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Women in Jamam refugee camp, South Sudan Women in Jamam refugee camp, South Sudan Photo credit: John Ferguson/Oxfam

The humanitarian #MeToo crisis: the really hard work is just beginning

by Yves Daccord
19 November 2018

When humanitarians take stock of the lessons of 2018 and the priorities going forward, there will surely be unanimity on at least one point: the ‘humanitarian #MeToo’ crisis that erupted following media revelations about the conduct of some Oxfam staff in Haiti in February has shaken the sector to its core.

The crisis has challenged assumptions and forced an end to complacency. For some, it has been a belated wake-up call, not only about the problem of sexual abuse and exploitation, but also about entrenched power imbalances in the aid sector more broadly. There could be no clearer affirmation of the need for deep-rooted changes in organisational culture and attitudes.

Yet as the year nears its end, how far have we actually come in terms of real change? Despite a frenzy of activity – culminating in the international Safeguarding Summit in London on 18 October – the answer is undoubtedly that we haven’t come nearly far enough.

I have at least two reasons for believing this to be the case. First, I am struck by the extent to which many people in various sectors – aid, politics, the media – still refer to the ‘Oxfam crisis’, almost as if the problem of sexual exploitation and abuse were rooted in one organisation. Clearly this is delusional, perhaps even dangerous.

Sexual misconduct in the aid sector was indeed put in the international spotlight following The Times newspaper’s investigation into abuses by senior Oxfam staff in Haiti. But the problem is hardly new. Few can be unfamiliar with the 2002 report by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and Save the Children UK on the sexual exploitation of refugee children in West Africa by aid workers, peacekeepers and community leaders.

The problem also clearly did not stop with Oxfam. Rather, a Pandora’s Box of scandals was opened, revealing a catalogue of sexual misconduct by staff at numerous humanitarian organisations – against people affected by crisis and against other staff – as well as a prevailing culture of impunity. Public confidence in aid organisations was – and still is – seriously undermined.

Just as in the wider #MeToo movement, #AidToo reflects a deep-rooted, systemic problem that goes beyond sexual abuse and strikes at the heart of power imbalances in the aid sector: between men and women; between managers and staff; between international and local actors; and – crucially – between humanitarian workers and people caught up in crisis.

Which brings me to my second main observation. At the London conference and more broadly, the strongest voices were undoubtedly from those who complained they were not being heard – namely survivors and victims of abuse. The voices and lives of the people affected by abuse must be at the forefront of this issue. Likewise, we must be careful not to get too caught up in the technical aspects of safeguarding. No amount of procedures, policies, codes of conduct or certification will in themselves ever solve the problem.

The real challenge is to change organisational culture and attitudes: to achieve a fundamental shift in norms. This is obviously no quick fix. We need to look beyond formal systems and structures for solutions. Of course, we need to create an environment of integrity, respect and trust. We need a culture where people feel safe to speak out, and where allegations are taken seriously and accountability for perpetrators is assured. And we need to ensure that these aims are not mere platitudes.

For international organisations like the ICRC, one crucial step towards meaningful cultural change is to build a truly diverse, gender-balanced workforce. We also need a fully inclusive workplace that is respectful of our diverse staff. This is essential for staff motivation and engagement, and ultimately for operational effectiveness and sustainability. Diversity without inclusion is mere window-dressing – a hollow achievement.

To that end, we have consulted hundreds of staff in delegations around the world about the issues that matter to them, focusing on what they see as the key barriers to inclusion and how they can be overcome. This unprecedented global conversation unlocked sensitive issues that many staff had previously felt unable or unwilling to speak out about. Resident (local) staff, particularly women, and LGBT and disabled staff were among those to speak out about issues of sexism and discrimination. Their voices and ideas – and sometimes hard truths – have formed the basis of a new global approach to ensuring diversity and inclusion, one with organisation-wide ownership. The overarching priorities are clear: to ensure inclusion of resident staff and to achieve gender balance – not just in terms of numbers, but also in terms of creating an enabling culture that makes people feel connected and respected, and which allows them to grow.

While we have taken a number of concrete measures, the road to full diversity and inclusion will be a long one. And achieving this is just one part of the overarching challenge of fostering a culture where sexual exploitation, abuse and harassment is not only decisively tackled, but is prevented from happening in the first place.

All of us in the aid sector must commit to achieving this cultural change, no matter how hard it is or how long it takes. We all need to learn to really listen and understand issues of sexism, racism and abuse of power. If we don’t, we can hope to achieve little else in the long run.

Yves Daccord, Director-General, International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).

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