Aid workers warn of 'cooling effect' after Oxfam sexual harassment scandal

Aid workers tell Devex that stories of sexual harassment emerging from the sector in recent weeks are likely “the tip of the iceberg." Photo by: StockSnap

LONDON — Aid workers and development experts tell Devex that stories of sexual harassment emerging from the sector in recent weeks are likely “the tip of the iceberg,” and they expressed concern that negative media attention could discourage organizations from strengthening reporting mechanisms to make it easier for staff to report abuse.

Former and current aid staffers told Devex that rapidly rising numbers of claims at Oxfam, recently revealed by the Times newspaper, are largely due to the fact that the INGO has been working to improve its reporting procedures, and that other organizations should follow suit.  

At the same time, they said charities need to make sure that allegations are taken seriously once reported, that victims’ anonymity is protected, and that there are consequences for perpetrators. This will be key to ensuring more women come forward, they said.

Their comments come after the British newspaper reported that seven Oxfam country directors had been investigated in relation to “safeguarding allegations,” including sexual harassment, and that the charity had handled 87 allegations of sexual exploitation by staff in 2016 and 2017, up from 26 cases in 2014. A former female country director also claimed the charity mishandled her case after she accused a senior Oxfam official of assaulting her in 2010.

The United Kingdom’s Shadow Secretary of State for International Development Kate Osamor described the revelations as “unacceptable,” and said charities must do more to tackle the problem.

The international development sector is no stranger to sexual assault and harassment allegations, which have been gaining high-level attention from aid bosses in recent years, thanks to the efforts of advocacy groups including Report the Abuse and the Humanitarian Women’s Network. Both were set up to shed light on the pervasive but widely underreported issues of sexism, discrimination, and homophobia within the industry, as Devex reported.

The recent allegations of sexual abuse made against film producer Harvey Weinstein and the subsequent #MeToo social media campaign have helped bring the issue back into the media spotlight.

Not just Oxfam

Oxfam says the number of reported cases has risen because it recently implemented a stronger “safeguarding policy.” The upward trend is “in part a result of moving in the right direction,” Oxfam Executive Director Winnie Byanyima told Devex earlier this week, while also acknowledging that the organization has a long way to go.

A number of development insiders who spoke to Devex agreed, saying that while problems with sexual harassment in the aid sector have been known about for years, increased reporting is positive news.

Megan Nobert, founder of NGO Report the Abuse — which previously collected data on sexual exploitation and assault cases among female aid workers until it was forced to close due to funding problems earlier this year — said that the 87 cases investigated at Oxfam in 2016 and 2017 were still “quite low” and probably the “tip of the iceberg.” But, she added, the fact that they were reported and investigated is a “step in the right direction” for the organization.

Nobert’s own research, and that gathered by the Humanitarian Women’s Network — both of which conducted anonymous online surveys with hundreds of female aid workers — revealed that the majority of victims failed to report their experiences because they lacked confidence in their institution’s practices and policies around sexual offenses and were afraid of personal and professional reprisals.

“Without doubt Oxfam can do better, but it bothers me that an organization that has made more effort is being highlighted as the one with the problem.”

— gender-based violence expert who wished to remain anonymous

Nobert, a former aid worker who was herself raped by a colleague while on mission in South Sudan, said she hopes the revelations regarding Oxfam will be used to drive positive change within the industry.

One gender-based violence expert, who has worked for a number of INGOs and asked to remain anonymous for professional reasons, agreed. “Without doubt Oxfam can do better, but it bothers me that an organization that has made more effort is being highlighted as the one with the problem,” she said.

Dyan Mazurana, an associate research professor at Tufts University who led a recent report on sexual violence in the aid sector, pointed out that during her research, Oxfam was “universally” regarded as having the best policies around preventing and protecting aid workers, and is the only organization she knows of that publishes data on allegations against staff.

Oxfam has a confidential “whistleblowing” helpline, as well as a dedicated safeguarding team to handle cases including sexual assault and harassment.

“The number [of cases] tripling [since 2014] can be seen as a response to Oxfam having an effective mechanism in place for reporting,” Mazurana said, adding that the negative attention the charity is receiving could be “counterproductive in terms of helping women and LGBT groups” since it could reinforce a culture of silence. “We don’t want everyone battening down the hatches and reverting to eyes closed and ears plugged,” she said.

Another aid worker, who asked to remain anonymous, raised similar fears. “The fastest way to make numbers go down is to make it impossible to report,” she said

Nobert added: “I can see the conversation going down a negative rabbit hole when we need to see this as a great thing,” she said. The worst result would be a “cooling effect” with organizations opting to keep quiet about sexual assault within their ranks.  

“We don’t want that; we want to encourage transparency and turn this into a positive conversation,” she added.

“We don’t want a world of headlines, but one where there are champions throughout organizations who feel empowered to speak proactively”

— Lindsay Coates, president of NGO alliance InterAction

What next?

The U.K. Department for International Development, a major funder of Oxfam, says it takes a zero tolerance approach to sexual misconduct and is urging Oxfam to take a tough line on perpetrators.

However, Nobert said she would like to see donors do more to ensure organizations they support are protecting their staff.

“Donors should be playing a stronger role and going beyond a paper exercise and check box of saying organizations need sexual abuse and exploitation policies,” she said. This could involve applying some of the same systems already in place to monitor corruption and fraud, she said.

“Donors already have stringent measures in place to make sure money doesn’t go missing, so there’s no reason why they couldn’t do it for sexual exploitation and abuse.”

In addition, while having effective reporting mechanisms is a step in the right direction, “the real test is having an effective mechanism for response,” according to Mazurana and others.

The United Nations has been working since last year to strengthen its systems to protect aid workers from sexual harassment and assault, and set up a working group within the Inter-Agency Standing Committee to lead the work. The move came in response to data collected by the Humanitarian Women’s Network and Report the Abuse, as Devex reported.

“Donors should be playing a stronger role and going beyond a paper exercise and check box of saying organizations need sexual abuse and exploitation policies.”

— Megan Nobert, founder of NGO Report the Abuse

The president of NGO alliance InterAction, Lindsay Coates, is one of the co-champions of the IASC working group. She told Devex that the cases within Oxfam are just the start and need to be seen within a wider context of reports of “this kind of misuse of power” in the development sector, as well as in other industries.

“I think the fact that Oxfam is the first [INGO to be named] does not at all mean it’s the end of the story,” she said, adding that the case is part of “a larger cultural shift that’s happening and it’s the unfinished business of women being full partners in the workplace.”

While such attention can be useful in raising awareness about the issue, Coates said she ultimately hopes organizations, including those in the development sector, will reach a level where staff can “call out” abusive behavior “at the level where it’s actually happening.”  

“We don’t want a world of headlines, but one where there are champions throughout organizations who feel empowered to speak proactively” about the issue, she said.

Aid workers also called for tougher sanctions on perpetrators and tougher measures put in place to prevent staff from being allowed to leave their jobs before investigations are complete, something a number of those who spoke to Devex said is widely known to happen.

“I’d also like organizations to be required to document and keep records of perpetrators who resign and leave before a disciplinary process is concluded. I think there is a massive amount of this and it means there is nothing on their record about what they do,” the gender-based violence specialist told Devex.

However, for Mazurana, the fact that Oxfam has pursued seven cases against country managers is a sign of progress. Her research made clear that sexual harassment and abuse happens “at the highest levels” within aid organizations, and that getting senior leadership to change will be integral to shifting the culture.

“Good for [Oxfam] for taking a good look at the senior leadership … because what we see in our reports is it’s going on at the highest level and that’s exactly where you need to be looking,” she said.

Oxfam told Devex in a statement that of the 87 allegations reported over the 2016-17 period, 53 were referred to the police “and other services,” 33 were investigated internally and one is still pending. Of those internally investigated, 74 percent were fully upheld and resulted in disciplinary action.

When asked what disciplinary measures are available, a spokesperson said dismissal is the main option but that “in exceptional cases it could be reduced to a final written warning.”

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About the author

  • Sophie Edwards

    Sophie Edwards is a Reporter for Devex based in London covering global development news including global education, water and sanitation, innovative financing, the environment along with other topics. She has previously worked for NGOs, the World Bank and spent a number of years as a journalist for a regional newspaper in the U.K. She has an MA from the Institute of Development Studies and a BA from Cambridge University.