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#MeToo at the World Health Assembly: Discussing sexual abuse and exploitation in international cooperation

Last Saturday (26 May), the very last (side-)event of the World Health Assembly in Geneva was about one of the most embarrassing challenges in international health work: “#AidToo: Sexual exploitation in international cooperation”.

#AidToo is a sub-section of the #MeToo movement which definitely needs no introduction, as the ripples it has caused continue to be felt all around the world. The growing activism and campaign to end sexual abuse has been well received, and the issue has been much debated across both virtual and the more traditional media platforms. Yet one question remains, why is this type of abuse structurally embedded in society and why it is so hard to tackle? This is of course a much more difficult and less popular subject matter. The truth is that the ‘root causes’ of sexual abuse and exploitation go a lot deeper than the glossy Hollywood magazines which were so useful to amplifying the voices of  #MeToo campaigners, would have you believe. In fact, Tarana Burke, the founder of the #MeToo movement, in calling for action, said “Sexual violence knows no race, class, or gender, but the response to it does.

As previously alluded to, the session in Geneva tried to address the issue of sexual abuse and exploitation specifically within the “aid industry”. Since the story about sex-parties in Haiti broke, there has been an avalanche of similar stories throughout the “aid world,” with NGOs, UN bodies and peacekeepers all being implicated. The resulting public outrage has ensured that the issue is now firmly on the agenda, and these days, almost all aid industry CEOs speak of regaining trust.

The session was held under Chatham House rules which proved to be useful because after an initially slow start, people started opening up. At first there was a tendency to meekly accept blame and defend one’s agency efforts at making improvements, however, this soon gave way to people sharing sometimes bitter testimonies about how things at the very top in important agencies are not changing and how more senior staff manage to dodge their responsibilities. In the hands of the excellent facilitator we soon agreed on tasks that should be taken on by the ‘Aid Industry: there is a need to revaluate their response to allegations of abuse by their staff; to operationalise a common culture of integrity throughout what is in fact a very heterogenous sector; and to create survivor-centred response mechanisms.

Thus far, people seemed fairly comfortable sharing their opinions and experiences, yet at some  point we seemed to have got stuck at debating only how to end the abuse – whereas preventing it was not in sight. It was when the last presenter firmly brought the root causes back to centre that things became more complex. The discussion gradually veered from strictly ‘gender’ towards racial, class, and ethnic aspects of the issue. In other words, intersectionality entered, and immediately illuminated the elephant in the room: power.

We were quickly chased out of our comfort zone, where we all shared disgust for the ‘bad behaviour of some males’, and had to face questions about the asymmetry of power. Talking about the abuse of power proved a lot more difficult than agreeing about the horror of abusing women. We proved Tarana Burke right: the response to sexual violence includes race, class and gender…and the distribution of power.

There was some discussion on ways of moving forward that require a complete paradigm shift in the power balance and the current way of working of the aid industry. For instance, shouldn’t the people who need help be put in charge, also of the funds available? And why shouldn’t they be held accountable – not by ‘our’ standards per se, but a set of standards which respects the people who we are talking about more?

It is not helpful when (opinion) leaders of the aid industry throw their arms in the air and declare helplessly that it is all very difficult, because anyway in those weird countries, men treat their women like commodities… #TheyToo! The behaviour of individual men does not give outsiders the right to make overall judgments that are – even worse – painful illustrations of the very power imbalance that leads to abuse.

To at least prevent this, it may be more helpful for the aid industry to strengthen the effort to understand how local values are also trampled by warfare and extremism, and how each culture has systems in place which protect against abuse and violence. Holding people accountable according to those culture-specific systems, makes perhaps more sense than only using the abstract ‘rights-based’ approach – that sometimes seems a cover for a lack of interest for the local truth. That may the beginning of some deep introspection into how the industry may unwittingly perpetuate the conditions that allow such abuse to take place, as well as a reflection about how to promote wider societal and structural transformations in behaviour, attitudes and institutional priorities to produce lasting change.

We did not find the final solution of course, but the debate was instructive and positive. And we noted that there may be truth in a quote once used, ironically, by a man who lost his position in the #MeToo slipstream. Kevin Spacey, playing president Frank Underwood in ‘House of Cards’: “A great man once said, everything is about sex. Except sex. Sex is about power.”


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