Aid agencies can’t police themselves. It’s time for a change

Dorothea Hilhorst

Professor of Humanitarian Aid and Reconstruction, International Institute of Social Studies, Erasmus University Rotterdam

The spreading “Oxfam” scandal will affect the entire humanitarian sector painfully. It brings into plain sight what observers of the internal workings of NGOs have known for a long time: NGOs have an organisational reflex of banning outsiders from their kitchen, and keeping their potentially dangerous secrets hidden.


Abuses of power are common in any situation where vulnerable people depend on powerful service providers. But the key question that still haunts this sector is how organisations should deal with the rotten apples – the abusers of power. Even though Oxfam has taken earlier abuses and misconduct seriously, the organisation has acted alone and resorted to internal measures in dealing with the problem.


The case of the Oxfam country director hosting sex parties in the staff house in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake – perhaps it is only the tip of a rapidly expanding iceberg.


What matters is how organisations respond to such incidents. Have trespassers been sanctioned, and was the harm done redressed? Were the disciplinary procedures transparent, and have efforts been made to avoid the repetition of these events?


According to this set of questions, Oxfam clearly hasn’t responded entirely positively. But since the allegations arose in 2011 it should be noted that the organisation has made a serious effort to sanction the staff involved and to apologise to the general Haitian population through local radio broadcasters. After the incident, codes of conduct were modified and strengthened, and training programmes and a whistleblowing system have been put in place.


Accountability to whom?


What stands out in the Oxfam case, however, is that the organisation, in the absence of a central authority, has dealt with the scandal in its own manner. In hindsight, an independent body should have conducted the investigation.


This brings us to the humanitarian ombudsperson.


The humanitarian sector did create this role in the 1990s, but a number of prominent organisations, ironically including Oxfam, decided to pull the plug after a pilot coordinated by the British Red Cross in 1997.


When I researched NGO accountability mechanisms in 2002, interviews about the aborted ombudsperson initiative pointed to some practical challenges related to the initiative. More importantly, though, the research showed that the reluctance of NGOs to yield power to an independent body was the major reason for ending the experiment.


The problem now facing the humanitarian sector is certainly not a lack of standards or a lack of progressive learning. Several organisational and inter-agency initiatives have been undertaken over the past 15 years. After the first public scandal regarding aid workers exchanging aid for sexual favours in West Africa came to light in 2001, then-UN secretary-general Kofi Annan issued his bulletin on Special Measures for Protection from Sexual Exploitation and Sexual Abuse in 2003.


This created an important momentum to develop standards and measures to address sexual abuse in the sector. The Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC), the collective decision-making authority of key UN and NGO bodies, in 2012 established a Task Force on Protection from Sexual Exploitation and Abuse (PSEA) by humanitarian workers, and much effort has gone into training and guidelines for investigations. The Core Humanitarian Standard on Quality and Accountability (CHS), of which more than 200 agencies are signatories, also includes detailed norms on dealing with sexual abuse.


The problem that remains is that despite these sector-wide initiatives to hold NGOs accountable for power abuses, the initiatives all rely on the voluntary buy-in of NGOs, who ultimately retain power to independently deal with abuse. In light of this, how can the external accountability of humanitarian NGOs be strengthened?


Time for a change


An ombudsperson, typically linked to a central government or other organisations where vulnerable people depend on large, powerful service providers, can conduct solicited and unsolicited investigations in response to complaints (s)he receives. This makes an ombudsperson particularly suitable for a humanitarian sector that currently lacks external accountability, although the fact there's no central body with the jurisdiction and ability to enforce decisions means it should aim to inform rather than sanction.


An ombudsperson works best if (s)he is independent, yet is installed by and funded by member organisations from the sector under scrutiny. In the case of the humanitarian aid sector, an ombudsperson should be closely linked to the aid delivery process to enable meaningful investigations and ensure appropriate follow-up. Ideally, the sector should recruit a trusted, preferably national, ombudsperson in each of the countries where humanitarian aid agencies have a large presence. This person should be provided with sufficient resources to investigate allegations of power abuse and misconduct. 


An ombudsperson is not a magic bullet and can only be effective when forming part of a larger movement toward reflection and reform. Yet, there are many reasons why an ombudsperson could make a difference. An ombudsperson could wield massive symbolic power and influence by signalling that NGOs accept external oversight and step out of their independent kingdoms.


An ombudsperson would be mandated to investigate complaints beyond the singularity of the case. Investigations could also look at how organisations are equipped to deal with abuse, or how organisational culture enables abusive practices. Depending on the specific issue under investigation, the terms of reference of the study could incorporate specialised humanitarian standards, international humanitarian law, or pieces of national legislation. An ombudsperson would not have a mandate to impose or sanction, but would report in public – to authorities and the media – and be expected to make recommendations. Part of the role would also be to monitor and report on how these recommendations are met by the sector.


Importantly, the ombudsperson should be able to investigate any complaint, wherever it is found in the sector. If upholding standards is already problematic in the case of a professional agency like Oxfam, it may even be more necessary to respond to complaints about all those international and national agencies that are not signatories to the standards.

See also: Humanitarian Accountability Report, CHS, Chapter 13 

The ombudsperson is not limited to the investigation of sexual abuse allegations such as those currently facing Oxfam and should set his/her agenda in response to complaints by affected populations served by humanitarian aid.


Abuse of power is an inherent risk in the unequal relations between aid providers and vulnerable populations. An independent ombudsperson can provide the necessary space for victims to speak out and seek justice. Internal procedures are not enough, it is time to bring accountability to the next level