Abuse Among Humanitarians

Lori Handrahan
7 min readFeb 23, 2018

Before Harvey Weinstein was exposed and the #MeToo revolution took off, I published “UN Secretary-General Guterres’ Biggest Challenge: A Culture Of Impunity” in Forbes. It took me nearly a year to find a publisher. Humanitarians are selfless idealists editors look to for “feel-good” stories of inspiration and hope. Few seemed interested in abuse humanitarians commit against their own colleagues and populations of concern.

In the Forbes essay I asked, “How can the UN end suffering of vulnerable populations when female employees navigate hostile environments just by showing up for work, let alone when they attempt to raise issues of sexual abuse and exploitation by UN staff?” I discussed Sarah Murison’s report, “Gender Parity in Senior Management at UNICEF,” detailing a “hostile” workplace female staff endure.

Patriarchal abuse of power pervades the humanitarian community — far beyond UNICEF and the UN system. The humanitarian sector, as a whole, has cultivated a culture of misogyny against its female employees and beneficiary populations for decades. Devex, an organization “working to make the $200 billion aid and development industry do more good for more people,” is now calling for a “deeper focus” on sexual abuse within the humanitarian community and has invited people to speak openly.

A fine but naïve offer that may do more harm than good.

Dahlia Lithwick, a legal reporter, recently published an essay about federal judge Alex Kosinski who abused for decades while everyone kept quiet. Lithwick says there is a system in place called character assassination that “keeps brilliant women from accessing power and dismisses others as hysterics — the “nutty and slutty.” This dynamic is also in present in the humanitarian sector, suppressing women and protecting abusers.

Structural inequalities within humanitarian agencies that allow and encourage men (largely white men with Western passports) to accumulate unfettered power are the same organizational arrangements used by too many men to abuse, harass, rape and bully female staff and beneficiary populations. Will women who speak-out be blacklisted — doomed to unemployment, poverty and isolation — by the same white, Western men who have perpetrated these abuses and carefully nurtured their privileges and positions of power?

Lost Humanitarian Women

Journalist Juliet Huddy recently used the hashtag #GiveUsOurCareersBackNOW on Twitter discussing the absence of women in journalism and film whose careers were destroyed by predatory men. Huddy said, “Scores of talented, smart, hardworking & successful women have been victims of men like O’Reilly, Rose & Lauer. Let these journalists finish what they started. WE were not the problem. Predators and those who protected them were.”

There is not yet a public discussion about restoring careers to humanitarian women forced out by predators. So many women and their innovative ideas on ending poverty, stopping conflict, protecting children and enhancing economics have been disappeared. Where are the lost humanitarian women and their squandered talent?

I am one of these women. I would like full employment reinstated along with lost salary, retirement and compensation for damages. Many humanitarian women want the same. As journalist Tamara Holder recently said during a CNN interview, holding back tears, “There’s so many women who are hurting. We just want to work.” Humanitarian women; however, have little chance of obtaining lost employment, wages or justice without legal assistance. Organizations will never offer careers back or compensation unless they are legally forced to do so.

If Devex wants a “deeper” discussion, the first step is to advocate for the jobs taken from humanitarian women by predatory men. Humanitarian women need a Legal Assistance Program, similar to the #TimesUp Legal Defense Fund now offered for women in America. Humanitarian women need similar legal support with a pool of lawyers from powerful law firms ready to work pro bono or contingency with a group of humanitarian women — so we may work again. Will Devex provide this kind of game-changing advocacy for lost humanitarian women?

Institutional Betrayal

This past summer I had lunch with some talented young women working for the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC). NRC had terminated its gender-based violence (GBV) programs and these dedicated women were about to be unemployed. Long hours engaged in challenging work had suddenly been rendered meaningless. The women and children they were serving left in the lurch. There was a great deal of anger, pain and grief expressed. I listened for a long time. Then I said institutional betrayal is traumatic and I was sorry. The women responded, “there is a name for this?” Yes. There is a name, theory and academic research.

Institutional betrayal is a key ingredient in post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) that so many humanitarian women suffer. I do not know a woman in the humanitarian community who has not been betrayed by the organization she works for. There are varying degrees of suffering and different circumstances. The results are the same. Idealistic women dedicating their lives to working in emergencies, disasters and developing countries tackling the toughest social problems are told, sooner or later in so many words, they do not matter. The mission statement does not apply to the female staff.

Mao Zedong, China’s infamous leader, once encouraged criticism of the government and asked intellectuals and writers to share innovative ideas about how to improve society. This policy, Let a Hundred Flowers Bloom, was taken from a poem, “let a hundred schools of thought contend.” The campaign was promoted as a way to “allow truth to emerge from a sea of falsehoods.” It was a ruse. Those who came forward, in the earnest belief that their ideas on how to improve their communities mattered, were targeted and destroyed.

Humanitarian women’s truth is the abuse we have suffered by our own organizations and male colleagues — many of whom currently hold key decision-making positions across the humanitarian sector. The sea of falsehoods is the character assassination designed to keep “brilliant women from accessing power.” Devex wants a “deeper” public discussion. Will our truth now, finally, emerge or will we be further punished, as so many of us already have been, for speaking it?

Muckrakers and Silence Breakers

Reporters covering war-zones, disasters and the developing world also contribute to protecting humanitarian predators, ignoring reports of abuse fearing their access may be revoked and they will be blackballed. Journalists flirt, drink and have sexual contact with humanitarians. Egos are stroked to obtain information as “part of the job.” Female journalists often bargain with the patriarchy of the humanitarian world to advance their own careers.

Dahlia Lithwick, the legal correspondent who wrote about Judge Kosinski, took responsibility for the role she played in protecting a flagrant abuser. She says, “here is the part that does implicate me: When a prominent journalist with a national platform chooses — year after year — not to report on an open secret, or agrees to slouch through yet another dinner or panel or cocktail party, how can it only be about the victims and the harassers?”

How often the same could be asked of journalists covering the humanitarian sector.

Organizational structures of media outlets are also dominated by men; many of whom are also abusive. Female journalists swim in the same patriarchal-sea humanitarian workers struggle to survive in. Double-whammy. Female journalists who might like to report on humanitarian abuse are often blocked, implicitly or explicitly, by their own male, sexist superiors who may be carousing with the male country directors of humanitarian organizations.

Boys will be boys and girls who speak-out will be squashed.

We all must take responsibility for the culture of abuse we participate in, are harmed by and benefit from. Humanitarians are dependent on our journalist colleagues to help us tell our stories. If journalists reported on, in a sustained manner, the hypocrisy of the humanitarian world in failing to apply external mission statements internally, so much mistreatment and suffering would be exposed. Many lost humanitarian women would be given a voice; some might even obtain restitution and redemption. Absent media interest, however, we have been effectively muzzled.

Reparations & Policy Change

“It’s time to hold our own industry accountable,” Devex says. Certainly. But who will be making decisions about addressing the structural inequalities built into the enabling environment of patriarchal abuse? It will be those in leadership positions, mostly white, Western men, who have created and enforce the gender and racial discrimination that provides them with significant, culminative advantages in pay, power, and position they enjoy and do not want to relinquish. The same constructs that give license and impunity to sexually abuse whomever they want, whenever they want.

Has Devex accounted for this reality when asking for a “deeper” discussion? Undoubtedly, it is long past time to hold “our own” accountable. But how? What concrete policies will be implemented? Will organizations provide:

· Reparations to female employees harmed and discriminated against going back a decade?

· A five-year moratorium on hiring and promoting men at middle and senior levels so women may advance according to merit?

· Public and equalized salaries so women and men are paid on par?

· Mechanisms, like NetClean software, so those engaged in child pornography, child sex trafficking and revenge pornography on work computers are held accountable?

· Public reports detailing discrimination and abuse, including disclosure of all past settlements, and timely measures to address these?

Devex’s mission is to “do more good for more people.” It is a lofty objective all humanitarian agencies claim. Yet, somewhere in the manual of every organization there must be a disclaimer “except for the women who work here.” So, I ask again, how can the humanitarian sector alleviate suffering in the world when female employees navigate hostile environments just by showing up for work, let alone when we raise issues of sexual abuse and exploitation by our colleagues — most often white men in positions of significant authority?

It took months to find a publisher for my essay about the UN culture of abuse. I persisted because I am angry and tired of the abuse and the cover-up. Because so much has been taken from me and so many women. I have been speaking about abuse permeating the humanitarian community for a long time now. To no end. There has been no reward for attempting to promote a “deeper” discussion. Quite the opposite. Actions taken against me for telling truth-to-power have been cruel and damaging.

Will the #AidToo movement really change that and how will Devex ensure a “deeper” discussion is not a Hundred Flowers Bloom moment?


Dr. Lori Handrahan has been a humanitarian and an academic for over twenty years. Her most recent book, Epidemic: America’s Trade in Child Rape, has just been released. She can be reached on her website www.LoriHandrahan.com