#AidToo: How development organizations can respond to sexual violence

Devex hosted the #AidToo Twitter chat on Dec. 6.

The #MeToo movement has sparked global action against sexual violence across entertainment, media and politics. Now, the aid industry — where 86 percent of employees know a colleague who has experienced work-related sexual harassment or assault — is finding itself in the spotlight.

As part of our investigation into sexual violence in global development, Devex launched #AidToo, a digital conversation about the breadth of — and solutions to — sexual harassment and assault in our industry.

Last week, we hosted a conversation on Twitter that both explored how development organizations should respond to sexual violence — and highlighted the policies that can prevent it from happening in the first place.

Here’s what we learned:

Q1: What is the one piece of advice you would give to agency/org leadership about handling sexual violence in aid? 

Megan Nobert, Report the Abuse: One piece of advice: Put the right people in the right roles. Investigators and security personnel being implicated in #SEA and #sexualviolence against aid workers. Proper and thorough recruitment is key! #AidToo @devex @dutyofcareint

Jennifer Lentfer, 1000 Currents: First step, SO simple. We jump to policies because that's what our sector is good at. But HERE IT IS: Believe the accuser.

Patricia McIllreavy, InterAction: Trainings must be part and parcel of a strong and robust organizational approach that includes victim reporting, appropriately managed investigations and accountability of perpetrators. Anything less is window dressing.

Q2: The globaldev industry faces unique challenges in responding to sexual violence against aid workers. What are they?

PCI Global: Aid workers operate in places where the cultural, gender and sexual norms are very different from the U.S., as are the legal structures. They are far from traditional support systems and working in places where they’re on the edge of life, which can be very stressful. #AidToo

KonTerra Group: When degrading behaviors towards any population are normative, organizations must face the unique challenge of upholding employees, including nationally hired staff, to human rights standards established by the organization. #AidToo

Joe Read, CARE: We have difficulty in addressing staff safety and welfare outside of security management in the #humanitarian sector. So much of the troubling behaviour of perpetrators is ignored/masked because broader staff welfare issues are ignored if they take place outside of the office.

Q3: How can organizations counter these unique challenges?

GBCHealth: Developing an internal response mechanism can help ensure that the victim is supported. Neglect and failure to take the incident seriously puts everyone at risk. #AidToo

Joe Read, CARE: Hiring competent security managers who are fit for purpose: Time to rethink core competencies for security in the sector and include sexual violence in security training action plans. Zero tolerance for sexism and harassment towards inside the organisation. #AidToo @devex

KonTerra Group: Policies on sexual violence must be appropriately disseminated and socialized among managers and staff. It is critical that staff know to whom they may go to report instances of sexual violence and what the process entails. #AidToo

Megan Nobert, Report the Abuse: Policies that are as easily understood at the field level as HQ is also important. If the cleaner cannot understand their rights and responsibilities as well as the CEO, then who are we working for? Who are we protecting? Safe working environments are for everyone. #AidToo

Q4: What are best practices to responding to allegations?

Feinstein Center: Important to remember that multiple reporting channels (rather than singularly centralized ones) are essential. #AidToo

EISF: It is important that survivors can report incidents via channels they are most comfortable with and are sensitive to their experiences. #AidToo

Patricia McIlreavy, InterAction: Believe the victim. Investigate, as independently and effectively as possible. Provide appropriate duty of care for survivor. Stop impunity and excuses. Do all within your organization's power to punish perpetrator and force out of aid industry. #AidToo @devex 

KonTerra Group: Policies and practices on how confidentiality and privacy are handled need to be crystal clear so that survivors can make informed choices about how and to whom they report. #AidToo

KonTerra Group: Offering mental health support in the aftermath of an assault should be a standard operating procedure and should be provided by experts with experience in supporting survivors of sexual violence. #AidToo

Q5: How do you make an environment conducive to reporting? 

PCI Global: People have to trust that their identity won’t be leaked and that they’ll be received with understanding, empathy and services. You have to offer a safe, nonjudgmental space where people can receive trauma-informed care. That includes counseling and medical support. #AidToo

Megan Nobert, Report the Abuse: The smallest word, the slight showing of empathy, it can have a strong impact on the healing process. Dignity, respect, and kindness should be the status quo. So should believing survivors. #AidToo @devex

Patricia McIlreavy, InterAction: Too often sexual violence is the hidden embarrassment of security. Orgs must have better training, stronger analysis & openness re sexual violence risks. We must build trust by shining a light on its existence, stop it from happening & support those who come forward. #AidToo

Q6: Many organizational policies focus only on the aftermath of assault. What can we do to bring a focus on prevention?

KonTerra Group: Bystander intervention training can contribute to 1) creating a culture where there is shared responsibility for the safety of all staff and 2) providing practical skills to interrupt imminent assaults. #AidToo

Nanci Hogan, Thrive Worldwide: Developing an organisational culture with strong norms and modelling of norms of respect for individuals and zero tolerance of sexual harassment/violence.  Modelling of healthy team dynamics by team leaders.

Megan Nobert, Report the Abuse: It starts with recruitment. Better background checks and references. Stop the deluge of serial perpetrators floating around the humanitarian system, for starts. Focus on cleaning house and stopping impunity from thriving. #AidToo @devex

Joe Read, CARE: Absolutely. To do this we need reporting across organisations (NGO/UN/donor) so that the perpetrator's employer has documentation of complaints/incidents, e.g. we can't rely solely on allies in UN to report abuse by their colleagues, NGO staff need access to report. #AidToo @devex

Q7: What does strong sexual violence prevention policy look like in international development?

Patricia McIlreavy, InterAction: Sexual violence prevention policy = training requirements for all staff, including personnel understanding and retention, performance appraisals of management includes management of incidents, allows for direct reporting by field personnel to outside line management. #AidToo

Megan Nobert, Report the Abuse: This conversation cannot be contained to just online conversations and back-room ideals. It must be front and centre to how humanitarian organisations operate and put themselves out to the world. We cannot do good programming if we are not operating accountably. #AidToo @devex

Feinstein Center: Must also consider the complicated webs of power (and relationships and livelihoods concerns and reporting disincentives) local staff face.  #AidToo cannot just be a conversation about international aid workers.

Q8: How can aid agencies make preventing and responding to sexual violence a priority?

Tina Musoke, UN Foundation: Accept that it happens and actually be committed to taking concrete action, regardless of who the perpetrator is. I think #MeToo has shown that and #AidToo needs to do the same.

Quantum Impact: #AidToo agencies can make preventing and responding to sexual violence a priority by coming together and committing resources to a coordinated plan of action and a #zerotolerancepolicy!

Patricia McIlreavy, InterAction: Prioritize it by talking about it and being prepared to take action. Have open discussions within your organization — via different mediums — on the #MeToo movement. Be prepared, the stories will come out. Then be brave and do the right thing by the survivor. #AidToo @devex

KonTerra Group: Start Now! Recognize that you do have survivors and perpetrators in your organization. This is not a future problem. You just may not know the current scope of it within your organization. #AidToo

Read more Devex coverage on aid worker security.

About the authors

  • Kate Midden

    Kate Midden is Devex's Engagement Editor. She oversees media partnerships, online events, social media, and Devex’s global opinions section. In the past, she has served as a press officer with USAID's Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance, overseen media relations for the Center for Global Development, and managed consumer PR and crisis communications for Kaiser Permanente. She started her career as a radio producer for Chicago NPR affiliate WBEZ.
  • Sumedha Deshmukh

    Sumedha Deshmukh is an former associate content producer at Devex. Prior to her time at Devex, she received her master’s of public policy from the University of Virginia and worked in federal consulting.