After #oxfamscandal: Tough trade-offs ahead for the aid industry

By the time you read this post my bibliography of the #oxfamscandal will have reached 100 entries.

Once the political momentum has slowed down a bit and the bureaucratic realities settle in, some complicated issues will likely emerge-issues that will be tough to implement, tough to enforce, tough to pay for and tough to communicate to various stakeholders and anybody who expected easy fixes.

The issues and trade-offs that I am highlighting below should absolutely not be understood in a way that I am against the measures that are discussed right now or that I am in any way defending any perpetrator of abuse.
The aid industry will have tough discussions ahead as more and more complexities, nuances and trade-offs emerge. These measures will hopefully lead to more accountability and transparency in the sector, fewer incidences of abuse and more committed aid workers, but they also pose organizational and communication challenges. Addressing broader issues of exploitation and abuse will also require to build up expertise and to spend money-money from overheads that many organizations may be difficult to find or justify.

HR and compliance cost money – but overheads are supposed to be low?
Nobody argues against better HR systems or hiring compliance experts for aid organizations, but this costs money. More trainings, more time for checking applications, more work for following up claims of abuse-someone has to do the job. Especially for smaller organizations this could easily mean less money for programming, less dollars reaching ‘the beneficiaries’, and a higher percentage of overheads.
You can argue, of course, that this is money well spend and prevention is always better than cure, but doesn’t it also mean more headquarter jobs and more time spend on bureaucracy rather than ‘eradicating poverty’?

Background checks and registers – but how do you deploy 24hrs after a disaster strikes?
Humanitarian emergencies are not just ‘complex’ or often happen in fragile contexts, they are also very time sensitive. And after the first 72 hours of saving lives another challenge appears: How can you absorb a lot of money quickly, how can you spend money that is earmarked for this particular crisis? Relying on people who have a proven track record seems to be a logical choice especially when the pool of potential country or large program managers is limited.

In theory, accessing the background check database should be easy-but in reality, it may be more complicated. What if a candidate gets flagged and you need to put their deployment on hold to figure out what the issue is? Who has access to it anyway? And will this be a EU database and citizens from other parts of the world will have a competitive advantage because they are not part of the database?
If such checks prevent unsuitable candidates from deploying to ‘the field’ this may be great-but you have to communicate the bureaucracy, data challenges and cost to all stakeholders.

Some men will resign or get fired – but what about those who are suing their employer?
No organization likes long, expensive and potentially public legal battles. Based on the Oxfam scandal we may expect clear-cut cases where people can be or should be easily fired, but the legal realities are often much more complicated. If you look at how US universities (yes, the US is a particular juridical place), and I am talking about billion dollar academic corporations, are non-handling cases of sexual harassment by professors for example you may get a taste of the cultural barriers that persist in many institutions and countries.
Institutions should be challenged, of course, and legal precedents should be pursued-but you need the legal expertise and financial commitment to see this through. Again, this is unlikely to be an easy task to communicate to donors, volunteers or the general public.

Tougher policing – but I can’t even get a bank account in my home country
The European aid worker groping an African colleague on a staff retreat in a Gulf state may still be a case that could be resolved under existing organizational policies, but the framework of aid work is complicated when it takes place over several countries, jurisdictions and organizational policies from several countries. ‘Don’t commit acts of sexual violence’ is a universal standard everybody should aspire to, but if something goes wrong victims, perpetrators and organizations will be faced (or protected) by complicated legal challenges-and complicated means time-consuming and expensive.
I do not need to be convinced that it would be time and money well spent, but organizations may need to hire investigators, lawyers and other experts and explain these cost to their audiences at home.

More women throughout the aid chain – but what if they get targeted and hurt?

From Syria to Yemen or Afghanistan, humanitarian principles are currently under fire which is an academic way of saying ‘nobody gives a sh%t anymore if a hospital gets targeted’.
It is dangerous work for any aid worker, but simply putting more female staff into the equation will not solve bigger issues. The debate around sexual violence, burn-out and stress is led by many great female researchers, practitioners and advocates, but unless the humanitarian system and the ‘bad guys’ are changing, more women in the aid chain will mean more of them will get hurt. Attacks and abductions are always bad publicity and dealing with hurt and traumatized aid workers is complicated – and once again require professional systems that cost money.

Fewer white male saviors – but what about local aid workers and peacekeepers?
In the aftermath of the Oxfam scandal the focus was obviously on white Northern men as perpetrators of sexual violence and exploitation. Problems with peacekeepers, often men from countries in the global South, have been discussed for some time and the increased attention for local aid workers will also raise important questions for this growing group of employees in the aid industry.
Any aid work produces or reproduces power relationships and if the industry wants to tackle systemic issues, tough questions will have to be asked: Who is going to send troops or money for UN peacekeeping missions or ensures their proper training as well as monitors their conduct? Given complexities of sex, gender, race and class how do you tackle inequalities and power relations within country and field offices-especially when social, cultural and legal frameworks differ from the home country of the organization?

Sex is exploitation – but what about the complexities of sex work or pleasure?

I recently recommended the work of on Sexuality and the Development Industry by Susie Jolly and Andrea Cornwall to a friend, because I remembered the nuanced debates about sex, pleasure, empowerment, exploitation, heteronormativity and much more. These debates are a reminder that general statements along the lines of ‘no aid worker should ever pay for sex work’ will require further discussions about moral and legal standpoints, privacy, surveillance and enforcing organizational policies: You should not watch (legal) porn on your work computer, but what about your room in your organization’s shared accommodation which may be your ‘home’?

I just want to be very clear: I am not suggesting that organizations should not trying to fire people, hire more women or set up and enforce stricter policies about sex work.
But the aid industry is operating in the same mediatized and socio-political environment where other #MeToo moments and movements have been happening. This environment demands quick, visible and clear-cut changes-and anything that has to do with development usually works at a different speed. For substantial and longer-term changes building up structures will require generous and patient donors, a nuanced media coverage and a general public willing to engage with complicated processes of social change. That’s a lot to ask for. Paying for experts, paying for capacity development, paying for time to get things right and paying for scaling up organizational structures is not what donors are keen to fund and Silicone Valley-type disruptors keep promising.
The risk is that for large organizations (e.g. UN organizations and large INGOs) it may become part of ‘bureaucratic capture’, of box-ticking and dodging hard decisions. For small organizations it could be expensive and time-consuming, possibly paralyzing their work.

But for each and every organization is will require more communication with the outside world and finding that perfect balance of ‘doing good’ with good people and empowering structural frameworks.


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