The aid sector must enforce standards, rebuild trust to survive abuse scandals

by Anabel Cruz | CIVICUS
Friday, 23 March 2018 11:30 GMT

People walk past an Oxfam sign in Corail, a camp for people displaced after 2010 earthquake, on the outskirts of Port-au-Prince, Haiti, February 16, 2018. REUTERS/Andres Martinez Casares

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Critics are using the recent scandals to delegitimise aid and humanitarian efforts. We, in civil society, must all be prepared to have this debate - seriously and honestly

For most humanitarian workers, the mission to help vulnerable communities in crisis conditions, through relationships built on trust and empowerment, is nothing if not challenging.

So, when news headlines scream about aid officials sexually exploiting earthquake victims - as the headlines that sent shockwaves through the aid world and sparked widespread public outrage did recently - that mission becomes near impossible.

Sexual exploitation and abuse is utterly reprehensible and must be condemned outright and fully investigated. But when it is perpetrated by aid workers — against people made vulnerable by disaster or conflict who they have been sent to help — and then swept under the carpet by aid officials, it is also a despicable betrayal.

The latest scandals involve specific organisations but the damage cuts across the whole of civil society. Our stakeholders´ trust is severely harmed. And the tireless efforts of thousands if not millions of humanitarian volunteers and aid workers who toil ethically in difficult conditions are completely undermined.

Critics are using the recent scandals to delegitimise aid and humanitarian efforts. We, in civil society, must all be prepared to have this debate - seriously and honestly.

Why are these incidents happening? Information emerging points to a clear culture of abuse of power in environments where there is vulnerability and in relationships that already imply an imbalance of power. So, these behaviours happen for cultural reasons linked to deeply rooted factors such as machismo, a ‘white saviour’ complex among some aid workers and local historical power dynamics — all factors we need to address and work to change.

This is also clearly organisational failure in safeguarding. We have already begun to hear renewed calls for new standards or codes of conduct. But excellent national and international standards, codes of conduct and policies already exist. They need to be implemented. Giving voice to historically neglected communities, so as to empower them to hold us accountable, are key factors in the implementation process.

The revelations have far-reaching implications not only for our relationship with those who participate in our programmes but also with those who support us as well.

Already, some major donors have begun talking about taking more stringent measures in response to the scarring, high-profile abuses.

There is fear among civil society organisations (CSOs) that the donor community might introduce more complex grant-making processes and greater bureaucratic hurdles - meaning more paperwork and longer processing periods for grants, which will potentially demand greater resources from organisations, many of which are already struggling with strained resources. But will this truly impact on the exploitative practices of people with power working with vulnerable populations? We don’t know that it will.

Indeed, increased paperwork and reporting checks will not necessarily help eradicate the imbalances and culture of impunity that exist. There is also a call to disburse donor funding directly to local communities and beneficiaries in the developing world rather than to intermediary organisations to help correct power imbalances. But this is not likely the answer either. International aid and humanitarian organisations have a crucial role to play and their work and expressions of solidarity should not be undermined. Urgent reform is absolutely needed but it’s a mission that is the responsibility of organisations along with private and public donors.

So, what can be done to rebuild public trust? Firstly, civil society needs to identify and condemn these practices where they occur, commit to fully investigate them and ensure that justice is served. CSOs need to do a better job of standards enforcement. But beyond this, we need to do more to address those power imbalances that allow for abuses to happen.

If donors are truly concerned about such excesses and abusive practices by representatives of the organisations they fund, then they need to guard against a response that will ultimately undermine the organisations and programmes they are committed to supporting. They need to ask whether new requirements are effectively implemented to help prevent such practices.

Local communities that receive aid have to hold CSOs accountable for our actions. And they need to be empowered to do so — a goal organisations need to work at by being more critical of the imbalances they encounter.

The 2018 State of Civil Society Report, recently published by global civil society alliance, CIVICUS, highlights the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements, which have positively shone a spotlight on patriarchy and sexual abuse in the entertainment, corporate and political worlds. This crisis is now a Time’s Up moment for the aid and development world, offering an opportunity to correct imbalances and forge stronger links to our roots and to the people that we profess to serve.

Anabel Cruz is Chair of the Board of global civil society alliance, CIVICUS