Who is heard – and who is believed? How understanding power is essential to reporting misconduct in the aid sector

Ania Gaboune Protection, Research, Violence Against Women and Girls

Ania Gaboune introduces a new Oxfam report that analyses innovative work in Ghana and Iraq to address barriers to reporting misconduct – and sets out how projects can develop more accessible, survivor-centred reporting mechanisms.

cartoon of woman
Cover image of the new Barriers to Reporting Misconduct report

What stops people reporting misconduct in programmes? How can we address the causes of sexual exploitation, abuse and harassment (SEAH) and misconduct better? In this blog, I share insights from pilot projects in Iraq and Ghana that aim to better understand the challenges for people experiencing misconduct, and address barriers to reporting misconduct.

Every context has unique obstacles for survivors

In previous research in 2019/2020, Oxfam tried to better understand what constitutes barriers to reporting misconduct across Iraq, Ghana, and Myanmar. The meta-analysis of this work concluded that there is no single ‘one size fits all’ approach to understanding, identifying and ultimately addressing barriers facing survivors, and those experiencing misconduct. It also emphasised the need to integrate transformative programming on gender justice to reduce harmful gender norms that contribute to misconduct. 

In the recent pilot projects, Oxfam tested an approach that used racialised power analysis to improve our understanding of misconduct and misconduct reporting in our work across Iraq and Ghana.

In the pilots, staff heard from different communities, leaders, women and girls, elders, and people who have interacted with Oxfam’s work more generally. Both teams highlighted a key recommendation for Oxfam, and others in the sector: to truly hear and see survivors’ experiences, activities should understand and cater for the unique contextual dynamics in each community and continuously adapt and learn as conditions shift.

Barriers to reporting misconduct vary in every community and need to be understood alongside key drivers of misconduct. What is considered SEAH will differ in each context; so micro- and macro-analysis is needed to name and mitigate these unique challenges.

There are also systemic drivers of misconduct that align with global systems of oppression, specifically white supremacy and coloniality.

The importance of power and racial justice

Understanding power is key to developing adequate, tailored activities. Oxfam and the sector need to do better and be humbler in our understanding of colonial ways of working, sector-driven behaviours and practices, and the over-use of so-called ‘technical’ language to describe lived experiences. These have all deeply affected programming and, therefore, how misconduct is experienced.

Racial justice is critical: how does the social construction of “the other” influence who is or isn’t heard, believed, and seen as worthy? None of our sector-wide reporting mechanisms are neutral: the choice of whom to report to, how to describe what has been experienced, and how we respond are all affected by biases and assumptions about different groups of people, and by racialised power.

Oxfam does and should be accountable for providing meaningful survivor support that centres power and people’s agency. We must develop transformative programming that addresses the key drivers for misconduct. People experiencing misconduct require programming that upholds their confidentiality, centres their needs for justice, and contributes to repair.

Partnerships that support listening, campaigning and communicating

Both Oxfam in Iraq and Oxfam in Ghana integrated intersectional power analysis across their pilots.

The team in Iraq developed research on intersectional power dynamics, which they then used to challenge stigma for survivors. They worked alongside communities to better understand their perceptions of justice.

Meanwhile, Oxfam in Ghana held multiple community listening sessions followed by community campaigns with partners to challenge perceptions on the acceptability of sexual misconduct. It also worked with partners on developing language-specific communication material to ensure reporting mechanisms were accessible.

Both pilots linked macro-analysis of country-level power with their campaigns. And both worked in partnership with different organisations that varied in size and scope, ensuring that a decolonial power analysis was at the heart of their partnership approach. The resulting report highlights some of the key recommendations from both pilots on power, intersectionality and context.

So how can we tackle barriers to reporting?

To tackle barriers and build better reporting mechanisms and support for survivors, we suggest Oxfam and organisations like us start with the following actions. For further context and more recommendations on decolonial partnerships, integrated programming, confidentiality and fair and equitable resourcing, please see the recommendations section of the report.

• Every community in which Oxfam and its partners operate should be included in future power analyses, due to the differences in context in each area.

• Power analyses should be integrated in the naming of barriers, ensuring that these are understood through the lens of intersectionality.

• Hold GBV sessions targeting men, authorities and traditional and informal groups. This action was recommended by the women who participated in the pilots, as they had witnessed improvements in communities where such sessions had been conducted.

• Set up community awareness sessions on survivor blaming, child marriage and the prevention of forced marriage to perpetrators.

• Integrate national campaigns to challenge the acceptability of SEAH into influencing strategies in future work.

This report makes clear that barriers are highly context-specific. It also highlights that, to tackle them, those designing programmes need to understand how racialised power operates, and how it might silence or obscure the voices and experiences of survivors. Creating new reporting structures that challenge historic and colonial power dynamics and assumptions to instead centre the needs and voices of survivors will not be an easy task, but it is essential if INGOs are to be truly accountable to the people we work with globally. There is no alternative.


Ania Gaboune

Ania Gaboune is Accountability Lead at Oxfam GB

Read the full report: Barriers to Reporting Misconduct: Understanding power, intersectionality and context