Wolfgang Jamann

 
22 May, 2018

Abuse of power within NGOs is hard to digest

This blog first appeared in German on Xing.com 

Oxfam, Save the Children, Weisser Ring – charitable organisations are not immune to cases of sexual assault and abuses of power. Is that surprising? Common sense tells us that it’s not, that of course these institutions reflect the problems that exist elsewhere in society. Morally, however, this knowledge is harder to digest than, say, the faults in the glittering world of Hollywood or in Germany’s media and film industries.

We naturally place high expectations on moral authorities such as non-governmental organisations (NGOs) that support the weak of this world. Much like doctors, they should aim to do no one any harm, comply with high ethical standards and set an example in doing so, and keep their actions somewhat removed from the worldly profane. Money, power and exploitation have no business here.

This became clear a few years ago, with the scandal surrounding Unicef Deutschland. The disappointment felt by thousands of volunteer supporters about high consultancy fees led to disputes, resignations by the CEO and board members, the loss of donors, and serious damage to the image of Germany’s development aid sector as a whole. However, it also eventually led to improvements in governance standards at charitable organisations and clear responsibilities for decision-makers.

Urgent efforts to address the problems are needed, but please don’t go after all NGOs

A similar thing is happening now. Misconduct by staff in Haiti, London and Lübeck, and abysmal management by the supervisory bodies are dragging an entire industry into the wake of the discussions surrounding #MeToo and other abuses. Of course, none of the cases should be downplayed, and serious efforts to address the problems and improve protections are urgently needed.

In the case of development agencies, some associations – in particular Bond in the UK and Interaction in the US – have begun working to improve common standards, reporting obligations and transparency. And here in Berlin, the globally active accountability organisation Accountable Now! is strengthening its standards for ethical action, including measures to protect women and children from assault.

But this will not be enough. It seems that facts alone cannot curb the excessive amount of criticism being levelled at aid organisations. This is especially true in the UK, where the mass media well and truly declared open season on the sector. For days on end, they ran cover stories, published confrontational interviews, and sent journalists out to hunt down the next “case”.

The special moral standards to which we hold NGOs can only partially explain the intensity of the criticism. Oxfam, for one, spent years loudly denouncing injustices and inequalities, which earned it many enemies in the establishment and so surely made it a very vulnerable target for a backlash. In today’s world of social divisions, just a few small events can be enough to trigger massive political campaigns.

Aid organisations are now also political actors

In recent years, therefore, aid agencies have become more than just charitable organisations. They have increasingly assumed a political role and have helped to identify and fight injustices around the world. Millions of people’s lives have noticeably and demonstrably improved as a result – and despite corruption, wars and refugee crises, the work of NGOs is a cornerstone for constant (though often too-slow) progress in the battle against poverty and disadvantage.

In order to continue working effectively, however, these organisations must view the current situation as an opportunity to reflect on their mission and the moral foundations of their work – and to pair this with efforts to further professionalise protections that ensure the safety of their staff and those entrusted to their care.

Abuses of power are unacceptable, whether they happen in a charitable or state organisation or elsewhere in the economy and society. If they do occur, though, we must focus on making improvements instead of limiting ourselves to hunting down the responsible and guilty parties.


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