Shaista Aziz and Alexia Pepper de Caires: It is time for aid to fall

Today we gave expert evidence to the UK Parliament’s final International Development Committee inquiry on sexual abuse and harassment in the international aid sector. 

We founded NGO Safe Space, an intersectional feminist platform advocating with and for black women and women of colour, in 2018 to stand in active solidarity with those who experience racialised, patriarchal abuse and harassment in the neo-colonial aid sector.

This was also the space we needed to bring our full selves to this work, free from structural harm.

Our campaigning is fully independent and self-funded. It brings us into direct contact with women suffering harm as a result of massive power imbalances and abuses in the multimillion-pound aid sector – a sector that is not fit for purpose and has repeatedly shown itself to be incapable of holding itself and perpetrators of abuse to account.

We should not expect different from a racist, misogynist system.

Like #AidToo victims and survivors, we have spent two years being subjected to gaslighting and harassment by senior people in large international charities that are run like corporate businesses, complete with glossy branding and celebrity endorsements. 

Chief executives, heads of safeguarding, HR directors, presidents of boards and trustees have invited us to present our research findings and data on sexual harassment, exploitation and abuse in a sector they manage, govern and build careers in. 

We have shared the reality of our work, which is emotional and grounded in listening to those granted the least societal power.

In response we have received legal letters and threats from powerful international organisations, similar to journalists investigating these abuses. The police have been called to our protests.

We have seen gross manipulation up close and personal, and we have resisted their efforts to make us feel vulnerable. This all reveals how powerful our work is, and we keep going.

The classic behaviours practiced by abusers are readily replicated by powerful INGOs and the white men and women employed to run these organisations.

There are ongoing attempts to shut us down and silence the women and non-binary people we stand in solidarity with. 

At first we entered these discussions in good faith and with willingness to engage.

However, it became clear that these organisations’ only concern is to protect their brand and reputations (with their white fundraising audience, at least) and that they are not willing to pay the necessary costs – financial, reputational, emotional and political – to ensure justice and accountability for victims and survivors. 

We continued to push and advocate for change by generating media attention, writing opinion pieces, speaking at international conferences, briefing MPs and their teams. 

Two years on, as the world lurches from one crisis to the other and a pandemic turns everything on its head, we see the same behaviours from this sector. 

Last week, a media investigation brought to light horrifying testimonies of women in the Democratic Republic of Congo detailing the sexual abuse and harassment they were subjected to by men working as international aid workers.

When we read the details of the experiences described by these women, we were sickened to our core. 

We remain incensed that two years on, powerful and rich INGOs believe they can continue the pretence that power abuses, violations, bullying and mass harms are carried out by only “a few bad apples” that westernised paperwork and processes can stop.

This summer the urgent discussion of anti-black racism grabbed global attention as the #BlackLivesMatter movement responded to public murders of black men, and private and hidden murders of black women. The structures of white supremacy and patriarchy are becoming more visible as we capture these moments on our phones.

Breaking the silence and bringing more people to consciousness is proving, as with #AidToo, the only effective way to dismantle the harm.

Do we as campaigners and activists expect the UK Parliament to hold the aid industry it happily supports to account on power abuses? No.

We cannot expect a system to dismantle itself. It is clear in 2020 that we need to defund INGOs, withhold our labour and fully examine our complicity in their abuse. In our view, it is time for aid to fall.

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