Advocacy NGO shining a light on sexual assault of aid workers set to close

Devex
Aug 14, 2017

WASHINGTON — The pioneering NGO that lifted the lid on the the alarming number of cases of sexual abuse and harassment against female aid workers, and the humanitarian sector’s failure to support these victims, is set to close on August 20, after only two years in operation.

Report the Abuse, which was founded in 2015 as the first and only NGO dedicated exclusively to addressing sexual violence against humanitarian aid workers, is shutting up shop due to a lack funding. However, the group’s founder told Devex that the work is far from done.

“Sadly, we announce that Report the Abuse will be ceasing operations as an NGO… This is due to an absence of funding, not a reflection of the lack of work needed on the issue or our passion for it,” said Megan Nobert.

Nobert said that fundraising, especially for small organizations such as her own, had become increasingly difficult due to budget cuts from donors including the United States, Switzerland and Norway, alongside the drastic increase in need as the sector struggles to cope with the largest humanitarian and refugee crisis since World War II, conflict in Syria and Iraq, and extreme hunger and famine facing millions in Yemen, South Sudan, Somalia and northwest Nigeria.

The protracted nature of ongoing crises, and the surge in new ones, also means that donors are less likely to provide funding for the kind of non-programmatic activities that RTA promotes, Nobert said.

“With humanitarian funding becoming thinner and more stretched, issues that are not programmatic will be the first thing to go — and this includes trainings, safety and security, humanitarian well-being,” she explained.

Nobert was inspired to start her NGO after being raped by a male co-worker while on mission in South Sudan. Her experience, which included being blamed by her employer and the United Nations agency for which her attacker worked, convinced her that the industry needed to change. After going public with her story, Nobert realized that she was one of many aid workers who had experienced sexual violence from colleagues, but were too scared to come forward for fear of not being believed or of suffering professional consequences.

In response, the Canadian human rights lawyer founded RTA and began compiling her own research through an online survey which attracted more than 1,000 respondents. Of those, 72 percent said they had suffered sexual violence while on the job, including 13 percent who said they had been raped.  

Nobert also carried out analysis about the current policies of nearly 100 aid agencies and NGOs, revealing that only 16 percent even mention sexual violence against staff in their documents.

Her work was widely praised across the sector and sparked follow-on surveys from groups such as the Humanitarian Women’s Network, as well as an academic report by the Feinstein International Center, part of Tufts University.  

Activists say that these combined efforts have played a pivotal role in moving the sector from a position of denial and tolerance around cases of abuse, to one of action and reform. The Inter-Agency Standing Committee — the body that coordinates the different U.N. agencies and NGOs working on humanitarian assistance — has since adopted a “zero tolerance” stance on sexual violence against staff and vowed to strengthen prevention, accountability and protection policies and structures.

Despite attracting accolades from top aid officials such as the deputy high commissioner for human rights at the U.N., Kate Gilmore — who praised Nobert’s work and made an impassioned plea for humanitarians to condemn what she described as a culture of “toxic tolerance” towards sexual abuse within the sector — RTA has been unable to secure additional funding.

While understanding that funds in the humanitarian sector are stretched to capacity, Nobert argues that real change requires resources. It is no longer sufficient for organizations to “call me in to do a workshop,” she said. If donors want organizations to change the way they handle cases of sexual abuse and harassment, they “also need to give them the resources to do it.”

More work needed

Nobert, who is now looking for a new position, said that while she is pleased with what RTA has managed to accomplish, there is still a long way to go.

“We’ve taken the industry so far in two years — a lot of survivors have come forward, we’ve broken down barriers ... but I don’t think RTA’s work is done, very far from it,” she said, adding that it is now up to humanitarian workers and organizations to take up the mantle.

Before then, Nobert has been working hard to finish a comprehensive set of “good practice tools,” including practical recommendations for how organizations can improve their prevention policies and procedures, how to navigate duty of care, how to advocate for sexual violence issues, and how to support those who experience it.

These will be published on the RTA website on August 14. Once organizations have these tools, there can be no more excuses, she said.  “We’ve given you the tools and the knowledge and so now it’s your job.”

The head of the IASC secretariat, Belinda Holdsworth, said the IASC would publish Nobert’s guidance tools on its own website and ensure they were seen by staff.  She also said she was confident that the momentum created by her work would not be lost, but said continued pressure would be needed to sustain it.

Humanitarian resources ‘drying up’ for grassroots organizations

Considering the outpouring of support for RTA’s work from within the sector, Nobert admitted she was surprised to find herself unable to secure sustainable funding for her one-woman operation. She started out with just $167,000 over 2 years from a Swiss foundation which wishes to remain anonymous, and was asking for $500,000 a year in order to grow and have real impact.

The Global Humanitarian Assistance report confirms that the growth in the international humanitarian assistance budget slowed considerably between 2015 and 2016, up only 6 percent compared to increases of between 12 and 21 percent during the previous three years.  

"Humanitarian funding is starting to dry up and no one is talking about it,” she said, adding that she knows of other NGOs who are cutting staff, programming, and who may be facing closure in the coming year as a result.

The type of work being supported is also changing, Nobert said, due to the increasingly protracted nature of humanitarian crises, as well as extra scrutiny of aid budgets from the public. As a result, there is less funding available for sector-focused research and capacity building, such as that done by RTA.

Research by CONCORD, the network of European relief and development NGOs, points to a belief among its members that the ability of smaller NGOs to access funding has also become more restricted.

This is in part due to a trend among donors to concentrate their resources on fewer, larger organizations through which they can channel high amounts of funding, Nobert said.  

Data from the Global Humanitarian Assistance report supports this, showing that in 2015-16, nearly half of all humanitarian finance went to multilateral agencies, mostly within the U.N., and that while the portion of funding going directly to NGOs did increase, 85 percent of it went to international NGOs. Local and national NGOs combined received just 1.5 percent of the budget.

RTA encountered this preference time and again, Nobert said, with some donors asking to see five years of financial statements before they would consider cutting a cheque. Others told her the amount she was requesting was too small.

Another issue RTA ran into was their niche approach. “We don’t fit into any boxes because what we do is so innovative,” Nobert said. As a result, she said that while many foundations were positive about her work, they were unable to offer funding because it didn’t fit with their “strategy.”

Nobert believes there is a disconnect between what funders say is important and what they are willing or able to financially support.

“Although I got all of the right words of support and positive indications [from funders] ... at end of the day, the mechanisms weren’t there to support me,” she said, adding that “it’s increasingly hard for grassroots and smaller organizations to thrive.”

Tributes

Condolences have poured in as Nobert prepares to wind down her organization, she said.

Lindsay Coates, head of InterAction and a co-champion of the IASC working group set up to address the issue of sexual violence against aid workers, told Devex in an email that she was “saddened and disappointed” by the news, but that InterAction would continue to work with Nobert and survivors to push the agenda.

Coates also said it is essential that such work is funded within organizations. “NGO staff capacity building, training [and] learning should be a line item in every grant proposal,” she said. However, it often remains underfunded, she said, “in part because we fail to communicate the true cost and necessity of adequately trained and prepared field staff in the face of sexual harassment and assault.”

Lindsay Coates in the president of InterAction.

Read the full article at Devex.com.