top of page

Sexual Exploitation, Abuse and Power: The Future of the Aid Sector

In 2010, while supporting Haitians after a devastating earthquake hit the country, Oxfam became embroiled in a sexual abuse and exploitation (SEA) scandal. Allegations were made that nine aid workers working on relief efforts from the NGO were using prostitutes [1]. Despite global pressure, this scandal continued for 8 years before an investigation by The Times in 2018 uncovered the true extent of it -  which also included ‘bullying, harassment, intimidation and failure to protect staff as well as sexual misconduct’ [1] - forcing Oxfam to apologise for the behaviour of its workers. Although the incident initially had a negative impact on Oxfam’s reputation, as seen from the withdrawal of some government donors, they have still been able to continue their charitable work globally relatively unscathed.

Unfortunately, SEA cases also occur internally within aid organisations. In 2015, Megan Norbert was drugged and raped by her colleague at UNICEF, while working in a camp in Bentiu, South Sudan [2]. Given a combination of cocaine, codeine, morphine and oxycodone, she blacked out before waking up naked, alone and violently sick from the drugs she had been forced to take. After attempting to seek ‘accountability or action’ from UNICEF, she was shunned away as they did not take responsibility for the actions of her colleague as they were both contractors [2].

In 2018, the House of Commons International Development Committee branded SEA as ‘endemic’ within the aid sector - both internally and externally [3]. After hearing and seeing these cases in the news, there is no secret why. Although both incidents may appear to be different in nature, they share a perverse similarity – what was meant to be humanitarian efforts to support those deemed as vulnerable turned out to be a global affair where only the powerful remained victorious. Like other industries, complex power relationships and dynamics direct the operation of the sector, meaning that those in authority may feel that they can misuse their position and thus, engage in SEA acts. 

History of Sexual Exploitation and Abuse

Sexual exploitation and abuse (SEA) first emerged as a peacekeeping issue during the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC) in 1993, when the number of prostitutes in Cambodia rose from 6,000 before the mission, to more than 25,000 after [4]. Although the UN response was threefold it did little to curb the occurrence. The head of mission dismissed the significance of the issue stating that ‘boys will be boys’, while advising peacekeepers not to wear uniforms when visiting brothels or park UN vehicles directly outside [4]. Perhaps the most inadequate response to the incident was the 800,000 additional condoms which were shipped to Cambodia to prevent the spread of HIV [4].

In recent times, large intergovernmental organisations tend to define sexual exploitation and abuse separately before amalgamating them within SEA. The UN describes sexual exploitation as ‘any actual or attempted abuse of a position of vulnerability, differential power, or trust, for sexual purposes, including, but not limited to, profiting monetarily, socially or politically from the sexual exploitation of another’, while it defines sexual abuse as ‘the actual or threatened physical intrusion of a sexual nature, whether by force or under unequal or coercive conditions’ [4]. Acts of SEA involve both direct and indirect forms of sexual misconduct, harassment, or violence perpetrated by individuals associated with aid organisations. 

Another key characteristic of SEA, as seen from Oxfam’s Haiti scandal and Norbert’s case, is that incidents can occur both externally and internally. Regrettably, neither of the above cases were effectively dealt with by those in charge, feeding into a wider culture where such events are increasingly and unfortunately rife. Following the Oxfam affair, many others have come to light such as the Congo Ebola Crisis in 2020, where more than 50 women accused aid workers of sexual abuse [5]. The majority of these women stated that the (male) workers forced them to have sex in exchange for a job and if they refused to do so, their contracts would be refused [5]. In November 2023, it was found that the World Health Organisation (WHO) - whom a lot of the workers worked for - had paid the victims $250 each to stay silent about the abuse that they had received [6].

Power Relations within the Aid Sector

Connecting to the broader context, power relations dominate the aid sector, and could perhaps be used as an explanation for why SEA incidents are so common. A systemic problem rooted in colonial times, arguably, the aid sector can be seen as a ‘power sector’ [7]. Historically, unfortunate imbalances in power place the Global North on a pedestal, with its thoughts, views, opinions and even people governing the rest of the world. Ironically, most of the developmental work undertaken around the world occurs in the Global South, yet, these voices are not valued, something seen from the lack of people from these regions in leadership or even senior positions. Angela Bruce-Raeburn, the former Senior Policy Advisor for the Humanitarian Response in Haiti at Oxfam America sums this up in a statement in the wake of the Oxfam scandal in Haiti:

"[the lack of diversity has enabled] mainly white men to ascend to positions of leadership. The country offices – like the one in Haiti – are kingdoms unto themselves, where the country director, who is more times than not white, male, European or American, is the king. The leadership of country offices often reflect the makeup of the organisation’s headquarters, not the country itself, with lower positions filled by local people." [7]

The undervaluation of both local voices (communities) and early stage positions (which tend to be occupied by women - they make up 40% of worldwide humanitarian workers) within aid organisations offer some explanation for why power relations are so profound in the sector [8]. As they are not regarded professionally, they are downgraded to objects of pleasure as illustrated by the above mentioned cases. Unfortunately, the result of this is a wider systemic problem that creates space for exploitation to go overlooked and underreported.

Barriers to Reporting

The underreporting of SEA is a significant challenge within (and outside) of the aid sector. Two sets of reasons can be used to explain this. The first set relates to the institution, i.e, the structures that make up aid organisations which inhibit workers from reporting SEA incidents. Individuals may be reluctant to report them due to the critical lack of investments which are present in the way that practices are implemented. Rather than having in place practices which support victims internally, they are instead directed outwards towards development work (fundraising, helping communities and projecting good images of the organisation). Next, there may be a lack of visible and effective leadership. A review of 14 UN agencies and NGOs in 2010 working in countries across Asia and Africa discovered how senior management were failing to communicate policies to field level staff - SEA focal points were not being supported and effective personnel awareness of activity or sharing good practice was not occurring [9].

On the other hand, ‘survivor stigma’ - intersecting factors of fear, unawareness, and powerlessness - often restricts SEA victims from reporting incidents that they have experienced [9]. Power dynamics may elicit fear within victims that they will not be taken seriously, along with the worry that they may lose their job, their status, income and even future job prospects. Other reasons for not reporting include a lack of awareness that sexual exploitation and abuse is wrong, along with an unawareness of rights. This lack of awareness can also be extended to cultural and language barriers - aid organisations tend to operate in diverse and culturally sensitive environments with staff relocating to different regions around the world. Thus, cultural and social differences between home and host countries may cause victims to feel that they will be misunderstood or they do not know how to voice what happened to them. Lastly, and perhaps the most important factor contributing to ‘survivor stigma’ is the fear present within victims that they may lose their job, status, income and even future job prospects.

A Change in SEA

In Theory

Feminism and trans-feminism have called for an overhaul within the aid sector to stop SEA. For feminists, organisational culture has reinforced masculine principles and thus, allowed a subordination of women. Internally, power hierarchies within organisations are gendered, meaning that men remain at the top of structures and women at the bottom. Branded ‘deep structure’ by Rao and colleagues, this not only impacts the likelihood of SEA occurrences, but it also may result in other phenomena such as gender pay gaps and top down decision making processes being the norm [10].

Similarly, taking an intersectional approach, trans-feminist approaches to SEA have stated how externally, crucial voices from the Global South - arguably those that are most victimised by SEA outside of those in aid organisations -  are neglected from discussions about sexual violence. To them, the aid sector is a carry over from colonisation and by giving excessive attention to individuals rather than the structure is a distraction from the real politics of feminism - systemic change should be seen as the emancipatory project [11]. They also argue how the rights of sex workers in Global South countries should be respected and that sexual relationships between aid workers and them should be seen as exploitative. Nevertheless, they also view the work of sex workers as economically benefiting both themselves and their families.

The way forward for both of these stances in changing SEA is through bottom up safeguarding practice. This practice prioritises projects that are led by individuals that have been impacted by SEA, something exemplified through the Feminist Safeguarding Policy [11]. Triangulating agency, empowerment and accountability together, cultural contact, consent and shared responsibility are core principles which protect individuals involved.

In Practice

Over the years, and especially since SEA became a widespread phenomenon needing attention, organisations within the aid sector have attempted to put in place systems for prevention. Such systems include toolkits, checklists and guidelines, all of which have highlighted the importance of ‘gender transformative programmes’. For instance, the UNHCR’s Policy on Emergency Preparedness and Response states that protection from sexual exploitation and abuse (PSEA) ‘must’ be integrated into emergency preparation and throughout all stages of the response since SEA can happen ‘anywhere and at any time’ [12]. Illustrated by the earthquake which occurred in Haiti, emergencies bring together a rapid increase in the number of partners involved in the humanitarian response along with high work pressures and challenges to ensuring effective coordination and oversight, therefore, intensifying the area in which SEA can occur.  

In her article addressing sexual exploitation and abuse within the aid sector, Dipanka Datta states that PSEA requires charitable organisations to establish safe and accessible community- based reporting mechanisms (which survivors can access); assistance; funding; and dedicated human resources to ensure that all incidents are investigated quickly and competently [13]. Finally, she necessitates how all staff members and service providers should be trained in PSEA, something which is reinforced by vetting, reference checking and disciplinary measures.

Within the aid sector, victims of SEA have also grouped together to address the issues of sexual harassment, abuse and exploitation. Following Norbert’s own assault, she founded Report the Abuse (RTA), a project encouraging survivors to speak out and break the silence surrounding abuse [14]. Despite the project closing in 2017 due to funding insufficiencies, RTA was able to collect data which enabled the production of tools and guides to assist organisations in addressing SEA amongst staff.

Further, like the #MeToo movement which highlighted and condemned sexual misconduct and the abuse of power in the entertainment industry, #AidToo has done the same in the aid sector. #AidToo is a social media - driven movement working to raise awareness and address issues of sexual harassment, abuse and exploitation in the aid sector. The objective of the movement has been to provide a platform for survivors to share their experiences, and push for systemic changes that hold perpetrators accountable and create safer working environments. It also works to challenge the culture of silence and impunity that has allowed this behaviour to persist, while also providing a supportive community. The results of this movement have been vast and felt significantly by aid sector organisations. Hundreds of staff from international charities have been dismissed for inappropriate behaviour, conferences have been established industry wide to reinforce codes of conduct and safeguarding, and millions of pounds have been pledged on a global register to prevent abusers from working in aid just some of these effects [15].

The Future of the Aid Sector

The widespread media coverage, attention and scandalous reputation surrounding SEA incidents within aid have brought the sector into question. There have been discussions on how the ‘massive power differences’ in global development have created ‘unique' vulnerabilities for abuse, with emergency situations being the ‘perfect environment for these kinds of activities to emerge’ [16]

Internally, NGOs have also been debating changes to their structures and organisations to ensure that such activities do not persist. For instance, Oxfam’s global strategy is now set by a global assembly which includes both NGO representatives and the communities that it works with around the world. Similarly, some organisations have also given their overseas offices to local government organisations in an attempt to give them more power. Despite these improvements signalling a real change within the aid sector, they are slow and often limited - when just discussing safeguarding, the UK charity regulator received more than 400 reports of incidents taking place in the past year [15]

Overall, whether it be internally or externally, there is a common objective present advocating towards a transformation of the aid sector. The SEA cases illustrated by Oxfam in Haiti and Megan Norbert’s ordeal expose the worst of the sector - a side which makes the humanitarian generosity and support almost null, despite this being the core aim of it. As a result, the sector needs to pay extra attention to implementations which will rid the harmful reputation that such cases have generated including involving voices from the Global South, safeguarding and even amplifying survivor-led movements such as #AidToo.

Written by Harkiran Bharij, Thrive Research Hub Member



[1] How Oxfam sexual misconduct scandal unfolded, Sky News. Available here.

[2] Aid worker: I was drugged and raped by another humanitarian in South Sudan. Megan Nobert for The Guardian. Available here.

[3] Sexual abuse 'endemic' in international aid sector, damning report finds. Available here.

[4] Sexual exploitation and abuse in peace operations: trends, policy responses and future directions, Oxford Academic, International Affairs. Available here.

[5] More than 50 women accuse aid workers of sex abuse in Congo Ebola crisis, The New Humanitarian. Available here.

[6] Internal documents show WHO paid sexual abuse victims in Congo $250 each, Portland Press Herald. Available here.

[7] #MeToo #AidToo and Experiences of African Women, African Feminism. Available here.

[8] Women are at the forefront of humanitarian aid, Creating Hope in Conflict. Available here.

[9] Barriers to reporting on Sexual Exploitation, Abuse and Sexual Harassment (SEAH), Resource & Support Hub. Available here.

[10] From the Inside Out: Gender Mainstreaming and Organisational Culture Within the Aid Sector, Frontiers. Available here.

[11] What kind of feminism is behind efforts to address sexual exploitation and abuse?, HPN. Available here.

[12] Protection from Sexual Exploitation and Abuse (PSEA), UNHCR Emergency Handbook. Available here.

[13] The elephant in the room: addressing sexual exploitation and abuse at international NGOs, Dipankar Dattar, Humanities and Social Sciences Communications. Available here.

[14] Interview with humanitarian sex abuse survivor Megan Nobert, AidEx 2024. Available here.

[15] Aid sector forced into greater transparency by #MeToo movement, The Guardian. Available here.

[16] The end of the NGO?, Prospect. Available here.


bottom of page