, listen to them and act on their complaints. When you really break down what the Department for International Development has funded, I don’t see the investment at that level. They’re funding toolkits, research and registers, but where’s the investment on the ground?”

Experts agree that combating #AidToo abuse is complex and consequently requires myriad solutions, many of them localised. Crucially, said Draper, the aid sector will remain stymied until more is done to put women and minorities in power.

“It is only by getting more women and minorities in positions of leadership and power, and encouraging male leaders to champion and support this agenda, that we will deliver the fundamental shift in culture we need to see,” she said.