Our #MeToo Moment - Time to take a Look in the Mirror and Clean House
On October 5th, 2017, the New York Times published an explosive article stating that Harvey Weinstein, a Hollywood producer, had been sexual harassing young, aspiring actresses for decades. A snowball of accusations followed soon after and eventually led to the downfall of one of the most powerful men in Hollywood. Other notable players in the entertainment industry saw their careers suddenly tank as they were similarly accused of sexual harassment and other inappropriate behaviour. In the midst of this storm, activist Tarana Burke created the #MeToo hashtag, which swiftly became a rallying cry for women to share their stories about sexual harassment and abuse.
Three months after the storm hit the entertainment industry, our sector is facing our #MeToo moment. In early February, the media reported that in 2011 a few Oxfam staff staff had hired prostitutes while doing relief work in Haiti. Soon after, stories emerged about sexual abuse, harassment, and inappropriate behaviour by individuals in other charities such as Medicin Sans Frontier and Save the Children Fund (SCF).
The result of these horrific stories is what has been appropriately called “a crisis of trust.” Members of the public and funding agencies are asking whether those of us who have raised money to promote the rights of the poor and vulnerable can actually be trusted to play that role effectively. Public giving to charities is likely to dip, as will private giving from wealthy individuals and official funding from government agencies. Furthermore, there will be a lot more scrutiny of the work that charities do, and the systems we have in place to protect against such abuses.
The stories have been a wake up call for all of us within civil society, and an invitation to take a hard look in the mirror and metaphorically clean house. While the focus has been on international northern-based charities, civil society in West Africa cannot be complacent. This too is about us. We too need to clean house. We need to do this not simply because we are afraid of losing funding, even though this is a distinct possibility as Oxfam is learning. We need to clean house, because we cannot be champions of the vulnerable when we ourselves are exploiting women and girls at their most vulnerable. We need to clean house because we cannot dismantle unequal power relations, when we ourselves are and taking advantage of unequal power relations. We recognize that the behaviour of a few unscrupulous individuals should not take away from the amazing work that civil society is doing to promote social justice and human rights. However, we are now seeing how the reprehensible behaviour of a few individuals can tarnish the name of the entire sector. We need to sit up and learn the lessons from our sector’s #Metoo moment and learn them fast.
The first lesson is not to bury our heads in the sand and pretend this is a problem for the international NGOs with expatriate workers. We need to investigate and understand the extent to which this is also a problem within civil society in our region. Let us not wait for a media scandal to expose what may be going wrong, because in our region, the public is already sceptical of the ethics and good intentions of civil society, particularly NGOs.
The second lesson is that when we have a good understanding of the nature of the problem in our context, we should put in place zero tolerance policies that expressly prohibit sexual harassment and abuse. This should be coupled with procedures to deal with the perpetrators and protect whistle-blowers and victims. Fortunately, we do not have to reinvent the wheel. The Oxfam saga has unearthed a lot of discussion and information about what best practice looks like around this issue. We just need to decide what is most relevant for our context.
The third lesson is that it is not enough to have policies and procedures in place. A Report on Sexual Assault in the Development Sector published in 2017, found that Oxfam’s policy was an example of best practice from which other organisations could learn. We now know that we have to go further than having good policies and procedures in place. We have to take action. We have to create workplaces that are free from sexual discrimination, harassment and assault. We must hold leaders and senior management accountable for this. We need to ensure that our staff who work directly with vulnerable populations do not take advantage of their powerful roles. When we discover cases of abuse, we have to treat survivors ethically, and swiftly deal with the perpetrators.
It is said that: “a crisis is a terrible thing to waste.” Let us use our #MeToo moment to learn the lessons required. Let us not wait any longer to keep our commitments to vulnerable women and girls, and to ensure our workplaces are free from sexual harassment and abuse.
Taaka Awori is the Managing Director of Busara Africa. She is a Leadership Consultant, Trainer and Professional Coach in the private sector, civil society and public sector and a Board Member of WACSI. She writes this editorial in a personal capacity.
 “Aid sector must face up to the 'crisis of trust’,” Feb 28th 2018, https://www.civilsociety.co.uk/news
 “Fears Oxfam Scandal Could Hit All Major Charity Donations.” Alice Ross, Financial Times, February 19th 2018, www.ft.com