International aid agencies are facing scrutiny like never before. As distrust and lurid sexual abuse scandals emerge, can anything be done to salvage the sector?

The Harvey Weinstein scandal and subsequent #MeToo movement continues to shake institutions as predatory men are finally being exposed. 

In the humanitarian aid sector Oxfam is in the spotlight after an internal report was leaked detailing how “a phased and dignified exit” was provided for Roland van Hauwermeiren, Haiti Country Director, who sexually abused and exploited women and, apparently, children.

While Oxfam is currently in the limelight, many other humanitarian organisations could follow. Oxfam’s attitude and internal procedures have been no different from those across the humanitarian sector – protect the institution by protecting the predator. 

Oxfam is probably the least-worst offender of all the humanitarian agencies. There are many more abusers, mostly white men, who must be named and prosecuted and many humanitarian whistle-blowers, mostly women, who must be protected and re-employed.

In 2006, Sarah Murison issued an internal report on the culture at UNICEF, “Gender Parity in Senior Management at UNICEF,” documenting a “hostile” workplace for women. UNICEF buried this report and took no action to change the misogynist culture that allows predators to flourish in the humanitarian aid world. 

I know because I was hired to help implement internal changes. My work was shelved.

Last year I published “UN Secretary-General Guterres' Biggest Challenge: A Culture Of Impunity” and asked how the UN could end the suffering of vulnerable populations when its own female employees face hostile work environments - and what happens when they attempt to raise issues of sexual abuse and exploitation by UN staff. 

No one answered me.

Today there is a public outpouring of “shock” about Oxfam people wondering how they allowed this to occur. As the veteran Norwegian humanitarian Gry Tina Tinde asked on France 24, “How hard can it be to screen your own staff?” 

Of course, it is not difficult at all, as Ms Tinde pointed out, to monitor employees. Holding white men accountable in a patriarchal and racist system is a different matter.

While the answers are not difficult, implementing solutions have been nearly impossible – as those of us, like me, who have been “gender advisers” in the humanitarian world, know well. 

White men in powerful positions do not want to give up their power and privilege which, too often, includes sexual abuse and discrimination against women.

The humanitarian sector, as a whole, has cultivated a culture of misogyny and racism against employees and beneficiary populations since its inception. We all, men and women, must take responsibility for the culture of abuse we participate in, are harmed by and benefit from. If we want to eliminate predators like Hauwermeiren, five organisational policy changes must occur sector-wide. 

Key proposals for change:

  • A five-year moratorium on hiring and promoting men at middle and senior levels so women may advance according to merit;
  • Reparations to female employees harmed and discriminated against going back a decade;
  • Transparent and equal-pay salaries so women and men are on par;
  • Mechanisms, like NetClean software, so those engaged in child pornography, child sex trafficking and revenge pornography on work computers are held accountable; and
  • Public reports detailing discrimination and abuse, including disclosure of all past settlements, and timely measures to address these.


There is also an urgent need to create an independent Humanitarian Legal Assistance Program, similar to the #TimesUp Legal Defense Fund, with a pool of lawyers from powerful law firms willing to provide pro bono or contingency representation to female humanitarian whistle-blowers and survivors.

Devex, a humanitarian professional development organisation, has said “It’s time to hold our own industry accountable.” 

Many humanitarian gender advisers, like me, have been trying to do just that for decades now. It is an impossible task (and one that is not rewarded) when those in leadership positions are mostly white, Western men who enforce gender and racial discrimination and structural inequalities providing them with significant advantages in pay, power, and positions they enjoy and do not want to relinquish.

These are the same constructs that give license and impunity for powerful white men to sexually abuse whomever they want, whenever they want. 

Sexual abuse and exploitation is built into the enabling environment of humanitarian patriarchy. It is not something separate from gender and racial discrimination.

If humanitarian workers want to prevent future #OxfamScandals, the misogynist culture that dictates white male abusers should be protected, must be eliminated. 

Organisations must adopt an attitude that understands that protecting predators and covering-up criminal behaviour renders the organisation complicit in abuse, exploitation and criminal activity. Employees such like Hauwermeiren must be terminated and criminally prosecuted. Whistle-blowers who enforce humanitarian norms by reporting abuse must be rewarded with promotions, protection and praise.

In order to do this, the patriarchal abuse of power that pervades the humanitarian community must be purged through substantial organisational change and a major shift in humanitarian culture. Some gender advisers have been trying to do for decades. Perhaps now, thanks to the Harvey Weinstein scandal and #MeToo movement, people may finally be listening.

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