Promoting a work environment free of harassment, exploitation and abuse
Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) promotes a working environment free of harassment and abuse. Our leadership has unequivocally committed to reinforce mechanisms and procedures to prevent and address abuse and harassment. All staff are expected to abide by the MSF movement's Behavioural Commitments and our guiding principles as stipulated in our Charter.
The integrity of our organisation is upheld by the good conduct of each individual staff member, in any location, with full respect for the communities we serve. For us, this means not tolerating any behaviour from our staff that exploits the vulnerability of others, or of employees taking advantage of their position for personal gain.
Procedures, including grievance mechanisms, are in place to encourage prevention, detection, reporting, and management of all types of misbehaviour, harassment and abuse. Through these mechanisms, all staff members are encouraged to report inappropriate behaviour or abuse either through their management line or through specific reporting channels outside any hierarchical lines, using dedicated email addresses. Victims or witnesses in the communities where MSF works are likewise encouraged to report misconduct to us so that allegations can be properly addressed.
Broad awareness activities are carried out to inform all staff of the mechanisms available to them to report abuse. This information is shared through specific communications, including in printed staff manuals, and is conveyed in briefings, field visits and trainings. Moreover, e-briefings and learning modules related to behaviour and management of abuse are regularly updated and improved.
2018 saw continued activity in all these areas and the allocation of increased staffing to MSF’s responsible behaviour teams; the development of new tools for improving awareness, prevention and detection of unacceptable behaviour; and the improvement of data-gathering and sharing across the MSF movement. It is worth acknowledging that an increased public focus on this issue will very likely have contributed to increased awareness and reporting.
Managing cases confidentially
MSF aims to ensure that these situations are addressed with the utmost confidentiality, to create an environment where people feel they can safely file complaints, without fearing for their safety, their job, or their confidentiality.
Our first priority when misbehaviour is reported is the safety and health of the potential victims. Immediate attention is given to provide support, which can include psychological and medical care, and securing legal assistance.
MSF always respects the victim’s decision to bring – or not – a matter to justice. In the event of sexual abuse against minors, MSF’s policy is to report the case to judiciary authorities depending on the child’s best interests and availability of such procedures.
Key challenge: reducing barriers to reporting
While the 2018 figures show an increase in the reporting of incidents of unacceptable behaviour compared to 2017, we still believe this picture to be a significant underestimate – this is likely due to a combination of challenges around both under-reporting and data gathering.
In 2018, MSF had almost 55,000 staff working in field. We saw a significant increase in the number of alerts and complaints recorded in 2018, with a total of 356 grievance complaints made, up from 182 in 2017. This figure relates to alerts and complaints made on the field but does not cover headquarter offices. We hope that these figures are an indication that an increased focus on the issue has encouraged more people to come forward.
Of those complaints, after investigation, 134 were confirmed as either situations of abuse or of inappropriate behaviour (83 in 2017). This includes 78 cases which were qualified as abuse, compared to 61 cases of abuse in 2017. (This covers many forms of abuse: sexual abuse, harassment and exploitation; abuse of power; psychological harassment; discrimination; physical violence.) A total of 52 staff members were dismissed for all forms of abuse in 2018 (58 dismissals in 2017).
Of the 78 cases of abuse, 59 were cases of sexual abuse, harassment or exploitation, up from 32 in 2017. Thirty-six staff were dismissed as a result of those cases in 2018 up from 20 in 2017.
There were also 56 confirmed cases of inappropriate behaviour, up from 22 in 2017 (inappropriate behaviour includes: mismanagement of people; inappropriate relationships; inappropriate behaviour not in line with societal standard or affecting team cohesion; and the use of substances).
We continue to urge staff, patients or anyone else who comes into contact with MSF to report any incidents of unacceptable behaviour which they come across.
The reasons for under-reporting are probably similar to those found in society at large, including the fear of not being believed, prevailing stigma, and possible reprisals. This is all the more acute in many crisis settings where MSF operates, such as conflict areas, where there is often a general lack of protection mechanisms for victims, a high level of generalised violence and impunity, and where populations may be highly dependent on external assistance. The size, turn-over and diversity of our staff require a continued effort to inform and create awareness about MSF’s policies on harassment and abuse, as well as all mechanisms available for reporting any abuse or harassment.
Achieving and maintaining a work environment free from abuse and harassment is an on-going endeavour, for which we are all responsible. We also commit ourselves to do no harm to vulnerable people we are striving to help.
Note on changes to the figures: Due to improved data collection and compilation, MSF has updated its figures for 2017. As a result, the total number of complaints for 2017 is found to have been higher than previously reported: 182 as opposed to 146; the number of confirmed cases in 2017 has also risen slightly. Please note that some cases in 2018 are still being investigated, so the overall figures may change slightly.