Beyond the "humanitarian #MeToo moment," the real crisis is one of power and trust

by Yves Daccord | https://twitter.com/ydaccordicrc | International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) - Switzerland
Monday, 23 April 2018 13:11 GMT

A Palestinian refugee woman waits to receive aid at a United Nations food distribution center in Al-Shati refugee camp in Gaza City January 15, 2018. REUTERS/Mohammed Salem

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Changing organisational culture and attitudes is the crux of the matter

Media revelations earlier this year of a catalogue of sexual misconduct by staff at humanitarian organisations - against vulnerable people affected by crisis and against other staff - were met with shock, not only by the public but seemingly by much of the aid sector itself. A rash of public apologies, resignations and reviews ensued.

Since then, the media has largely fallen quiet and one might be forgiven for at least asking the question of whether the issue has - once again - simply been swept under the carpet.

After all, the problem of sexual exploitation and abuse in the aid sector is nothing new. There have been repeated warnings over the years. A 2002 report by UNHCR and SCF-UK was a damning indictment of sexual exploitation of refugee children in West Africa by aid workers, peacekeepers and community leaders. Six years later, reports by Save the Children and Humanitarian Accountability Partnership International showed that this type of abuse was continuing and was under-reported. And notwithstanding wordy initiatives such as the 2014 Inter-Agency Standing Committee Task Team on Accountability to Affected Populations and Protection from Sexual Exploitation and Abuse, little appears to have changed.

So, are things any different this time round? And what will it take to ensure real and lasting change, namely behavioural change and an end to impunity?

Personally, I’m convinced that things are different this time. Just as in the wider #MeToo #TimesUp movement, the demand for change is coming from affected people themselves - both within humanitarian organisations and those supposedly served by them - as well as from donors, politicians and the general public. The convergence of these outraged voices has created a momentum that is unstoppable, one that will force change and end the culture of silence once and for all.

All humanitarian organisations are concerned and all are seeking solutions. While procedural change is one aspect that needs to be looked at, no amount of procedures, policies, codes of conduct or certification will in themselves solve the problem.

Changing organisational culture and attitudes is the crux of the matter. There must be a fundamental shift in norms. This may take longer to achieve but until it is, misconduct and abuse will continue unabated.

Moreover, the “Humanitarian #MeToo #AidToo #TimesUp” movement goes beyond the issue of sexual misconduct. It strikes at the heart of power imbalances in the aid sector (as in many other sectors of society): between men and women; between managers and staff; between international and local actors; and - crucially - between humanitarian workers and vulnerable people affected by crisis

Clearly, we need to create meaningful change to power structures; to be seen to actually enforce codes of conduct and procedures; and to build an environment of integrity, respect and trust. Of course, we need to ensure a culture where people feel safe to speak out; where there is zero tolerance for abuse of any kind; where allegations are taken seriously and accountability by perpetrators is assured. Strong leadership and management is one important aspect of this.

But we need to go further than this. The time is now for long-term thinking and transformative change - to walk the talk not only with regard to ensuring accountability for sexual abuse and exploitation but more broadly with regard to achieving gender equality and real accountability to the people we aim to protect and assist.

As humanitarians, we must be honest and go beyond the rhetoric of “people-centred response” to give crisis-affected people a genuine stake in the response to their needs. It is not enough to simply enable affected people to better express their needs; we need to have the capacity to act on this in a relevant and effective way and to ensure that information we receive actually influences decision-making. We need to invest in partnerships that will help us to achieve these goals. 

Humanitarian organisations are now faced with a basic choice: genuinely embrace and implement necessary change, or forgo any credible, relevant role in future humanitarian response. Crisis-affected people and communities - well informed, connected and empowered through easy access to technology - are already increasingly determining what that future looks like.

In an environment where trust is a rare commodity, we as humanitarians will need to continuously prove our worth and live up to our promises – not only if we want to be taken seriously, but if we want to survive at all. The onus is on us.

Yves Daccord is Director-General of the International Committee of the Red Cross in Geneva.