Seton Hall Graduate Degree in International Affairs
Seton Hall Graduate Degree in International Affairs

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Tackling Sexual Violence in Humanitarian NGOs


The remains of a restaurant after a car-bomb attack orchestrated by Al Shabaab extremists in Mogadishu, the capital of Somalia, 2013. This is the type of dire setting that humanitarian aid workers often toil away in across the world, leaving them prey to loneliness and other struggles. STUART PRICE/AU-UN IST PHOTO

Nearly three years ago, Megan Nobert, a humanitarian worker in South Sudan, was drugged and raped by an employee of a United Nations agency, according to her account, made public six months later. That was when Nobert decided to form the advocacy group Report the Abuse to encourage others to tell their stories and rally support for victims.

Her small organization struggled, and in August 2017, it was dissolved because it was unable to garner financial support.

Now, amid the global #MeToo wave, humanitarian agencies are reviving discussions about the vulnerability of aid workers, many of whom — including volunteers — live exhausting, depressing and lonely lives. As part of their culture, they meet for meals and drinks to buck up one another. It was apparently in that setting that someone slipped a drug into Nobert’s glass of wine.

Lindsay Coates is the president of InterAction, an alliance of US-based international nongovernmental organizations and partners with more than 190 groups working around the world. In mid-December, she posted this call for greater attention to the problem:

“The NGO community, driven to promote the dignity of all and correcting power imbalances, must address sexual harassment and the inequalities that abet it. We need to live our values by addressing sexual harassment in our own community and make sure that all staff and partners, as well as those we serve, are safe.”

Coates has been a leader of the movement to address this issue, noting that research by the Feinstein International Center at Tufts University revealed that “sexual assault of aid workers is often perpetrated by those within one’s own organization.”

She and Kate Gilmore, the deputy UN high commissioner for human rights, were named “co-champions” of a drive by the Inter-Agency Standing Committee, a coordinating body of UN and NGO humanitarian agencies, to promote a policy of zero tolerance of abuse and harassment, adopted in March 2017.

Gilmore has worked closely with Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, the current UN high commissioner for human rights and one of the first UN officials to criticize outspokenly the laxity in international responses to sexual abuse and exploitation.

Zeid, a legal scholar who was a major player in establishing the International Criminal Court, produced a report in 2005, when he was Jordan’s ambassador to UN, that provided for the first time a strategy to eliminate sexual exploitation and abuse in UN peacekeeping operations.

Does Living Near a Coast Create a Closer Connection to the Wider World?

The United States Peace Corps recently released its 2017 list of where its volunteers lived when they applied to join the organization and accept posts in mostly developing countries. Among the top 10 American states in the number of volunteers produced, eight are on or near a coastline or an international border.

They are (in order of magnitude) California, New York, Florida, Virginia, Texas, Washington, Michigan (on the Canadian border) and Maryland; Pennsylvania is included (in eighth place) if the wider mid-Atlantic region is taken together. That leaves Illinois; although it is located in the midsection of the US, it is a major international hub with a diverse population.

The New York-northern New Jersey-Long Island region is the largest metropolitan-area producer of volunteers for the Peace Corps, which operates on a $410 million annual budget that could be downsized to $398 million if President Trump has his way.

Leaving aside some of the largest metropolitan areas, smaller cities and towns that make up the most volunteers relative to their size do not necessarily fit the geographical coastal norm. University towns are in the top ranks among municipalities: Missoula, Mont.; Charlottesville, Va.; Ithaca, N.Y.; both Boulder and Fort Collins, Colo.; and Madison, Wis. Olympia, in Washington, also makes the list. With a population of 46,478, the city boasts having 33 colleges or universities within 50 miles.

“Peace Corps volunteers come from all corners of our nation to create grassroots level change in our world,” Sheila Crowley, the Peace Corps chief executive, said in a statement.

That may be, but the numbers suggest that the volunteers who want to, in her words, “travel to the farthest corners of the world and make a lasting difference in the lives of others” come from environments where gateways to the world — and open minds — prevail.


We welcome your comments on this article.  What are your thoughts?

Barbara Crossette is the senior consulting editor and writer for PassBlue and the United Nations correspondent for The Nation. She is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. She has also contributed to the Oxford Handbook on the United Nations.

Previously, Crossette was the UN bureau chief for The New York Times from 1994 to 2001 and previously its chief correspondent in Southeast Asia and South Asia. She is the author of “So Close to Heaven: The Vanishing Buddhist Kingdoms of the Himalayas,” “The Great Hill Stations of Asia” and a Foreign Policy Association study, “India Changes Course,” in the Foreign Policy Association’s “Great Decisions 2015.”

Crossette won the George Polk award for her coverage in India of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and the 2010 Shorenstein Prize for her writing on Asia.

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