Sexual exploitation and abuse in the aid sector Contents

12Organisational culture

217.The evidence we received suggests that there can exist within aid organisations a culture which provides fertile grounds for sexual harassment and abuse against aid workers. Research by Professor Mazurana and Phoebe Donnelly points to sexual harassment and abuse in contexts where:

a sexist, homophobic work atmosphere exists (including in housing compounds) and senior management does not stop it; a macho form of masculinity dominates the humanitarian relief space; recreational use of drugs and alcohol occurs; high levels of conflict- and non-conflict-related violence against local civilian women exist; armed conflict is on-going; and rule of law is weak or non-existent.360

218.Kevin Watkins told us that the challenging context in which aid workers are operating has sometimes been used an excuse for unacceptable behaviour:

I have seen it argued that, if you work in a difficult and dangerous place, you should somehow be subjected to a different set of rules and that the standards should be lower. There is only one rule that should apply to our mission and to our organisation, and that is that you treat other people as you would expect to be treated yourself.361

More widely, Professor Mazurana and Ms Donnelly identify the environmental factors that contribute to sexual harassment and abuse as:

(1) the male domination of power, space, and decision-making in aid agencies; (2) a “macho” environment, where males with power (through positions of authority or weapons, in the case of security officers) foster a work and living atmosphere where sexual discrimination and harassment, discussions and jokes about sex, homophobia, and a “boys will be boys” attitude flourishes and where sexual assault is seen as permissible by perpetrators and their supporters.362

219.Code Blue described a similar environment within the UN, where they claim that “discriminatory attitudes towards and practices in relation to women and ‘boys club’ patriarchal structures run rampant”.363 Christian Aid told us that:

[w]e have to acknowledge the extent of patriarchal cultures within our organisations and in our sector, which enable harassment between staff to go unchallenged, or that have ignored and/or made light of harassment on the grounds of organisational or wider culture.364

220.We heard that the widespread use of short-term contracts within the aid sector can exacerbate this gendered power dynamic and make staff vulnerable. Caroline Thompson, the Chair of Trustees of Oxfam GB said:

You are absolutely right to point out the risks of people who are on short-term contracts and the vulnerability they feel, which exacerbates this power relationship that already exists. Often, younger women feel obliged and under pressure to do things for older men because the power relationships are wrong.365

UNITE the Union criticised the “culture of overuse of short and fixed term” contracts.366 They wrote in evidence that:

Such contracts are known to contribute to different kinds of workplace abuse–including bullying, excessive workloads and sexual harassment and abuse. At the simplest level such insecure contracts prevent people from coming forward to report abuse as they fear that they will not have their contract renewed.367

221.We also heard that the power imbalances which contribute to workplace sexual harassment and abuse can be corrected through improved gender parity within organisations. The Humanitarian Women’s Network have called on IASC to reform workplace culture “by re-committing to gender parity in hiring practices and ensuring staff training in gender sensitivity before and during field deployments”.368 CARE International UK wrote in their evidence that “[w]e need to do more to increase women’s leadership in INGOs at the highest levels and in teams still dominated by men”.369

222.The UN Secretary-General told us that he saw gender parity as an important part of the solution to workplace sexual harassment and abuse in the same way that he saw it as essential to tackling the sexual exploitation and abuse of beneficiaries.370 Christian Aid similarly told us that organisational culture linked these two problems:

Until our organisational cultures of staff-to-staff relationships are fully and openly addressed, we fear we will not see change in staff-to-beneficiary relationships.371

223.Professor Mazurana and Phoebe Donnelly emphasised the importance of ensuring that all staff in leadership positions can demonstrate that they value equality and minority rights. They called for the UN and aid organisations, as well as governments, foundations and other donors to:

Actively recruit, hire and promote to positions of power and decision-making women and men whose past work performance demonstrate a clear commitment to the rights of women, LGBT persons, and other minorities.372

224.With this in mind, we reflect upon how Justin Forsyth, who was known to have displayed sexually inappropriate behaviour towards members of staff, was able to move from his senior leadership position within Save the Children into a senior leadership position at UNICEF, without the matter of sexual harassment being raised. We heard that Save the Children had a “conversation” with a head-hunter who contacted them about Mr Forsyth in relation to his possible employment at UNICEF,373 and that in this conversation, it is unlikely that there was any mention of sexual harassment “because they had not been formal complaints”.374

225.We need to see a transformation of the cultures within aid organisations that currently provide an environment in which sexual harassment and abuse of staff can thrive. This is imperative for the safety and wellbeing of aid staff who are subject to both the risks and reality of harassment and abuse in the workplace. It is also essential if we are to see any change in the way that organisations approach and respond to the sexual exploitation and abuse of beneficiaries.

226.The working group looking at organisational culture must take into account the experiences of aid workers who have suffered harassment and abuse in the workplace in order to fully understand the pervasiveness of these cultures. The agreed indicators for a positive organisational culture should include the way that organisations handle the sexual harassment and abuse of staff, and this should be subject to review in the same regular assessments of organisational culture which we have advocated.

227.We concluded in Part I that the leadership of an organisation has a key role to play in setting an ethical culture from the top down. If individuals who are known to have displayed sexually inappropriate behaviour towards staff are able to obtain senior leadership positions in aid organisations, then cultural change will be impossible.

228.As we recommended in Part I, DFID should use the International Safeguarding Conference in October as an opportunity to secure commitment from aid organisations on achieving gender parity, with agreed targets and timeframes. Alongside this, organisations must commit to recruiting and promoting into leadership positions only those who can display a clear commitment to the rights of women and minorities.


360 Professor Dyan Mazurana and Phoebe Donnelly (SEA0008)

362 Professor Dyan Mazurana and Phoebe Donnelly (SEA0008)

363 AIDS-Free World’s Code Blue Campaign (SEA0035)

364 Christian Aid (SEA0031)

366 UNITE the Union (SEA0001)

367 Ibid

369 CARE International UK (SEA0017)

370 See Annex 1

371 Christian Aid (SEA0031)

372 Professor Dyan Mazurana and Phoebe Donnelly (SEA0008)




Published: 31 July 2018