When the #MeToo movement gained traction – shining a light on sexual harassment and other abuses of power – charity leaders initially ducked. However, some have now come out and declared a commitment to transparency.
Save the Children was one of the organisations to lead the charge, swiftly publishing a piece after Oxfam’s shame declaring:
“…there are rare occasions when people attempt to use our organisation to take advantage of the imbalance of power created by a crisis. That’s why we have the strongest possible procedures in place to ensure these people are either prevented from joining through background checks, or rooted out through reporting and protection systems.
“Cases involving children are reported to the authorities, unless this would expose them to further harm. We also have systems in place to ensure serious allegations of misconduct are reported to relevant donors and the Charity Commission. We record these cases in our annual – and public – transparency and accountability report, along with a clear explanation of the steps we are taking to protect the children, adults, and staff members in our care.
“I am determined to ensure that a culture of respect and effective protection exists in Save the Children – both at home and in our programmes. Over the past couple of years, we have greatly strengthened our internal procedures.”
An impressive statement, undermined only by the fact that the worst-kept secret in the NGO world – now out in the open – was the sexual harassment crisis that engulfed Save the Children in 2015.
In 2015, Save the Children was accused of failing to tackle complaints from female members of staff, alleging that the behaviour of powerful men – and the protection of those men – in the organisation had made them feel unsafe. The board became involved, and the CEO and a number of senior directors left that year.
Since then, the former CEO Justin Forsyth and former staff member Brendan Cox have resigned from their subsequent charity jobs and apologised for their behaviour during their time at Save the Children, where they both had formal complaints made against them.
But some of the women saw the situation not just as an individual failure by individual men but as a systemic one by an institution that seemed to prioritise the need to “manage” the risks to its organisational reputation over the need to enforce the organisation’s values and protect its staff.
The centre of this crisis was not in Haiti or Chad. It was in London.
Young professional women at Save the Children felt unsafe. They felt that their careers depended on ensuring they responded to unwanted attention and to bullying.
They were dismayed when they saw the global chairman, Alan Parker, who Save the Children staff are now demanding resign, use his position as founder of the Brunswick PR company to bring crisis PR support to Save the Children. Parker (who was chair of Save the Children UK) went on to become chair of Save the Children International. Save the Children CEO Justin Forsyth left in 2015, and went on to be a deputy at Unicef (a position he recently quit).
Save the Children has announced a review into how it handled complaints about sexual misconduct at the time; the Charity Commission has intervened to ensure the current chief executive Kevin Watkins recuses himself from running the review, as he was a trustee during the time the complaints were made.
Charities and the international development sector are not immune to employing men who do not respect women and who abuse their power. They cannot be blamed for this. But they can be held to account for how they handle these men when they behave in this way.
Do they boot them out? Or do they, through inaction or minimising, allow them to stay and to continue?
Do they stand by women who face harassment or do they make the women feel that their complaints risk the mission of the institution and by hurting the NGO could hurt the poorest people?
People who work for charities may in fact be at particular risk of mistreatment because their commitment to the mission can become a reason to downplay complaints and protect their workplace’s reputation “for the greater good”. The superficially moral and logical case for silence is a powerful one and has silenced a number of cases across charities.
Save the Children’s call for transparency would be much more meaningful if it started with them acknowledging this was a systemic problem rather than just the behaviour of a couple of individuals.
Especially at the moment, charities are urged to be exemplary. Let them be exemplary in telling the truth. The whole truth.
The author is a former member of staff of Save the Children who worked with the individuals named. Claims in this piece have been corroborated by two Save the Children whistleblowers, who were not involved in writing it.