The West Africa sex scandal
by Asmita Naik October 2003

The humanitarian world was rocked in 2002 by a UNHCR/Save the Children study which revealed a disturbing pattern of sexual exploitation of refugee children by aid workers and peacekeepers in West Africa.  This article argues that the gaps in accountability revealed by the scandal point to the need for a humanitarian watchdog.

In October 2001, a UNHCR/Save the Children assessment team visiting Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone unexpectedly came across allegations of abuse by humanitarian workers during the course of a broader sociological study on sexual violence and exploitation of refugee children.  The study, begun with no intention of investigating aid workers, found these claims repeated in focus groups and interviews in all three countries, in camps hundreds of miles apart.  The team confidentially noted allegations concerning 67 perpetrators, 42 agencies, 40 child victims, and 80 separate sources, plus additional cases involving unnamed peacekeepers. Young girls reported exchanging sex for desperately-needed humanitarian assistance – biscuits, soap, medicines – or meagre sums of money.

The response of the humanitarian community

The report prompted an international outcry and a frenzy of media attention when it hit the headlines in February 2002. A record 30 delegations took the floor at a subsequent UNHCR Executive Committee meeting; some called the situation an ‘indictment of UNHCR’s protection regime’. After the initial furore, a mixed response emerged. On the one hand, the humanitarian world rallied to address the issues raised by the report.  Working groups were set up, including the Inter-agency Standing Committee Task Force on Protection from Sexual Exploitation and Abuse in Humanitarian Crises, chaired by UNICEF and OCHA. Meetings were held; missions conducted; and plans of action agreed.  Reports from UNICEF/Caritas Makeni, Interaction, the Women’s Commission for Refugee Women and Children and others affirmed the reality of the problem. Donor governments set up an informal working group under the UNHCR Executive Committee to monitor progress.

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At the same time, there were also attempts to deny the validity of the claims of abuse. The UN discredited the report’s methodology and dismissed its findings.  In a CNN interview in May 2002, Ruud Lubbers, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, stated that ‘we hardly find concrete evidence. It’s very scarce’, and doubted that the cases described in the report constituted exploitation at all: ‘(the) mother is only happy when it happens, because it is one person less to feed’; ‘mothers are just delighted when [their daughters] can find a husband’.  The interviewer replied, ‘There’s no talk from the girls or UNHCR’s own report of anything even remotely approaching romance’. UNHCR staff were also dismayed; a memo to Lubbers from UNHCR’s staff association complained that his remarks ‘appeared to imply’ that ‘exploitation and abuse of power is culturally relative’, that ‘allegations of sexual exploitation are unfounded’ and that ‘the women and girls concerned are not to be believed’.

In October 2002, the UN Office of Internal Oversight Services (OIOS) released a report which claimed that its follow-up investigation had found ‘no widespread abuse by aid workers’.  This prompted criticisms that the UN was trying to play down the matter, and raised questions about the adequacy of its follow-up. Save the Children UK, a partner in the original study, responded that ‘Nothing that the UN has found makes us think that we were wrong’.  The Humanitarian Accountability Partnership (HAP) stated that the ‘objective of the UN inquiry was too limited’, and Human Rights Watch remarked that OIOS ‘was widely criticized as downplaying the problem’.  An unnamed UN official working to combat the problem told a women’s magazine: ‘the UN is not taking the problem seriously enough … the response has been a shrug, as if sex with kids by peacekeepers was a perk of the trade. We’re fighting a culture of sexism that exists even at UN headquarters’.

By this time, government outrage had all but dissipated and, despite serious concerns, few were willing to challenge the findings of the OIOS investigation.  Australia, Canada and New Zealand were among the few countries prepared to pose searching questions; in a joint statement to the General Assembly in March 2003, these governments asked: ‘Was the investigative lens too narrow? Is there any way to know if the findings would have been different if they were less narrow? … Was the necessary gender and children’s rights expertise participating? What arrangements were made for the confidentiality and protection of potential complainants?’. Very few news outlets covered the UN’s findings, and those that did appeared to accept the official line.


1. Very few perpetrators were disciplined

The OIOS documented 43 new allegations, and deemed that ten of these met the high burden of proof required to take action. Little action has been taken even on these 10 cases.  According to one UNHCR official: ‘It has been very difficult to obtain the dismissal of the ten aid workers involved in sexual exploitation or crimes from their respective employers in West Africa … The experience in West Africa and elsewhere suggests that several refugee aid organizations are still very reluctant to discipline their staff and tend to downplay the seriousness of some acts of misconduct. These remarks also apply to UNHCR’.

OIOS reported action on two cases: a UN worker had his contract terminated, and a UN peacekeeper was sent home (it is unknown if he was disciplined or charged). Save the Children took action against three workers.  The victims of more than 67 alleged perpetrators were left without any redress, as the OIOS claimed that it could not substantiate any of the allegations in the original assessment.

2. No perpetrators were criminally prosecuted

3. It is unknown whether victims and witnesses were adequately protected or compensated

4. No senior managers were held accountable for failing to respond to earlier reports

Sexual exploitation by aid workers had been brought to the attention of senior UNHCR managers in several reports, dating back to 1997.

5. No senior managers were held accountable for their handling of the allegations submitted by the assessment team

There is no indication that senior managers were held accountable for the way the allegations were dealt with, for instance as regards the quality of decision-making and levels of efficiency or commitment, or made answerable for diminishing the claims of abuse.

6. Some preventive measures are in place

There have been some new initiatives, for instance coordination measures, training and information campaigns, and sexual and gender-based violence programming. Some agencies adopted codes of conduct, though it is unclear whether these are legally binding or stringent enough, or whether they will actually be implemented.  Several agencies still do not have codes, and rules for refugee workers have not been established in many camps. Some aid agencies continue to believe that the private lives of their employees are their own business; according to a UNHCR official, the ‘principal gap’ remains the lack of ‘effective complaints mechanisms’.

7. There have been some improvements in beneficiary protection

The scandal had wider implications beyond sexual exploitation, and beyond West Africa. New scandals in Zimbabwe, Kenya and Nepal resulted in swifter disciplinary action against perpetrators and managers, though some controversy surrounds these cases too.  An investigations unit has been established at UNHCR covering all forms of staff misconduct. The number of complaints has increased, indicating a greater awareness of issues of professional integrity. Insiders report an energetic pursuit of cases by the investigations unit, as well as a new and welcome transparency in the approach of some managers.

These encouraging changes should not be reasons for complacency, nor should they be assumed to represent deep institutional change. As one UNHCR official noted, ‘The limited progress achieved in some countries should not conceal the considerable challenges ahead’; significant gaps remain between rhetoric and reality; ‘between awareness at headquarters and in the field; and between the achievements that agencies report, and what has really been achieved for beneficiaries and victims.’

An independent humanitarian watchdog

Existing mechanisms clearly did not ensure accountability to the victims of this scandal. The efforts made at the policy level did not translate into satisfactory outcomes for victims on the ground.  Much focus was placed on discussing important preventive and remedial measures, but not enough was done to challenge attempts to deny the claims of abuse. Statements undermining the victims sent the wrong political message and must inevitably be partly to blame for the poor outcome.  The failure of governments and human rights and humanitarian organisations to check these denials did a disservice to the victims, and in the end undermined these organisations’ own positive work.

Humanitarian actors did not do more because it was not in their interest to do so – other political or institutional interests took precedence over defending the interests of the victims. Some stakeholders in host countries may have lacked the power and capacity to call international bodies to account.  Other stakeholders in donor countries (parliaments, pressure groups, regulatory bodies) may have lacked interest, or lacked the information they needed to act.

A lacuna in humanitarian accountability emerges when one compares similar cases in developed countries.  Victims in such situations have greater recourse in the law. By contrast, the weakened legal systems in war-torn countries mean de facto immunity from criminal and negligence liability, both for individuals and for employers.  The UN and its staff have the added protection of diplomatic immunity. Western aid agencies are obviously less accountable when working in developing countries than would be the case for programmes at home, where the media, parliament, advocacy groups and the law provide greater scrutiny.

Accountability is an issue in all operations. The absence of a global independent structure to take up complaints means that they emerge in an ad hoc, tortuous way, usually resulting in little redress for the victims and harsh retribution for the complainants.  In November 2002, an employment tribunal found that a whistleblower in a trafficking scandal implicating international personnel in Bosnia suffered ‘extraordinarily callous, spiteful and vindictive’ treatment at the hands of her employer, Dyncorp.  In another case, complainants who disseminated information about the infiltration by paedophiles of the Ethiopian programme of Swiss children’s charity Terre des Hommes (TdH) face a defamation suit brought by the charity in the Ethiopian courts.

Since the shortcomings of humanitarian action in Rwanda in the mid-1990s, the humanitarian community has recognised the need for a more systematic approach. Measures such as the Sphere project, People in Aid, ALNAP and HAP address important elements of accountability, namely the provision of technical support, standards, training, and regulation. However, earlier discussions concerning the establishment of a humanitarian ombudsman mechanism have not come to fruition.

There is a need for an independent humanitarian watchdog. Such a body could monitor developments; carry out its own investigations on the ground; lobby governments, parliaments, agencies and the media; and generally be a voice for the beneficiaries of aid, and the taxpayers that fund it.  The absence of a transparent and public account of what actually happened in the West African camps, and the lack of independent verification of changes on the ground, mean that a full and objective overview is not available. Progress towards setting up complaints mechanisms is slow. Inevitably, even when these are established there will be question-marks over the independence of bodies set up by aid agencies themselves.  A humanitarian watchdog would bring the sector into line with other areas of public life which already have government and corporate monitors. The dust may have settled on the West Africa scandal, but it has left a disquieting aftertaste that justice was not done.  Few governments or organisations spoke as stridently as the victims themselves would have done had they been given a platform to do so. The need remains for a truly independent body to hold all humanitarian actors to account.

Asmita Naik is an independent consultant on human rights and humanitarian issues. Reproduction of this text in whole, part or any other form requires the prior consent of the author.

She can be reached at: Asmita was a UNHCR participant in the UNHCR/Save the Children assessment Sexual Violence and Exploitation: The Experience of Refugee Children in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone. The full assessment is available on request from Save the Children UK or UNHCR.  An executive summary of initial findings and recommendations made public by UNHCR is available online at:

References and further reading

Asmita Naik, ‘Protecting Children from the Protectors: Lessons from West Africa’, Forced Migration Review, 15, October 2002. Available at

Investigation into Sexual Exploitation of Refugees by Aid Workers in West Africa, UN Office of Internal Oversight Services, UN document number A/57/465, 11 October 2002. Available at

Asmita Naik, ‘UN Investigation into Sexual Exploitation by Aid Workers: Justice Has Not Been Done, Forced Migration Review, January 2003. Available at