This statement could sound weird, but thinking again: how many times have we heard this « Oh, you work for an NGO? What you do is really great, I admire you… ». It sometimes sounds like any person working in this sector has qualities of goodness, empathy and a spirit of sacrifice.
Obviously, the world would be a better place if all humanitarian workers were purely altruistic, and always behaved in a professional, honest and consistent way. But this is not the case, and each person that starts working in this field probably does it for a different reason.
In the same way that not every school teacher loves children, and not every doctor chooses their career out of love for their fellow man; here also, all kinds of people are represented. There are truly wonderful people, awful ones, and the majority of us somewhere in the middle, moving up and down the scale, depending on the circumstances.
The fact that despicable people are present in the sector of international aid is a fact that should not surprise, or shock anyone. As a matter of fact, we have to admit we were not surprised by the recent scandal around sexual abuse in Haiti.
What should shock us is to think that there are organisations which, knowing what was happening, simply chose to look away.
But who are we to throw the first stone?
It has to be said: During our years on the field in different contexts and for various organisations, we were witness to numerous situations that, with hindsight, make us ask ourselves why we did not denounce them loud and clear.
It’s time for self-criticism; a useful exercise for all organisations and their staff. Because acknowledging we made a mistake is the only way to be sure we do not do it again.
Why didn’t we denounce more strongly the director of an organisation supporting minors without a family who maintained a relationship with one of her protégés? Why didn’t we go higher when no one seemed to take seriously the fact that one of our expatriate colleagues was hitting his brand new African wife, in the common house? Why did we not report our colleagues that were going to « catch some » in that bar, mostly frequented by young and penniless girls, ready to do almost anything in exchange for gifts?
Maybe because these things occur when we’re far away from home, when we’re disorientated, under pressure, in situations that are often extreme, and we sometimes share houses with the people we work with; maybe because we often have enormous responsibilities, and that projects that can make a vital difference for many people depend on our decisions; so it sometimes happens that perceptions change, and that things are no longer so clear. We start putting things into perspective, and wondering whether it’ really useful to report them. And we end up normalizing things that are not normal. And looking for excuses: After all, maybe it’s not that bad, or that important if relations of power exist…. And we end up shutting up. Too often.
We apologize for remaining silent too often. And we denounce all the other times that the things we saw were so bad that we could not remain silent, and that when we told them to the head office, the NGO looked away, scared of scandal, of losing vital resources… It’s the same old story.
“We denounce all the other times that the things we saw were so bad that we could not remain silent, and that when we told them to the head office, the NGO looked away”.
So we apologize, and we hope that organisations will be able to react responsibly in the current trend to speak up. We can’t judge all NGOs based on a few cases, nor can we judge all humanitarians based on the actions of a few, but if we are not able to face reality, we’ll never change.
So what can we do?
This is no small task, but it seems to us some principles are rather easy to implement:
- Education: In specialized training, but also in the diverse pre departure briefings and in any recruitment, expatriate or national. We shouldn’t be scared of specifying what is not acceptable – the debate around interfering in employees’ private life sounds unproductive to us, no one was ever forbidden a love story – we personally know many children born from them! But does an expatriate, only employer in the region, who changes his « fiancée » every week in exchange for gifts, need to be disciplined? In our opinion, it’s a clear yes.
- Charters: I remember having been naively quite surprised a few years ago, in a job interview when I was an expatriate, by questions surrounding prostitution (« what would you do if you saw your colleague’s car in front of a prostitutes’ bar? »), and again for a child protection organisation, by a systematic second interview with a psychologist after the organisation discovered a child prostitution network created by one of their own expatriates. There are different possibilities, it’s up to each organisation to find the one corresponding to the way it functions, and a formalized system (charter or else) will help greatly in instances of reporting inappropriate conduct.
- A clear and accessible system of reporting. Be aware of the dramatic responses that will inevitably follow this new scandal, and of the internal commissions writing reports that no one will ever read. At the very least, each case being reported must be studied, and external enquiries commissioned for the most serious cases.
- It is the organisations’ responsibility to go through a rigorous recruitment process, even in an emergency, including a thorough reference check. The person employed by Oxfam easily found work in another NGO, even after his references were checked. This is not about enquiring into an employee’s private life, but it does seem astounding how fast people can get back into the sector, even after a dismissal or forced resignation for misconduct.
- And of course, more globally, it’s all about transparency: The sector survived several other scandals. MSF instantly published the data around similar stories within its organisation, and came out of it with honours. The audience and the donors are not idiots, and do not mix everything. When we make a donation to an NGO, we make it to one that inspires our trust, not because they present shiny reports, but because they are honest about the challenges they meet: and because we have seen them from within for so long, we know well that it’s impossible for everything to always run smoothly.