Irish aid workers on sex abuse: ‘Head office is a long way away’

Misconduct like that practised by Oxfam staff in Haiti is widespread in the sector, say aid workers

When you’re working in a war zone or after a natural disaster, emotions can run high, says one Irish UN worker with long experience in the aid sector. “There’s lots of excitement, lots of alcohol and no real structure. Head office is a long way away,” he says, and some people give little thought to long-term repercussions.

This UN worker, who spent time in Haiti in the immediate aftermath of the 2010 earthquake, says he was initially shocked by this week's allegations that the Oxfam charity's country director Roland van Hauwermeiren was holding "sex parties" with prostitutes in the midst of an unprecedented national crisis.

He was less surprised when he read that van Hauwermeiren had allegedly previously lost his job with another charity because of his involvement with sex workers in Liberia in 2004. (Van Hauwermeiren has denied paying for prostitutes in Haiti. He admits he had made mistakes but accuses the media of lies and exaggerations in reports that he hosted sex parties at his official villa in Haiti. He also denies similar allegations relating to Liberia.)

“This is an old boys and old girls network. If someone has been found guilty of an offence they shouldn’t be allowed anywhere near children or the field. They should never work for an international organisation again.


"But NGOs need skilled staff, and unfortunately these people are protected by the institution. Not many people in their 40s want to go into managerial positions in places like South Sudan; it can be hard to get people for these jobs.

“They can be redeployed somewhere else, or if they deny the allegations they can resign and then they pop up somewhere else in the world. This conversation needs to be happening at senior level. Middle-aged men and women have to look each other in the eye and say, ‘I know what you did.’”

Sexual harassment claims in the humanitarian sector are not new, as any aid worker can tell you. It doesn’t matter where in the world they work, most people employed by a non-governmental organisation (NGO) will at some point have witnessed or experienced some form of harassment or abuse.

Aid workers who spoke to The Irish Times this week in the wake of the Oxfam revelations are quick to point out that this behaviour is not specific to the humanitarian sector. Abuse – physical and mental – perpetrated by people in positions of power towards the young and vulnerable is rife across all professions.

Yet when we speak of abuse among aid workers it takes on a new dimension because these are the people hired to provide guidance, support and care for the most vulnerable people on earth.

“Strong charismatic leaders of aid organisations” who abuse their position of power by misleading local people are also a problem in aid agencies, says the same UN employee. “They’re using people who may think that having sex will help them get a job, extra aid or priority treatment for their family. They envisage having a better life with more food and a shiny house.”

‘Going to extremes’

Non-consensual sex between staff members is also a problem, particularly among younger aid workers living in the close confines of a compound and can end up “going to extremes”, he adds.

A younger Irish aid worker based in the Middle East says there are two types of sexual abuse taking place within the sector. “One is the abuse against beneficiaries – the people’s we’re serving – and then there’s the abuse within the organisations.

“And it’s all tied into the same structural weaknesses, that we’re really bad at staff care, staff management and how to handle it when people cross ethical lines.”

“People are at their most vulnerable if they speak out against somebody in power. I’ve definitely seen examples of people having nowhere to turn to when their complaints aren’t taken seriously. A lot of the time you just have to suck it up if you’re mistreated.”

This aid worker once attended a conference where prostitutes were hired to come to the hotel at night. “A few people were vociferous over this, and the person involved should have been fired. But that person was perceived by the country director as too valuable to get rid of.

“We’re consistently under-resourced, whether it’s budget or staffing. You’re working in a state of crisis, and it’s exhausting. That’s why burnout is a big thing and why it can be so frustrating for people when they’re mistreated.”

Will Holden, managing director of an emergency logistics team in Iraq, says the lack of adequate training for managerial staff working in the sector means people are not prepared to deal with claims of sexual harassment and abuse.

“The humanitarian world is years behind what would be considered the HR norm in the commercial world. People are ending up in management positions without training, so when they come across situations of bullying or harassment they’re completely unprepared.”

Given the enormous diversity within the sector, Holden says it’s almost impossible to come up with a cross-sector strategy to deal with complaints of abuse. “People look at the NGO community as one homogenous group. But it’s not; it’s completely disparate. You’ve got the UN organisations who are like big governments with their own accords. Then you’ve got the larger NGOs who do make efforts in modern HR practices. Then there’s a whole range of middle-sized NGOs who spend most of the day chasing funds and then you’ve got the small ones who have no time to do anything on good governance.”

Holden agrees that senior management officials accused of harassment are often quietly redeployed to a different posting in a new country. “It’s similar to the church and how they tried to cover up the actions of a few monsters by moving them from one place to another and never actually dealing with the problem. I’ve seen this regularly, not just in sexual harassment cases but with general staff bullying.”

A senior programme director working in southeast Asia, who has also spent time working in Haiti and is originally from Ireland, says Oxfam was seen as "the organisation with the gold standard for integrity".

He was shocked to read that the sexual misconduct in the Oxfam case was carried out by a programme director, the person who is sent out to country to “set the standards” for other employees.

“The country director has an extraordinary influence. You have to be the steadying hand and make sure the office is a safe place to work in. Normally when there is abuse of power and harassment, the country director puts an end to it. The country director is seen as a god in the chaos of an NGO.”

Moral compass

This Irish programme manager says people working in an extreme overseas environment often “adjust their moral compass to the local environment”. “Certainly in the light of that stress and loneliness you do engage in relationships that you wouldn’t engage with at home. But that doesn’t take away from the shock of what I read about in Haiti.”

Janet Horner, a former aid worker, worries that the Oxfam allegations could affect the sector as a whole and the important work carried out by the vast majority of aid workers. However, she also feels additional resources and training are urgently needed to equip people with the tools to deal with allegations of sexual harassment.

The Irish Times contacted 10 Irish aid charities asking if they were aware of any reports or incidents of sexual misconduct among their employees working overseas since 2010.

Trócaire confirmed it had dismissed a member of staff working in one of its overseas offices in Africa, following a complaint of sexual misconduct in 2016. The employee, who was hired from the local area and was of African nationality, was dismissed following an internal investigation.

A spokesman for Trócaire said the charity was “fully co-operating with the police investigation”.

Research by Canada’s Report the Abuse group last year revealed 87 per cent of aid workers surveyed from around the world knew a colleague who had experienced sexual violence in the course of their humanitarian work, and only 17 per cent said they were happy with how their organisation dealt with the problem. These findings didn’t provoke the necessary impetus to address these gaps in training and support, says Horner.

“The prevalence of this issue has been known for a long time; it’s well known that it’s been happening. But it’s very difficult territory to wade into.”

Imogen Wall, an independent aid worker who runs an online social media support group for people working with NGOs, says the problem of sexual harassment is “a systemic problem” across the entire sector.

“Everyone is hanging Oxfam out to dry, but actually it’s all agencies who have this problem to some extent because we are a sector that works with vulnerable people. Any sector that works with the most vulnerable is going to attract one or two dangerous people who want to abuse others. It’s not a new phenomenon.”

Wall, who has witnessed “sexual predators” in the aid sector at first hand, initially set up her online support group as an outlet for aid workers, past and present, to vent about their frustrations of the job. She was shocked when in 2015 an avalanche of stories began pouring into the group after one member said they had been sexually harassed in work.

Remote places

“We hear from a lot of people stationed in remote places who are stuck and don’t know who to turn to. They might be working on a small team and sharing accommodation with the perpetrator. Sometimes the perpetrator is the person responsible for your safety.

“You’ve got to phone someone in an office far away not knowing if they’ll take you seriously. Many people are scared and just stay silent.”

When Megan Nobert spoke publicly in 2015 of how she was drugged and raped by a fellow employee during a humanitarian mission in South Sudan, Wall hoped the international aid community would finally begin acknowledging the allegations of sexual abuse across the sector.

Nobert’s horrific story did not change the system, she says, but maybe the Oxfam allegations will. “Now they’re finally being forced to talk about it. I hope the combination of media pressure, public reaction and the reaction of the donors will mean they’ve got no choice now. It’s the only way they can regain the trust they need to continue to receive people’s support.”

– Additional reporting: Jack Power