In light of renewed coverage regarding international aid workers in Haiti in 2011, Comhlámh wishes to make the following remarks.
“As the Association of Returned Development Workers and Volunteers in Ireland, with over 40 years of experience in working with overseas development workers and volunteers, we are appalled at the reports of alleged sexual exploitation and abuse of women and sexual abuse of children by some workers within the international aid sector. We firmly endorse a position of zero tolerance of exploitation of children and vulnerable adults including sexual abuse. Such behaviours, especially in particularly vulnerable situations, constitute acts of serious misconduct that should result in summary dismissal and, where appropriate, prosecutions.
International aid and humanitarian workers can and very often do exercise a position of power within the communities where they work. They frequently work in a context where their position of authority and control of resources can convey a sense of superiority. Combined with a post-crisis scenario, this power can be further heightened as a result of the trauma and vulnerability communities are experiencing. Any abuse of this power directly contradicts the spirit of true internationalism and completely undermines a rights-based approach to development.”
We also are concerned about apparent political developments in the UK, where there appears to be a rising and vocal right wing push to retreat back from genuine internationalism. This movement seems to seek to discourage development organisations from speaking out about inequality and injustices where they are based. The responsibility of development organisations to ensure best practices around solidarity and interdependence work includes the responsibility to remain vocal around inequalities as and where they happen. We all need to remain vigilant of political attempts to use genuine concern around failures within specific organisations as a means to silence criticisms of inequalities within our own immediate societies.
It is incumbent on all those recruiting, forming and training people working in international and humanitarian responses that issues of power dynamics and gender relations are preemptively dealt with so that development and humanitarian workers are aware of the contexts they are going into and in particular are aware of their own positions of potential power and privilege.
Management and boards of development organisations have to ensure that there are robust and transparent processes that place at their centre the interests of the peoples that organisations seek to defend and protect, through effective disclosure and oversight mechanisms. It is also important that when such breaches of trust take place that organisations inform the relevant national authorities and do not simply process the issues as internal disciplinary matters.
Ireland has a long and proud tradition of working in international solidarity with people across the global south in long term development, humanitarian and human rights work. At its heart, the work should be about solidarity and the interdependence of between the global south and global north. For international development and humanitarian workers to take their responsibilities to heart, they need to continually question their own practice and ensure that they’re not perpetuating exploitative, colonial histories and taking advantage of vulnerable communities. We will work as part of the international development sector to ensure that these communities are at the centre of all development and humanitarian interventions, including through the development of effective safeguarding mechanisms.”