« Shaking Humanitarianism »: episode 1

This first episode will examine Sexual Exploitation and Abuse by aid workers through an anthropological lens

Image taken from the New Humanitarian website « Why the UN must set up an independent body to tackle sexual abuse » (Isaac Billy/UN Photo)

Sexual Exploitation and Abuse (SEA) by humanitarian workers is a grave yet overlooked issue that seems to be embedded within the aid sector and its organizational culture.

Three years ago, the so-called Oxfam scandal was disclosed in the media, shedding light upon a certain number of abuses and dysfunctionings pertaining to the humanitarian field. However, despite such momentum and the increased awareness on the importance of preventing SEA, the latter phenomenon is still occurring worldwide. No latter than last September, The New Humanitarian revealed that aid workers had been sexually exploiting Congolese women during the 2018-2020 Ebola response in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Therefore, we asked ourselves what were the factors underlying the emergence and persistence of SEA.

A podcast edited by Solji Oh, Excel Botigan, Houda Mohamed, Juliette Vallance, Brian Cartwright and Melina Froidure for their Social and Cultural Anthropology course, as part of their Masters in International Humanitarian Action at University College Dublin.

Adopting an anthropological perspective, we focused on three main issues:
– patriarchy and the prevailing conceptions of masculinity in the aid sector
– power imbalances and the anthropology of gift-giving
– othering processes and the construction of a « supporters » vs « supported » dichotomy

We conclude that « aid organizations are inevitably part of patriarchal dynamics »1 and that the humanitarian field shapes a « toxic masculinity culture ». While both factors help understand the perpetration of SEA by humanitarians, they alone cannot explain the phenomenon. SEA is indeed very much linked to power and imbalanced relationships. The very nature of giving aid – and the dependency it creates – facilitates the perpetration of abuse. And so does the detachment of the perpetrator from its “victim” through “othering processes”. That means: conceiving affected populations as “different, backward and deprived of agency”, thus making it acceptable to be maltreated.

There are unfortunately many dimensions we have not been able to cover such as survivors’ access to justice and complaint mechanisms, and how to make sure that their voices will not be silenced. But that would be the focus of another podcast, so…
Stay updated!

1. Fal-Dutra Santos, R., 2019. Challenging Patriarchy: Gender Equality And Humanitarian Principles. [online] Humanitarian Law & Policy Blog. Available at: <https://blogs.icrc.org/law-and-policy/2019/07/18/gender-equality-humanitarian-principles/&gt;

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