Sex for help: How NGO employees abuse their power

By Katharina Bracher

Midnight is over in Washington DC when Lori Handrahan sends an e-mail. Subject: «Swiss development worker arrested in Nepal». "One more," she writes and adds cynically: "The scandal has long since adopted Catholic features."

The American Lori Handrahan has spent more than two decades working for UN agencies and international NGOs in Africa, the Balkans and Central Asia. Today, she makes a poor living, with occasional jobs as a lecturer, author, or speaker at conferences. But what task Handrahan actually pursues, can be seen only on her Twitter feed.

Almost every hour, in angry tweets, she recalls the dark side of the humanitarian world, where she began her career as a young idealist in the 1990s. It is a parallel world in which those who have been sent to disaster areas, refugee camps and war zones to help make attacks on the most vulnerable.

The Swiss, whom Handrahan writes about in her e-mail to the "NZZ am Sonntag", is the Basler Peter L. Freitag a week ago he was detained by the Nepalese police. Meanwhile, he allegedly confessed to luring a local boy to a hotel and sexually abusing him. The police apparently caught him in the act. The Swiss aid worker has been living in Nepal for years and has founded two aid organizations that ensure that children from poor families attend school.

Peter L. is just one case in a whole cascade of humanitarian sex crimes that became known this year alone: In April, Nepalese police arrested sixty-year-old Peter Dalglish for alleged rape of two minors. The Canadian has decades of experience in the humanitarian sector and has worked in various senior management positions at the UN.

Principle exploitation

In February, British media exposed the scandal surrounding the Oxfam relief organization. Several employees in Haiti had exploited local women, among them thirteen-year-old girls, as prostitutes. The English tabloid press rushed to witness eyewitness reports that sexorgia had been held at the villa of a senior executive of the aid organization, financed with donations.

Almost simultaneously, the British newspaper "The Sun" came up against the case of the International Rescue Committee (IRC) , whose employees in the Democratic Republic of the Congo are accused of sexual abuse of those in need. At the same time, the prestigious medical organization "Médecin sans frontières" admitted under pressure from the public to have discovered sex offenders among their employees.

Lori Handrahan is convinced that this accumulation of scandals is no coincidence. In line with the #metoo movement, activists from the industry launched the hashtag #aidtoo a year ago. Since then, believes Handrahan, long-hidden and secretive abuse scandals gradually appeared - the whole "dirt" will finally be visible. The silence was broken.

Not all share Handrahan's confidence. The Briton Asmita Naik has for years pointed to grievances without being taken seriously. "In over fifteen years since the first abuses became known, nothing has changed," says Naiks sobering conclusion.

As a member of UNHCR, she has teamed up with Save the Children to provide the most comprehensive documentation of sexual assault by humanitarian workers. In 2001, she traveled to West Africa with representatives of Save the Children to interview more than 1,500 children and adults in refugee camps in Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone.

However, the whole report was published only last week because the British Parliament insisted on representing one of the biggest donor nations. The UNHCR itself held back the original version with the worst allegations over the years, publishing only a tempered version.

For this reason, only seventeen years later, the full extent of the scandal becomes visible: Naik's report reports of sixty-seven employees of various backgrounds who worked in forty international aid organizations and were involved in the sexual abuse of refugees.

Among them are state and non-governmental organizations, as well as numerous renowned Western players such as the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and the International Federation of Red Cross Societies.

To be a little bit nice to the helpers, a barter in times of need: what should be so bad about that?

The principle of exploitation revealed by Naik and her delegation can be reduced to the simple formula "sex for help". Aid workers demand sexual favors against food, soap, medicine or tarpaulins. "Every time we asked, who was the culprit? It was said: An employee of a humanitarian organization », Naik remembers. "We did not travel to West Africa to investigate our own people, but to investigate the phenomenon of sexual violence and abuse in general," says Naik.

That the perpetrators came mainly from the circles of humanitarian workers, they were shocked. And yet it was no secret that Naik and her delegation have revealed. "It was well known in refugee camps that aid workers sexually abuse girls, sometimes boys. Everyone had long acclimatized in this culture of exploitation - we were the outsiders who for the first time, with our perspective, aroused something like a sense of wrongdoing. "

Barter in the emergency

The statement of a single mother in a camp in Guinea exemplifies how the exploitation works: "I have to sleep with so many men to feed myself and my three children. I sleep five times with an NGO employee. »

The same mother later reported that she now also offers her twelve-year-old daughter to barter against food. The young woman heard for the first time that she was entitled to help as a refugee without offering her body.

A little boy explained Naik in the following words, how the "bartering" with the humanitarian helpers worked: "The big men call the little girls when they walk in the street and take them to a house where they lock the door. When he has finished his business, the little girl comes out and got money or a present. »

Naik says that this form of exploitation is widely accepted among locals, refugees and co-workers: to be a little bit nice to the helpers in order to receive relief and support - bartering in times of need. What should be so bad if both agree?

After three weeks in West Africa, Naik returned to the UNHCR headquarters in Geneva and, in addition to the actual report, compiled a list of sixty pages with names of victims and alleged perpetrators, places of assault, details of what happened and the nature of the abuse.

The most recent victim of sexual assault was a five-year-old girl. Naik passed the report on to her supervisor, who would report the incident to his supervisor, the then High Commissioner for Refugees, Ruud Lubbers.

After that, nothing happened for a long time. "I remember how a session was announced after two weeks," says Naik. Great energy, to fight the malady, had not been felt. Naik was furious. «The allegations were serious. I mean, what's worse than swapping help for sex with kids? "

It had assumed that Geneva would immediately start using all available resources to investigate the allegations and hold the perpetrators accountable - or at least release them immediately, as long as the clarifications were in progress.

But the UNHCR, the official patron saint of refugees of the world, was apathetic and uninterested. "We had a few fruitless sessions and that was it. Nothing was done, "says Naik.

But then the British TV channel BBC got wind of the matter. Meanwhile, the entire industry knew that the UNHCR was on a controversial report. Finally, the refugee relief agency decided to publish. A softened version of Naik's report was made available to the media. The detailed list of abuses, perpetrators and victims remains a secret.

Not achieved much

Only half a year later, UNHCR sent another delegation to West Africa to investigate the allegations. But by this time, in mid-2002, the media had already interviewed those affected and brought names of perpetrators into play. After the media processing and a lot of unused time elapsed, it was difficult to collect legally valid testimonies. Many affected people also refused to cooperate.

"Nothing but nice words and declarations of intent in a swollen language - but never something concrete."

The allegations remained unclear, offenders came with two exceptions, in which the aid organizations affected pronounced notice, of which. The hopes that Naik put into the UNHCR were disappointed. In addition, the second delegation again revealed dozens of new cases of abuse. At least now, all those responsible should have been clear: The humanitarian organizations had a serious, structural problem with sex offenders in their own ranks.

But the sector's response to the scandal was sluggish and ineffective. While the largest NGOs and state aid agencies subsequently created the Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC), which drew up guidelines and codes of conduct on how to tackle sexual abuse, this body also noted a year ago that since then West Africa Report has not achieved much.

"The implementation is the problem," says Naik. Or as Lori Handrahan, who has worked as a gender officer in various organizations for almost two decades, expresses: a bullshit action. "Nothing but beautiful words, declarations of intent in a swollen language - but never anything concrete."

But in one, the two women agree: The fish stinks from the head. The impunity in the industry has to do with the lack of political will of the leaders. Ruud Lubbers, the then UNHCR chief, dismissed Naik's report as exaggerated and discredited the victims' statements. Later, he had to take his own hat off, as five former employees had accused him of sexual harassment.

When the Oxfam scandal became known in early 2018, the British parliament took this opportunity to invite Asmita Naik to a hearing. There she met Helen Evans. The two women have never worked for the same organizations - and yet their experiences are the same.

Evans served as Oxfam's Head of Safeguarding until 2015. For some years, this has been the name of the staff in international relief organizations, which are supposed to guarantee the protection and rights of aid recipients. In this capacity, Evans established a reporting system in all target countries of the organization. Seemingly a promising approach to finally put an end to impunity.

In 2014 alone, Evans counted 39 cases of sexual abuses by employees, including two rapes, in seven cases children were involved. "To clarify the allegations, I needed more resources," Evans told British parliamentarians in April. But her supervisor let her come up with her claim. Moreover, Oxfam did not want to acknowledge the implications of the grievance. In 2015, Oxfam released Evans.

The British parliamentarians faced by Evans and Naik are mandated to provide transparency on how beneficiaries deal with government aid. "What are the reasons that the industry has never openly informed about the abuses?", Asked the Conservative MP Pauline Latham and immediately suggested an answer: "Is there a macho culture in international organizations?"

Asmita Naik does not think much of this argument. "That is, if anything, only a small part of the problem. The main reason is the leadership culture. It starts with the ethical principles of management. »

Dear keep silent

Later, in a personal conversation, Naik says, "Some of my superiors were women at the time. They've helped sweep the accusations under the carpet. "Consistent with Evans, she says there is a big taboo on suspecting sex offenders among the largely highly motivated, idealistic-driven, and sincere aid workers.

Secondly, and probably almost more important: aid agencies are primarily obliged to their financiers. To be so grievous, means the risk that Gebernationen and donors jump off. But what can be done so that sexual assault on beneficiaries can still be punished?

"What it takes is an independent hotline. An international ombudsman », says Naik convinced. Most organizations also have well-established fraud reporting systems.

Analogous processes could be introduced for cases of sexual abuse - also to prevent the perpetrators from moving to another job in the industry. On this basis, donor nations could demand that impunity in the industry be ended.

But activist Lori Handrahan does not believe that state governments are withholding funds until humanitarian organizations are able to address grievances. "Take the example of Nepal," she says. Sexual abuses by aid workers have been repeatedly exposed there for years. "There are local journalists who draw attention to the problem, but in the West, nobody seems to care."

One of these journalists is Janak Sapkota, who writes for the Nepalese newspaper Kantipur Daily. If the police expose cases like those of the Swiss Peter L., it would be coincidences. "It's not easy to convict relief workers," he says. For most Nepali would rather be silent about sexual assaults and rapes, out of fear, but also out of shame and ignorance.

As long as this power gap exists between white, western men and the underprivileged, there will continue to be abuses and exploitation, Sapkota is convinced.

But the journalist has high hopes in women like Lori Handrahan and Asmita Naik. Sapkota hopes they will eventually believe you.