Issue 81 - Article 5

Humanitarians need a systemic approach to addressing sexual exploitation, abuse and harassment

June 17, 2022

David Gressly

Women's support centre, Al Turbah, Taiz governate, Yemen. Dcemeber 2020.

Twenty years ago, I had to deal with a sexual exploitation scandal involving UN agencies and international non-governmental organisations in Guinea, which was receiving tens of thousands of refugees fleeing Liberia and Sierra Leone. I came to Guinea in 2001 to scale up UNICEF’s emergency operation. By 2002, dozens of aid agencies in the three affected countries were implicated in horrendous misconduct, including trading food rations for sex. The perpetrators were both national and international staff.

Having just started to scale up, UNICEF was not implicated in the scandal and therefore the UN Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator asked me to lead a task force to manage our collective response in Guinea. I received the full cooperation of all the other agency heads. They were equally appalled by the behaviour and very much focused on fixing it.

We set up a collective system to manage cases, reach out to the community and provide victim assistance. Today these are part of our tool kit to deal with exploitation and abuse. At that time, what we were doing was new, certainly in Guinea. We educated our staff and communities and put in place codes of conduct.

I learned that codes of conduct can go a long way in changing behaviour in situations where staff may not understand what constitutes sexual exploitation. Many staff simply did not understand that marrying a girl under 18 is a violation of UN values that all staff must adhere to. Codes of conduct and education also remind potential perpetrators that someone is watching. Community outreach focus group discussions helped us find out what was happening under the radar. If you’re not aware of issues, you cannot act to manage and improve the situation.

Disciplinary action is also required as a deterrent, but even then some staff will continue to perpetrate abuse. Guinea reinforced for me that zero tolerance does not mean zero cases. It means we refuse to tolerate the cases that come to our attention. More importantly, we must be proactive in trying to identify cases to hold the problem to an absolute minimum to the extent possible.

The team response we implemented in Guinea rapidly reduced abuses. Guinea showed me that the humanitarian community can address this problem when there is unity of purpose and commitment.

We have been surprised by scandal after scandal after scandal

In the 20 years since Guinea, we have been surprised by scandal after scandal after scandal. Horrendous cases over the past decade underscore how aid workers remain part of the problem. In my view, one reason we continue to grapple with the issue is that humanitarian operations rely on focal points and goodwill, rather than a formal structure with full-time staffing. That makes it difficult to apply the systemic approach required.

My thinking on addressing sexual exploitation and abuse (SEA) evolved when I was the Deputy Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator in charge of operations in South Sudan, which was part of Sudan when I joined in 2004. Because of my experiences in Guinea and the major fallout from sex scandals involving the United Nations Mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo (MONUC) at the time, it was imperative to get ahead of the issue before the major scale up in South Sudan of both the UN peacekeeping mission and humanitarian operations, which had largely been working across the border in Lokichogio in Kenya. This still provided opportunities for abuse, but it was not the day-to-day contact that would come with a large number of people on the ground.

I reached out to major donors who contributed funds to set up a small unit tasked with the prevention of SEA in the humanitarian operation. That had not been done proactively before. We worked with everyone on the same issues and set up the same structures that we had in Guinea. Our initiative worked well. We had a strong team that did a lot of community work. There were cases even at the leadership level of the UN Country Team. Importantly, we were able to act quickly and take corrective action. The cases we became aware of were promptly dealt with by the agency concerned.

I was also fortunate to have a conversation with the journalist who broke the scandal in MONUC. She explained that brigade and whole battalion deployments are mostly in barracks and reasonably controlled. That is less true of smaller military deployments at the company level. She said you really have to focus on the individual police and the military observers living in the community because there’s no monitoring of their behaviour. This was true. Personnel in communities are in the best position to exploit people if they choose to do so. The same applies to humanitarian workers in similar frontline positions.

Some UN agencies and international NGOs have over the years developed robust systems for dealing with SEA. By themselves, they would not need a system-wide approach to deal with the problem because it is ingrained in their work culture. But not all UN agencies and NGOs have strong internal systems, which is why a strong inter-agency system is required.

Scandals such as the ones in Haiti and in eastern DRC in 2020, when I was serving as the Emergency Ebola Response Coordinator, show that SEA is still pervasive, and is not dealt with in a proactive way. The scandal in DRC was on a scale I had never seen before. It showed the underlying weakness in how agencies and NGOs addressing abuse and exploitation of the very people we are sent to the field to help. What was surprising was that, after massive humanitarian efforts over 25 years, there was still no systemic approach to preventing SEA. Neither the ethos nor the systems were present to detect the massive exploitation taking place.

Learning lessons from UN peacekeeping

For years, many humanitarians viewed SEA as a problem principally with peacekeepers. There are still cases, but a lot of commendable work has gone into addressing this issue in peacekeeping and not tolerating this behaviour. The assessed budget and a unified command structure in peacekeeping helps, and there is a team in every peacekeeping mission that is there to address this problem. The ethos says, ‘we will not tolerate this’. This is a career-ending issue if it happens on your watch. While there are still cases, the approach is working. Contingents that were abusive in 2005 have really come around and understand that this is unacceptable. We get far fewer cases, and they are dealt with systematically and transparently.

When I was with the UN Stabilization Mission in the DRC (the follow-on to MONUC), we brought in a new contingent that quickly became involved in SEA, particularly in villages. Complicity with people in the villages resulted in silence around the abuse, because communities wanted the troops to remain to protect them against attack, and because they benefited economically from their presence. As a result, it took longer to uncover the abuse.

On learning of the scandal, I briefed the country’s ambassador to the DRC as a courtesy, while formal notification went to the permanent mission. I explained to him what was about to happen. He was furious, saying ‘how dare you impugn our troops. This is unacceptable’. I explained that there is a protocol where his country would be requested to send a team to do the actual investigation. The military team his country sent to investigate found that the allegations were true. A couple of months later, the same thing happened with the same contingent. I went to see the ambassador. This time he remained calm and said ‘we need to deal with it together’. The allegation was again proved true. The third time it happened, he knew immediately why I had come to see him. He bowed his head and said, ‘I’m ashamed for my country’.

That’s the evolution you can get with a systemic approach. You have to get to the point where people accept that everyone on their team is not necessarily good. Organisations are a collection of human beings with a collection of behaviours. It is shameful when it happens, and we need to find a way to solve it.

Humanitarians are not yet at that level. We do not have a systematic approach and we are not transparent. Peacekeeping will notify the public of each allegation, while keeping confidential information confidential. But the world is alerted. We don’t do that in the humanitarian sector. We may deal with cases internally, but where is the transparency? While many agencies and INGOs now have robust systems for the prevention of SEA, not all do. The result is that we are all tarnished when there is a case. There is no systemic assurance that the broader humanitarian community is capable of preventing SEA.

That is where we are in 2022 – more than 20 years after the scandal in West Africa.

To change our culture we need the support of donors – not merely financial support, but a shared accountability. There are three important ways we can partner with donors to address this issue properly.

  1. Ensure that every major humanitarian operation sets up the inter-NGO/UN systems required to manage this problem. This includes everything from community outreach and victim assistance to ensuring transparency. It also requires a dedicated team of senior staff experienced and trained in this area to deploy at the very start of the operation.
  2. Apply measures so that every organisation in the operation and those supporting it buy into the system. That includes everyone from the smallest NGO up to the Inter-Agency Standing Committee Principals. We have to do this collectively. Donors need to say, if you are not part of that collective, we are not funding your work.
  3. Create a compact between donors and UN agencies and NGOs that requires us to tackle the problem systematically, and that it be funded upfront. Otherwise, time and resources are wasted chasing funding while the problem has the opportunity to assert itself at the start of each operation.

We have learned costly lessons over the past 20 years. There is no excuse for not applying them.

Based in Sana’a, David Gressly is the United Nations Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator for Yemen. He has served with the United Nations in senior posts in the field for 30 years, including as a Deputy Special Representative of the Secretary-General in Congo and Mali, United Nations Emergency Ebola Response Coordinator in Congo, Regional Humanitarian Coordinator for the 2012 food crisis in the Sahel, and Regional Coordinator covering South Sudan for the UN mission in Sudan.


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