Abuse scandals still rock the humanitarian aid world. Why is progress so slow?

True reform will have been achieved when aid organisations and workers approach people affected by crisis in a spirit of solidarity, rather than charity

May 19, 2021
An Oxfam operation in Chengerero, eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. Photo: REUTERS/James Akena
An Oxfam operation in Chengerero, eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. Photo: REUTERS/James Akena

For a sector that aims to do good, humanitarian relief can get a lot of bad press. 

This month, the Thomson Reuters Foundation and the New Humanitarian revealed new allegations of sexual abuse in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Over 20 women have claimed that humanitarian workers they identified as employed by the World Health Organisation and seven other agencies—including two other UN agencies—had offered them jobs in exchange for sex.  

This not long after the Timesreported that Oxfam, one of the world’s largest aid agencies, was investigating claims of abuse by staff working in the same country. Eleven individuals within the organisation had been accused of “systemic fraud and corruption, sexual harassment, exploitation, abuse, threats and intimidation.” Before that, there were similar allegations against Oxfam workers in Haiti in 2018. 

WHO spokeswoman Marcia Poole said “WHO is committed to taking prompt and robust action, including collaborating with relevant national authorities on criminal proceedings, in all cases where WHO staff may be found guilty of perpetrating [sexual exploitation and abuse]," while Oxfam has suspended two members of staff in the DRC as part of an ongoing external investigation into the complaints.

Mission statements are not enough

The recent stories raise again an issue that the sector has been grappling with for years: how do organisations dedicated to bettering people’s lives respond to—and prevent—cases in which their employees do harm? 

Since the mid-nineties, when the disjointed and inadequate response to the Rwandan genocide shocked the sector into action, humanitarian organisations have sought to create accountability mechanisms that are universally applicable and widely used. 

The work of humanitarian organisations is by its nature engaged with life-and-death issues, and well-meaning aspirations are at best useless—and at worst actively harmful. Unexamined mission statements and declarations can lead to a culture of complacency if organisations assume they are always doing good rather than consistently scrutinising whether their actions live up to their aims. 

Ensuring that organisations are answerable to people affected by crisis has been the driving force behind the Core Humanitarian Standard on Quality and Accountability, a set of commitments made by aid organisations to service users. These include understanding the needs of people accessing aid, ensuring they have mechanisms to complain if they are unhappy with the services provided or feel they are being mistreated, and learning from experience. 

Writing in the New Humanitarian in the wake of the Congo revelations, Chief Executive of Oxfam Danny Sriskandarajah said that “for too long, Oxfam—and many others in our sector— underestimated what was needed. We viewed abuse as the actions of a few bad apples rather than a risk inherent in our work. We didn’t do enough to encourage people to come forward with concerns.” 

But, as he noted, the latest coverage had come about because Oxfam had launched an investigation after concerns were raised by staff. Moreover, since the Haiti scandal, 88 people had been dismissed for misconduct by Oxfam. 

Similarly, several people have already been dismissed by the WHO in light of the recent Thomson Reuters/New Humanitarian reports, and UNICEF and the Organization for Migration (IOM), have, along with the WHO, pledged full investigations into the allegations. These are encouraging steps in a system that still has much more work to do. 

A path forward

This is the essential point about preventing abuse in the sector: it is not simply down to creating a set of rules, but a process of improvement. 

In recent years, many of the foundations the aid movement was built on have been challenged by moves towards decolonising institutions, as well as the Black Lives Matter and #MeToo movements. The challenge for humanitarian organisations, particularly large international NGOs, is to narrow the gap—and the power imbalance—between aid organisations and workers and the people who access the services provided.  

The outgoing UN’s humanitarian sector chief, Mark Lowcock, was right to declare recently that the global aid sector needs to get better at listening to the people it serves, pointing out that in many places, aid organisations have been supplying unneeded and unwanted goods to refugees and people in need.  

The Core Humanitarian Standard provides a guide to improvement and responds to the needs of service users and workers. The UN, other international bodies and donor governments could signal a commitment to improving the sector by demanding that organisations they fund are signed up to the standard and committed to improving their everyday operations when working with communities. Lowcock’s recently announced successor, the UN’s Yemen envoy Martin Griffiths, has the opportunity to help create a better system that listens to the voices of people in crisis. Backing greater commitment to accountability would signal his strong support for stamping out abuse.

Embedding that accountability, transparency and equity within organisations is essential to the future of aid.

Paths forward have been presented by people like the activist Jessica Horn, who has suggested that “We underestimate the amount of emotional and mental stress that oppression and injustice cause, and also fail to recognise that the stress is a collective stress.” Gemma Houldey, author of The Vulnerable Humanitarian, proposes a feminist, anti-racist and decolonial agenda. Frances Longley, the new CEO of ActionAid UK, has called on those with power, particularly governments, to do their part in changing a complex global system and holding it to account.

By their nature, humanitarian organisations operate in circumstances that are complicated and chaotic, and where power imbalances are at their most stark. Their mission should be to minimise those issues, not reproduce them. True reform will have been achieved when aid organisations and workers approach people affected by crisis in a spirit of solidarity, rather than charity.