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Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of the World Health Organization, speaks to the media in Geneva. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of the World Health Organization, speaks to the media in Geneva, Switzerland, Oct. 17, 2018 (AP photo by Salvatore Di Nolfi).

The WHO’s Congo Sex Abuse Scandal Points to Humanitarian Aid’s Deeper Flaws

Friday, Oct. 1, 2021

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More than 80 alleged cases of sexual abuse, including allegations implicating World Health Organization staff members, occurred in the Democratic Republic of Congo during the Ebola crisis between 2018 and 2020, an independent commission has found.

Although much of the coverage of the probe has focused on what is being described as a “sex for jobs” scandal implicating 21 WHO staff, the report cited a wide range of incidents, including an alleged case of a WHO driver raping a 13-year-old girl. 

The allegations were first reported last year by The New Humanitarian and the Thomson Reuters Foundation. Their investigation detailed accusations by at least 30 women of sexual exploitation and abuse at the hands of men working for the WHO. The women reported the abuse not only to U.N. organs such as WHO, UNICEF and the International Organization for Migration, but also to aid organizations such as Oxfam, Doctors Without Borders and the Alliance for International Medical Action. 

“The first thing I want to say is to the victims and survivors of the sexual exploitation and abuse described in the commission’s report. I’m sorry,” WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said in a press conference following the report’s release, promising further steps including “wholesale reform of our structures and culture.”

The WHO’s regional director for Africa, Matshidiso Moeti, also said the agency was “humbled, horrified and heartbroken” by the findings of the inquiry.

The problem of sexual abuse and exploitation in the humanitarian sector was first brought to public attention nearly 20 years ago, following allegations of widespread abuse of refugees and internally displaced women and children by peacekeepers and humanitarian workers in West Africa. Three years ago, a landmark summit was held on  providing safeguards against these and other kinds of abuse in the aid sector.

Yet, such incidents are still widespread and go largely unreported. Oxfam has been rocked by allegations of sexual abuse in Haiti and Congo over the past few years, and the U.K. government again suspended the organization’s funding after new claims emerged this year. The U.N. was also rocked in 2014 by allegations of French paratroopers deployed to the Central African Republic as part of a U.N. peacekeeping force sexually abusing young children in exchange for food and money. Allegations of sexual exploitation have also reemerged in Mozambique.

For many critics, the repeated incidents of sexual abuse and exploitation of African women and children by outsiders ostensibly deployed to “help” them are a feature, not a bug, of humanitarian and development aid assistance.

The latest report lends credence to a broader critique of the humanitarian and development aid system, which many view as a continuation of the colonial project from which it emerged, characterized by power imbalances, subjugation and racialized hierarchies. In the past two years, the coronavirus pandemic and the Black Lives Matter protests have reenergized longstanding critiques about how the sector operates. Calls to “reimagine” and especially “decolonize” humanitarian aid and development assistance have continued to grow louder, taking on a buzzword-like ubiquity that's increasingly become divorced from the latter word’s original intent. 

Some of the commonly cited tropes of the humanitarian and development sector are, by now, very familiar—its entrenched “white savior industrial complex,” the pay disparities between local and international staff, and its reproduction of cultural imperialism and hierarchies of knowledge that elevate “best practice” ideas of nonresident personnel from the Global North over those of residents from Africa and the rest of the Global South. 

For many critics, these repeated incidents of sexual abuse and exploitation of African women and children by outsiders ostensibly deployed to “help” them are a feature, not a bug, of humanitarian and development aid assistance. After all, the relationship between the “helper” and the “helped”—and the terms and conditions governing it—is one-sided and Western-centric, and predicated on agendas set by powerful donors, aid agencies and international organizations from the Global North. Sexual abuse and exploitation, as feminist scholars and activists frequently point out, are undergirded by and often expressions of power and control. And in the humanitarian sector, the power asymmetry is structural. It is part of a dehumanization process that begins with the language used to describe the people and places where aid is deployed, characterized by terms such as “voiceless,” “conflict-ridden,” and “victim.” And it is reinforced by actions imposing and exercising control over people viewed as “powerless.”

It remains an open question whether the humanitarian and development aid sector could ever be truly “decolonized,” given its origins. For those who express optimism that such a possibility exists, the aim would be to determine what is worth keeping and what is worth throwing out. Clearly the culture of sexual abuse and exploitation rampant in the sector must go. But what else must go with it is a question worth much greater examination and debate.

Keep up to date on Africa news with our daily curated Africa news wire

Civil Society Watch

The United Nations Human Rights Council has adopted the Universal Periodic Review outcomes of Niger, Mozambique and Namibia.

The Universal Periodic Review, or UPR, is a review of the human rights records of all U.N. member states. It occurs under the auspices of the Human Rights Council, providing the opportunity for each member state to declare what actions they have taken to improve the human rights situations in their countries and to fulfil their human rights obligations. The process also provides an opportunity for other member states as well as civil society to comment on the UPRs.

The member states that commented on the UPR outcomes of all three countries included Mauritania, Togo, Nigeria, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Sudan, Morocco, Tunisia and South Africa. A collection of domestic, regional and international civil society organizations advocating on issues ranging from LGBTQ rights and universal education in the three countries also took the floor as part of proceedings. 

The UPRs have their strengths, including their universality, transparency and peer-reviewed nature. They are also seen as a catalyst for other U.N. human rights protection instruments, including Treaty Bodies and Special Procedures. But although UPRs are broadly supported by civil society organizations and human rights defenders across the world, these same groups also criticize their superficiality, the politicization of the review process by member states—especially among allies and states in similar regional groups—and the lack of punitive sanctions in cases of noncompliance.

Culture Watch

The first Africa Book and Design Festival will take place next month in South Africa. The inaugural event is billed as an opportunity to “encourage intra-African cultural exchange by connecting African authors and book designers under one roof whilst connecting their works to Africa’s growing consumer market.”

The festival is sponsored by South Africa’s Department of Sports, Arts and Culture, and Trace Africa—the South African pan-African music channel—will be the exclusive broadcast partner for the festival. The organizers have announced that attendees will be able to stream discussions and presentations from various authors on the ABDF website, YouTube and other social media platforms.

Top Reads From Around the Web

The One-Eyed African Queen Who Defeated the Roman Empire: Adhiambo Edith Magak writes in Narratively about Queen Amanirenas, who reigned over Nubia from 40 B.C. to 10 B.C. The historic queen was renowned not only for being blind in one eye, but also because of her role leading Kushite armies to victory against the Roman Empire in a war that lasted five years, from 27 B.C. to 22 B.C..

Wole Soyinka Is Not Going Anywhere: Ruth Maclean, The New York Times’ West Africa correspondent, spoke to Wole Soyinka, the legendary Nigerian author who was the first Black and African winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, and remains the only Black African winner. Now 87 years old, Soyinka recently published his first novel in nearly 50 years. He spoke to the Times about his many vows over the years to disappear from public life, only to reemerge each time. 

A Racial Reckoning at Doctors Without Borders: The international medical organization, better known by its French initials MSF, is well accustomed to being ensnared in controversies with governments in the countries where it operates. In recent months, it has been forced to suspend activities or withdraw from conflict zones in Cameroon and Ethiopia. On the eve of its 50th anniversary, however, it is facing an internal firestorm over longstanding accusations of racial discrimination and other systemic inequities woven into the fabric of global public health. 

Chris O. Ogunmodede is an associate editor with World Politics Review. His coverage of African politics, international relations and security has appeared in War on The Rocks, Mail & Guardian, The Republic, Africa is a Country and other publications. Follow him on Twitter at @Illustrious_Cee.

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