From the DRC, A Serious Warning for and about Aid Workers Elsewhere

The New Humanitarian last month published the results of their investigation, conducted jointly with the Thomson Reuters Foundation, into a ghastly story involving international aid workers pressuring Congolese women for sex:

In interviews, 51 women – many of whose accounts were backed up by aid agency drivers and local NGO workers – recounted multiple incidents of abuse during the 2018 to 2020 Ebola crisis, mainly by men who said they were international workers.

The majority of the women said numerous men had either propositioned them, forced them to have sex in exchange for a job, or terminated their contracts when they refused.

The organizations named in interviews are huge ones: “UNICEF, Oxfam, Médecins Sans Frontières, World Vision, ALIMA, and the International Organization for Migration.” The New Humanitarian’s writeup also

The scandal (I am searching for a stronger word, actually – “outrage” comes to mind) reminds me, as it may remind you, of a sexual abuse scandal uncovered (and arguably very poorly handled) involving United Nations Peacekeepers in the Central African Republic.

The implications for the region this blog covers, the Sahel and Nigeria, should be clear. I talk about jihadism a lot here at the blog, and one way this post could go would be to spin out the implications of this for the counter-jihadism fight and the perceptions of humanitarian workers in conflict zones. But I think that line of argument – while perhaps valid – might be too securitized for my taste (“don’t exploit women, it hurts the counterterrorism fight” is a crude and even offensive argument).

Rather, what I want to really emphasize is that incidents where trust is broken can leave long, long memories. In 1996, Pfizer was accused of killing 11 children and disabling others in Kano, Nigeria through a meningitis drug trial. The aftermath of the incident included widespread suspicion about polio vaccination campaigns in subsequent years. Pfizer paid compensation ($175,000 each to four families) in 2011. People often remember the harm caused by those who came (purportedly) to help. And as seen with the Kano example, one actor’s choices can affect myriad other actors carrying out seemingly unrelated projects.

I guess if someone is so depraved that they would attempt to coerce women living through a public health emergency, then they probably wouldn’t be receptive to these warnings about unanticipated consequences of abuse. But their bosses are a different story. The problems described in the DRC seem systemic, and organizations and supervisors clearly have some real soul-searching to do, if they have the courage to do it:

Aid sector experts blamed the failures on a male-dominated operation with little funding to combat sexual abuse; income and power inequalities that opened the door to abuses; and poor communication with local residents – mirroring problems they said they had seen in numerous other emergency responses.

I hope the branches of these organizations that work in the Sahel and Nigeria are paying attention and are scrutinizing their own accountability mechanisms. There are ongoing investigations – I hope they are substantive.