The War on the Aid Industry: The Most Vulnerable Could Bear The Consequences
By Michael Bociurkiw
The recent allegations of sexual misconduct among aid workers is shaking the aid industry to its core.
The daily barrage of allegations, emanating from Haiti to Chad to CAR, could very well be the biggest crisis the aid industry has encountered in modern times. And unless it is able to come up quickly with an industry-wide emergency response plan crucial, life-saving programs in the field will suffer from forced budget cuts.
While the scandal isn’t expected to deliver a mortal blow for Oxfam, where the current round of allegations started - and one of the world’s best-know aid agencies, with operations in some 60 countries - damage control will require several further resignations at the top. The days of its off-message UK chief executive are probably numbered. Already, its deputy chief, Penny Lawrence, has been forced to resign. This week, Oxfam's longtime celebrity ambassador, actress Minnie Driver, has stood down, followed by the resignation of Archbishop Desmond Tutu as goodwill ambassador.
Meanwhile, other aid agencies - from UNICEF to Save the Children - are bracing for further fallout, including erosion of public confidence in the sector and plummeting donations.
Threat of funding cuts couldn’t come at a worse time for a sector which is reeling from funding appeal shortfalls caused in part from an unprecedented number of simultaneous man-made and natural disasters. (Since the start of the year, citing lack of funding, the UN’s World Food Program has been forced to cease operations in eastern Ukraine and withdraw emergency nutritional assistance to 250,000 kindergarten children in North Korea).
Without an effective humanitarian system, things would be a lot worse than they are now. As an example, humanitarian actors are reaching over 7.5 million Syrians around the war-torn country every month.
Still, the bad publicity is spreading like wildfire, and morphing into a war on foreign aid. Few aid agencies have a crisis communications play book ready to deal with something on such a massive scale. Brand names that took decades to build into powerful, global icons are desperately on the watch for new allegations to surface.
The Times article, using what can best be described as creative math - includes allegations by Andrew MacLeod, a self-described “humanitarian businessman,” that UN staff are “responsible” for 60,000 rapes in a decade. The article includes a photo of the iconic UNICEF logo and suggests wearing a UNICEF t-shirt gave staff the license to act with impunity.
The Guardian article - citing an investigative TV program in Sweden - claims UNICEF failed to provide support to some of the child victims of alleged sexual abuse in the Central African Republic (CAR).
More sensational headlines are bound to come, further shaking public confidence in the overall aid industry: a forthcoming special report by the UN Secretary General on the protection of children from sexual exploitation and abuse will include eight cases related to UNICEF. I am told three are already closed, one is pending investigation and four involve implementing partners.
When it come to inappropriate behavior in the field most aid organizations simply do not have the mechanisms available to provide meaningful surveillance or to deal with abuse allegations internally. And when allegations of sexual impropriety are raised the response often lacks resolve. For instance one senior UN international aid worker told me that when her male colleagues in one war-torn African country were called out for hiring prostitutes in staff housing the response was met with an awareness campaign involving posters.
Whether legitimate or not, the news of the scandals points to several challenges facing aid agencies that operate far-flung global operations. Many field offices have poor or little oversight, especially in difficult to access conflict zones. Occasional visits to the field by country representatives, regional directors and even aid agency chief executives can hardly be called oversight.
Former colleagues reminded me that the situation can get especially dicey in so-called non-family duty stations where conditions do not allow for international staff to be accompanied by their spouses or children. The lack of structure and family - coupled with the daily stress from difficult working conditions - can trigger inappropriate behavior.
More intensive vetting of staff is a good starting point for beleaguered aid agencies accused of turning a blind eye to sexual exploitation. However few people volunteer on their resumes that they are sexual predators or have worked for the Russian spy agency. Requiring recruits to sign tough code of conduct documents, while laudable, is not a fail safe mechanism for employees or consultants hell-bent on getting their joys.
The UN Secretary-General needs to demand from members states that are major contributors to UN peacekeeping operations - where sexual abuse seems to occur on an almost epidemic scale - extreme vetting of their men and women in uniform. They also need to commit to a zero-tolerance policy towards sexual abuse or exploitation, and ensure that blacklisted individuals are never deployed again.
To be sure, the blood-letting triggered but the Oxfam scandal will divert the attention of major aid agencies for weeks or even months to come. Damage-management-by-press-release wont work this time - it’s like defending yourself from a charging elephant with a fly swatter.
Changing public perceptions that aid workers are over-paid exploiters rather than principled professionals will take a proactive, Herculean effort, involving the coordinated efforts of several agencies that are normally at odds at each other for increasingly scarce donations.
Goodwill ambassadors, especially those who travel to the field frequently, should be summoned from the red carpet to talk up impactful aid projects that they’ve stress-tested with their very own eyes. An emergency meeting on the scale of the 2016 World Humanitarian Summit would also send a signal that the sector is tackling the problem with gusto.
While it isn’t too late to prevent a massive further decline in public confidence in the sector, the longer aid agencies wait to convince donors that they are taking the allegations seriously the harder it will be to save their programs and emergency interventions from unfortunate cuts.
As one longtime UNICEF communications professional said: "The big losers in all this, as the donations and funds dry up are the very people who need it most - the beneficiaries of all those aid programmes."
In the end it could be the most vulnerable who bear the harshest consequences.