A woman’s shadow. Photo by: Staffan Cederborg / CC BY-SA

LONDON — The aid sector has been mired in scandal since revelations in February that Oxfam GB staff sexually exploited beneficiaries, including paying women for sex, during the humanitarian response to the 2010 earthquake in Haiti. Since then, further stories have emerged about the frequent use of sex workers by aid professionals at various organizations, alongside other cases of sexual misconduct.

Most NGOs prohibit staff from using sex workers in the field. But as accounts of aid workers trading money and other goods for sex continue to surface, questions are being asked about whether policies and even definitions of “sex work” are consistent enough across the sector. At the same time, some are asking why the use of sex workers by humanitarians should be prohibited, and if it is fair to conflate it with other forms of sexual abuse.

Devex contacted 10 nonprofits with a major humanitarian footprint, who collectively received the lion’s share of funding from the U.K. Department for International Development in 2017, to find out about their policies on staff engaging with sex workers. The NGOs were also asked for figures showing the number of staff dismissed or penalized for breaching those policies.

While almost all the organizations prohibit staff use of sex workers, only one claims to have dismissed or penalized staff for it over the past two years. The majority said they had zero dismissals or reprimands over the issue, or did not collect that data.

Earlier this week, Devex revealed that Oxfam only updated its code of conduct to ban paying for sex in February 2017, six years after the safeguarding breaches in Haiti. A spokesperson told Devex that “The previous code prohibited sex with people in direct receipt of Oxfam aid. We deeply regret that it did not also forbid paying for sex.”

“The PSEA [protection against sexual exploitation and abuse] standard in the sector, as highlighted by the UN and CHS Alliance, is one of zero tolerance for transactional sex involving aid workers … It is seen as sexual exploitation and abuse of power,” and is at odds with the mandate of most NGOs, which is to alleviate suffering and poverty, said Christine Williamson, founding director of Duty of Care International. “Transactional sex ... is perceived to be taking advantage of the very population that the NGO has come to support.”

Taking the pulse

Sex work is illegal in Haiti, where the recent media scandal over the issue first emerged. But of the 10 organizations Devex contacted, nine have policies in place expressly forbidding staff from paying for sex while working in-country regardless of local laws. Many use language taken from the U.N. secretary-general’s special measures bulletin, introduced in 2003 after the West African “sex-for-food scandal” in which staff members from a number of NGOs were reported to be using aid to exploit refugee children.

According to independent safeguarding specialist Lucy Heaven Taylor, the U.N. bulletin was a “huge moment for the humanitarian sector” and has been used by NGOs as the basis for their own codes of conduct.

It states that: “The exchange of money, employment, goods or services for sex, including sexual favours or other forms of humiliating, degrading or exploitative behaviour, is prohibited. This includes any exchange of assistance that is due to beneficiaries of assistance.”

It also “strongly discourages” sexual relationships between U.N. staff and beneficiaries “since they are based on inherently unequal power dynamics [and] undermine the credibility and integrity of the work of the United Nations.”

While many NGOs use this as the basis for their policies, Taylor said that most go further by banning relationships between staff and beneficiaries.

On top of organizational policies, DFID requires all partners to adhere to the U.N. special measures bulletin, as well as to two other documents: the Core Humanitarian Standard and the principles of the Inter-Agency Standing Committee Task Force on Preventing Sexual Exploitation and Abuse, which also prohibit sexual exploitation of beneficiaries by staff.

Despite this, only one of the humanitarian organizations surveyed by Devex said it had penalized staff over the issue in recent years.

The International Committee of the Red Cross said that since 2015, 21 staff members were either dismissed for paying for sexual services or resigned during an internal enquiry.

Of the other organizations surveyed, one acknowledged it had “some” reports of solicitation of sex workers in the field during 2017, but could not say how many; while the rest said they either had no reported cases, or could not provide the data, in several instances this information was not collected separately to general figures on sexual exploitation and abuse.

The federation model

One organization contacted by Devex — Médecins Sans Frontières, which is organized according to a “federation” model — lacks a central policy on sex workers, instead devolving policies to its regional offices. The federation approach is gaining steam in the humanitarian sector thanks to its effectiveness in empowering local and regional operations and has been adopted by a number of international NGOs in recent years, but it raises questions about how to ensure a consistent approach to safeguarding issues, including definitions of sex work or transactional sex, which may vary by country or region.

MSF said that each office or mission sets its own code of conduct. “Some of them explicitly refer to not using sex workers’ services and others don’t explicitly refer to this and refer to the broader frame of ‘sexual exploitation,’” Brienne Prusak, medical and global health press officer at MSF, told Devex.

However, resolutions of MSF’s International Council recognize “the seriousness of the issue of sexual exploitation by humanitarian workers” and require each section to “develop clear policies” on how such abuses of power can be “prevented, identified and penalized.”

Taylor said this is common among federations. “It’s actually really difficult to get agreement across a federation of agencies on a single code of conduct. Each entity will have to get it looked over by their HR staff, legal advisers, [etcetera],” she said.  

Local politics can also play a role, with countries where sex work is legal being “more likely to push back on a ban on [use of] commercial sex workers than others, as it can be seen as an infringement of an individual's right to a private life,” Taylor explained.

“A good policy is an absolute ban on transactional sex involving aid workers in aid settings.”

— Christine Williamson, founding director of Duty of Care International

Yet a more centralized policy on the issue seems possible under a federation model. A spokesperson for Oxfam, which has a newly-confederated network of 20 NGOs operating globally, said: “Our current Code of Conduct states that staff cannot ‘exchange money, offers of employment, employment, goods or services for sex or sexual favours.’”

Others said an organization-wide or even sector-wide definition and zero-tolerance policy on sex work is the only solution.

“Zero tolerance and a universal policy towards staff use of sex workers are key to both providing a safe and trusted environment and setting an organizational culture where safeguarding measures are effective,” Michael Wright, director of membership and communications at Bond, the U.K.’s network of international development NGOs, told Devex.

Williamson agreed, saying: “Good policies have good principles that apply to all their operations globally. Different policies on PSEA in different locations is confusing and sends the wrong messages. A good policy is an absolute ban on transactional sex involving aid workers in aid settings.”

Enforcing policies

Experts added that to be effective, policies must be combined with good safeguarding selection protocols such as background checks, training, trusted reporting mechanisms, robust investigations and sanctions, monitoring, evaluation, and learning.

Although several organizations reported zero cases of staff breaching policies on the use of sex workers, that doesn’t necessarily mean it isn’t happening and may point to unreliable data collection or a lack of secure routes for reporting violations.

“We believe that it likely occurs more often than we are aware of and therefore [need to] take action,” a Mercy Corps spokesperson told Devex. “We recognise that such activity can be some of the most difficult for organizations to monitor and detect, and increasing awareness around our global integrity hotline is an ongoing priority,” she said.

MSF’s Prusak said, “the data we have will not be complete because cases dealt with at the field level will not necessarily have been reported to headquarters and included in centralized figures.”

Prusak added that there were 146 grievances related to sexual misconduct reported from the field directly to headquarters in 2017, which included “some cases” of the solicitation of sex workers, but that specifying the number of figures “could lead to the identification of individuals and/or undermine trust in the confidentiality of our processes.”

According to Taylor, there is often a lack of information because very few aid organizations were systematically collecting this kind of data prior to the Oxfam Haiti scandal.

“Organizations didn’t have the resources to really do case management. It’s not that the cases were not being reported and dealt with, they just weren’t being systematically reported to statutory bodies,” Taylor said, adding that the U.K.’s charity regulator, the Charity Commission, did not give a breakdown on what kind of cases to report prior to last year. The guidance was updated in 2017 to include more detail on what kinds of incidents need to be reported, including “suspicions, allegations or incidents of abuse involving beneficiaries.”

Why prohibit use of sex workers?

There is still some debate over whether sex work is always exploitative. Last week’s report on sexual abuse in the aid sector from the U.K. Parliament’s International Development Committee noted a “growing consensus” that “the use of prostitutes [by aid workers] constitutes sexual exploitation and abuse,” although “not everyone who works in the sector agrees.”

Some have raised questions about the frequent conflation of transactional sex with sexual abuse in coverage of recent scandals, arguing that not all sex workers see themselves as “victims.”

Others, including Dorothea Hilhorst, professor of humanitarian aid and reconstruction at Erasmus University Rotterdam, go further and argue that transactional sex is a legitimate means of survival in humanitarian crises, and that humanitarian actors should recognize it as such.  Doing so could help alleviate some of the associated risks, including sexual violence, stigma, and health issues, Hilhorst argues.

“In the vast majority of cases of sex work, especially in humanitarian contexts and in situations of poverty, consent is far from freely given and is out of desperation, or coercion.”

— spokesperson for CARE International

But many disagree. A humanitarian aid professional working in the field for one of the organizations surveyed, who asked to remain anonymous as they weren’t authorized to speak on behalf of the organization, told Devex: “There is also a substantial ‘blur’ between who constitutes a beneficiary in these contexts. If you're working in livelihoods, health, gender, education, [etcetera], who is to say that the sex worker does not fall within that target group?”

In that case, even with a flexible policy on the use of sex workers, aid professionals could be violating other policies on interactions with current or potential beneficiaries.

The answer, the aid professional suggested, was an organization-wide “zero-tolerance” policy, with reporting and reprimands managed by headquarters, followed by a country-by-country definition of sex work, and less dependence on donor policies as safety nets.

“Donor policies often tend to be blanket statements that are rarely adhered to,” they said. “The policy, just like staff conduct policies generally, should be country-to-country in terms of definitions (what constitutes what), supported by a strong zero tolerance policy at HQ level.”

Other safeguarding experts Devex interviewed pointed to the dramatic power imbalance between deliverers and recipients of aid, and the risk of exploitation that comes with that. They also mentioned the difficulty in determining whether the person selling sex could be a victim of trafficking or other forms of coercion, and said that a ban on transactional sex minimized the risk of any exploitation. 

“In the vast majority of cases of sex work, especially in humanitarian contexts and in situations of poverty, consent is far from freely given and is out of desperation, or coercion,” a spokesperson for CARE International explained.

About the authors

  • Molly Anders

    Molly Anders is a former U.K. correspondent for Devex. Based in London, she reports on development finance trends with a focus on British and European institutions. She is especially interested in evidence-based development and women’s economic empowerment, as well as innovative financing for the protection of migrants and refugees. Molly is a former Fulbright Scholar and studied Arabic in Syria, Jordan, Egypt and Morocco.
  • 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.