“Holier than thou” MSF needs its own #MeToo moment [Update]

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[Update: Sadly, MSF USA has chosen to edit the video that I link to in this blog. They say that this video that was never meant to be public but they want to keep the link up. However, they do not acknowledge anywhere or on the youtube link that they shortened it . This is extremely disappointing as it makes them seem as if they are covering things up and not serious about addressing the issues I raise here. I have notified them that I noticed and that I made a copy of the video before I published. in contrast, the female lead MSF UK and OC-Amsterdam have been very open to listen to women and men who have come forward since I published this to talk about their own experiences.]

This is my témoignage about the sexist culture of MSF Amsterdam where I worked from 2007-2011. Its the product of a lot of thinking and processing since the #metoo hashtag appeared, re-triggering lots of toxic memories and suppressed emotions. – Sarah Martin

The Beginning

I was thrilled when I got the news that there was a position available as Humanitarian Advisor at MSF Holland in the Humanitarian Affairs Department. This would be the perfect next step for me to build on my humanitarian advocacy work at Refugees International. Bringing my advocacy experience to an operational powerhouse like MSF that believed in speaking out and temoinage was truly a dream job for me.

I was not naïve as I entered MSF, however. I had been working for 4 years at Refugees International where I investigated and pursued issues that I found as I traveled to conflict zones and refugee camps in Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea-Conakry, Haiti, Democratic Republic of Congo, Darfur, South Sudan and Northern Uganda. I wrote about aid being mislaid and petty feuds between agency heads meaning that IDPs in Liberia didn’t get a food distribution. I wrote about the failure of the government to consult with IDPS before forcibly moving them to new towns in Sudan. I felt like these things helped a bit. But my real passion was writing about gender issues and trying to support women who suffered in these humanitarian crises. I have focused on these issues in my career ever since.

On my first ever Refugees International field trip in 2003, I met a female MSF Head of Mission in Liberia who told me about the trafficking of Ukrainian women into Liberia and started me on the path of learning about sexual exploitation and abuse. This led to my writing the 2005 report “Must Boys be Boys? Ending Sexual Exploitation and Abuse in UN Peacekeeping Missions,” in which I discussed the hyper-masculine culture of peacekeeping and how the international community had to stop turning a blind eye to the abuses of women and children in Liberia, Sierra Leone, Haiti, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. I met with MSF midwives and female humanitarian affairs officers uncovering the rapes in Darfur in 2004. They demanded that we do something and join them in speaking out. So I wrote about that and met with policy makers globally demanding change, lobbying for greater pressure from the US government to allow raped women to receive medical care without a police report and to refer Bashir to the International Criminal Court. While still working for Refugees International, I went to MSF clinics in DRC in 2005 where nurses told me about the horrors that raped women faced. So I worked with my colleagues and a new Senator, Barack Obama, to sponsor a bill to place greater US attention to the Congo and the terrible way women were treated there.

When I presented Must Boys be Boys at a press conference in New York with Prince Ze’id of Jordan (now head of OHCHR), I was denounced in the New York Times by the head of the Department of Peacekeeping Operations. In my press conference, I lined up against the UN lawyers and spoke my truth on behalf of the women who were ignored and raped and left with peacekeeper babies as the Department of Peacekeeping Operations tried to drown me in stale jargon and committees, and status of force agreements.

My male bosses at Refugees International didn’t bother to come to NYC during this event but my female coworkers supported me as I did rounds of interviews with the BBC, CNN, and even Fox News. My male colleagues? Well, I had numerous discussions with some of them about this “gender thing:” Was it really important and couldn’t it tear down support for peacekeeping and weren’t men just like this and besides everyone knows that men use sex workers in the field and stop being so naïve!?! When Glamour magazine, a US fashion magazine that writes about women’s issues, put me in their magazine as Glamour Hero of the Month for March 2006, I was teased at work instead of supported. I had to actually ask the RI communications director to put something on the website about our work on gender and GBV in case any of the MILLIONS of women who read Glamour might want more information to support it.

All this led me to believe that I understood sexism and indifference, intimidation and abuse. And I thought that MSF with its storied Nobel Prize winning history of temoignage and speaking out on behalf of the least powerful in the world was the obvious choice for me to move forward in my fight to support vulnerable women and girls around the world.

I thought I knew about toxic cultures, but I did not.

Life at MSF

I started as a Humanitarian Affairs Advisor in the Amsterdam headquarters at MSF Holland in April 2007. Almost immediately, a number of events made me realize that I had joined a sexist and toxic organization.

About a month after starting, I went to my first big meeting where all the country offices came to town. MSF- Holland HQ threw a big party in the cafeteria. Afterwards, everyone headed to the Eik and Linde, a bar right next door to our headquarters. I watched in shocked amazement as the alpha males of MSF raced around trying to hook up and sleep with as many women as possible. I was confused but tried to justify the behavior thinking, “Well they are in from the field, they must be really confined there,” until I realized it was very much the men of headquarters who were doing the chasing around.

During this big meeting, my department called a mandatory work dinner. I was excited to socialize with my new colleagues but then again shocked and confused when my new male boss introduced me to “the Game”. We were expected to go around in a circle and list from 1-10 who we wanted to sleep with at MSF. I thought it was some bizarre form of hazing. And as an American, I felt like ‘– wait – is this acceptable in European work places?’ Because in the US where I had worked previously, if a male boss tried to make his female employees listen to who he wanted to sleep with and list who they wanted to sleep with at a work event, they would be fired. But he was American, he knew this. And wow – all the women he named were about 20 years younger than him and were working in the front desk as volunteers at the office. So was this just a European thing?

And then the married advisor on the “cell” where I worked started going out drinking late with a male friend and with my much younger female intern (who confessed to me that the relationship was not platonic after many drinks out late at night). I was not surprised to hear later that he had been having lots of affairs and later left his wife for someone younger who worked with MSF.

And then there was the senior manager now in a position of power at another MSF section, who I was to “advise,” who also had a partner (and mother of his child) working in the office. I kept hearing about his numerous affairs with women. Field directors told me that they wished he was more discreet because he left all the text messages of the women on the shared country mobile phone whenever he left the country. I was disgusted by this blatant macho shagging around and was complaining about it to a dear friend at the organization, not knowing that she was secretly dating him and had no idea that he was sleeping with other women. I regretted causing her so much pain but mostly I started hating him for making her keep their relationship secret and not telling her about his affairs. She was angry at him and soon their relationship became a huge public drama in the office. The mother of his child had to watch humiliated as my friend broke up with him and everyone began to talk about it. My friend suffered anew when they got back together, only for him to cheat on her shortly thereafter with another woman in the organization who he met while traveling. To make matters worse, he made sure that MSF Headquarters created a job for his new partner in my friend’s department, forcing her to see her replacement regularly.

Throughout this sordid drama I kept asking myself: What kind of management would allow all this drama in their department? Aren’t managers also supposed to be in charge of the morale of their employees? Don’t they want people focused on the work, which is supposed to be about saving lives in humanitarian emergencies? Isn’t our work difficult and challenging enough without constant drama about all these sexual relationships on top of it?

Apparently not at MSF. Male managers – particularly those in the operations department – constantly prioritized their sexual pleasure over their job. Further, their male friends supported and encouraged it, or at the very least kept silent about it so as not to jeopardize their own climb through the ranks.

I recall trying to give a session at the Senior Management Training on the code of conduct and explain why you can’t have sex with sex workers or beneficiaries at MSF – only to be introduced and immediately knocked down to size by one of the HR men: “Here comes Sarah from HAD to tell you why you can’t do all of the things you want to do that are fun.” Fun. Oh yes, there is nothing more fun than resorting to sex work in order to support yourself and your family due to lack of other opportunities for women in the workplace. And listening to these men argue with me about the morality of paid sex work and “what about?” me about sex work in Amsterdam where it was legal. Always playing “devil’s advocate” and “poking holes” always challenging me, leaving me feeling angry and frustrated at the end of every session because I didn’t have a quick enough response to convince them. And I wasn’t enough of a “cool girl” just to go along with it. And feeling super grateful to the “one decent man” who I wish I could name, when he finally had enough of the disrespect coming from my training participants and told them that he agreed with me and shut them down. They respected him. He was a man. He was operations. He was everything I wasn’t.

But unlike the “one decent man”, a man with a good reputation and well respected, these very same male managers used their power as an aphrodisiac and women, who were ambitious and wanted to get ahead, knew they had to play this game of flattering them and flirting with them and even sleeping with them in order to advance. A lesbian friend of mine witnessing one of the debauched field-HQ parties asked me, “How do you do it? Look at these men. They are disgusting.”

My memories: Drunk married men slamming down shots and showing off to women always much younger than them. Sordid affairs. Shaking hands from alcohol in the morning. Lined faces from too many late nights at the local pub, the Eik and Linde.

The Awakening

Being in this environment took its toll. Mental health officers kept quitting. It’s like working in a junkie ward, one of them said to me. A male friend, who eventually burned out and quit MSF, saw me in a very bad place in the coffee room one day. He told me a story about working in the field with a bunch of toxic people and how someone took pity on him and invited him to dinner. Then he invited me to dinner. I couldn’t tell him why I was suffering even though I was not alone. It helped just to be in the company of a decent person.

Another woman at the Psychological Support Unit also helped. She listened and got me to a therapist. But she was told by her sexist boss, that this was not her job. Not her job to help the many of us who turned to her about MSF’s sexist and toxic culture? She was forced out. The same boss told another young women who worked at MSF that maybe she wasn’t cut out for humanitarian work when she asked to leave her placement early because male colleagues were harassing her, stalking her and issuing death threats to her. It wasn’t living in a mud hut in the middle of the Congo that was the thing this woman couldn’t deal with. It was the harassment from her male colleague. Ironically, he now positions himself as the champion to end sexual harassment in the organization, finally coming on board to the issue after 20 years there.

But still I stayed at MSF because there were all the people I had admired so much in the field doing amazing work to support vulnerable people in hard to reach places like Central African Republic and Syria and South Sudan. So many strong and good people. “It’s just a few rotten apples in the barrel.” I reasoned to myself.

So we fought to have trainings on sexual violence response for our sisters in the field (because it was almost only always sisters). And we fought to have a policy in place that all responses had to be prepared to respond to sexual violence in all cases. On my first field visit to the Central African Republic, our midwives and women told me about the high levels of violence against women there but no one wanted to do anything about it. The mental health officer was instructed not to address the issue. And I fought another female coworker for the right to support the women working in our rape clinics in DRC who weren’t allowed to communicate directly with me who could support them in their work. And I fought another colleague to go to India and meet the staff who had taken up addressing sexual violence on their own (without much support form headquarters). And fought for the Papua New Guinea project that was set up specifically because rape was so high there that the violence was worse than many of the places we worked. When I visited there, I had to argue with the male head of mission that “tribal violence” was not more important than the domestic violence and rape that the women we were trying to help were dealing with. They were always looking for a reason not to have to address violence against women. Finally, after so many women fought them to keep the Papua New Guinea program open, it was closed — “handed-over” to an indifferent government who always had the resources to respond but chose not to for years. What happens to those patients now? Who will care for those women, speak out on their behalf, and try to ameliorate the pain of rape and violence?

The Aftermath

And what happens to the MSF women who used to tell me after our trainings, when I raised self-care and sexual harassment and safety as an issue, about the manager who would try to break down their doors after a night of drinking, or who thought he owned them, threatening to end their precious humanitarian careers if they said anything? The senior executive at the bar late at night who stuck his hand up their skirt and leered at them knowingly? These women, usually in the field for the first time – often just left. They were too afraid that they would damage MSF if they said anything. They were willing to accept the damage themselves rather than risk the reputation of MSF. They kept silent with their stories of guys on the emergency team (the biggest cowboys of a cowboy agency) and notorious “womanizers” and talked about it only late at night with other women – passing on advice on how to manage these men. “Everyone knew” but these men are allowed to continue to harass and pursue women in the field. Their sexual pleasure is more important than committing to a professional humanitarian response and a workplace free from sexual harassment.

Speaking of refusing to committing to a workplace free from sexual harassment, watch Jason Cone, the current executive director of MSF USA here, on this video (https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=2133&v=46X7BSoedEM) explain how he REFUSES to implement a resolution about making MSF sexual harassment free because “we are an organization full of human beings and there is no possibility for us to create an environment that is 100% free of those things… These things happen. I cannot commit to this because I have not seen a place where these things do not happen. The intent can be there but I will not commit to it.”

In other words, no different from the UN peacekeeping missions I investigated – boys will be boys. Despite the pleas of the MSF women trying to introduce this resolution, maintaining that MSF needs to be aspirational and change the culture, he continuously pushes back. How is he still the director in the litigious USA of all places when he refuses to address this culture? He makes a personal pledge to follow up on any reports, putting the burden on the women to come forward first and trust him. But will he do anything to change the culture? No. “I’m just telling you aspirations are good but human reality is what we are dealing with. I cannot deliver a workplace free of abuse of power or sexual harassment, anyone who claims they can is lying.”

How many women have to come forward though? One of the men who worked with me had three complaints filed by three different women against him after a field visit. The punishment? He was told he would have to travel with our female boss if he went to the field. So he moved to a different section of MSF working in the field  – where who knows what happened to him. Certainly his career didn’t get hurt after these complaints. Coming forward and reporting, as most women know, means YOU leave the organization and nothing happens to the man – they bounce on to another position in the organization.

And I realize now, after I left in 2011 (after 6 months of sick leave that led to a failed re-integration), that I was willing to be damaged and absorb it myself rather than hurt the reputation of the organization. I loved MSF too much. But it was the love of a person in an abusive relationship with a toxic organization that prioritized the libidos and egos of its operational men over the emotional lives and careers of the idealistic young women who came to work there.

MSF was an ugly place to work. I have to admit that even mutual support and solidarity among the women was lacking. When I reached out to other women to see if they felt the same way I did, I left myself open to accusations of being a “typical American prude,” with a female colleague mocking my interest in responding to violence against women as my “gender thing.” Other women who I had looked up to in the organization were openly hostile because they were the ones who “owned” sexual violence response as an issue. They didn’t see the need to build a network to support each other from the men who would not be happy if their privilege was challenged. It was too dangerous to be seen as one of the feminist women bitching about the men’s behavior and how they acted. That might throw them out of the “cool girl” club and stop their climb to the top.

Time’s Up

So, MSF. You have turned a blind eye and let all this abuse and misbehavior continue. Women have tried to work through your systems, have put forward resolutions at general assemblies, have reported abuses, have fought for more programs to address gender-based violence. And what’s the answer? It sounds like year after year of “be patient” and “boys will be boys.” Not so different from the UN after all.

Well, time is up. The culture in MSF must change. Just as medical professionals know that you must lance a boil in order to allow the infection to drain out and the body to heal, we must lance the festering boil of sexist culture at MSF and allow the suppurating men who prey on women there to drain out so the organization can heal and do its work the way it was meant to be. The idealistic women working in MSF, the idealistic women donating their hard earned money to MSF and the vulnerable women and children in humanitarian zones depending on MSF deserve better than this.

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40 thoughts on ““Holier than thou” MSF needs its own #MeToo moment [Update]

  1. sabeyeontheworld

    Thank you so much for sharing. I am sorry about all of this. I am also exhasuted to hear similar stories over and over again. And you are right, the MeToo movement is trendy and some may even use it to get promoted… But hopefully we could use this as a leverage to come together and get systems in place to tackle this endemci plague.

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  2. Jennifer

    I recall, when working in Bunia, DR Congo in 2006, being asked if on top of my job I would serve as the (volunteer, unpaid) gender focal point for our regional office. I had no qualifications for this. But I was a woman. And in fact I was a passionate advocate for human rights, transparency, and free expression and saw respect for diversity as primordial to these. I accepted the role and did my best with limited resources.

    Now, when I read this and learn all that you, author, were doing at the time – knowing all too well the context of misaligned attitudes (or let’s say informed attitudes-still-in-formation) – I wish to express my utmost respect. I thank you. For me, and for the women in far more precarious situations than my own who ultimately schooled me. I thank you also for writing this now; for establishing a record, and setting it straight.

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  3. Maria ordonez

    You brave girl! In the name of all the others that left or keep silence !!! MSF must change and send the macho-dinosaurs out of all teams.

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  4. Gabes

    I worked a long time for MSF myself, just like you it’s an organization I love, and have great admiration for the work it does in the field. But no organization is good enough to get away with such things. I know what you describe is genuine. And it must stop. I salute your courage.

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  5. Cindy0505

    But let’s face it. I am a female working at MSF and there are always a certain percentage of jerks – either male or female – and there was always a much higher percentage of dedicated people working hard on their jobs – again, both male and female. True this organization, as well as the entire society, should do more to address these issues, and what was considered acceptable in the past no longer is – which was never something acceptable in the past either, but I mean culturally and in the general perception. Views on boys being boys is only now really starting to change – that is not only at MSF but also at MSF along with the general society.

    There is a big majority of people in the organization really working hard for a good cause, and the flaws will and should be addressed and fixed. And people like yourself addressing these issues should be applauded. Much work to be done to educate staffs properly on behaviors and the society in general on what is really acceptable. But at the same time, I think we should be cautious not to undermine the entire organization by labeling it as a sexist organization. If we start doing that and asking 100% purity, all existing organizations in this world should be dissolved.

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  6. Sandy

    “I watched in shocked amazement as the alpha males of MSF raced around trying to hook up and sleep with as many women as possible.” –hyperbole or just exaggeration?
    “Male managers – particularly those in the operations department – constantly prioritized their sexual pleasure over their job.” — all of them, right?
    “But unlike the “one decent man”, a man with a good reputation and well respected, these very same male managers used their power as an aphrodisiac and women, who were ambitious and wanted to get ahead, knew they had to play this game of flattering them and flirting with them and even sleeping with them in order to advance.” — so the ambitious women are also at fault.
    “They were too afraid that they would damage MSF if they said anything.” — Isn’t it that you cannot find a bigger critic of MSF than within MSF? I have never witnessed more self criticism in an organization than at an MSF meeting.
    Sorry, but you sound incredibly self righteous. I’m impressed MSF is taking you seriously, because they are.
    I do not have all the experiences you have had, but the two”no-go” rules of OCA have been 1. Do not sleep with national staff, ever. 2. Do not smoke pot in the field.
    I’m not saying the things you write about didn’t happen, but your blanket statements give a different picture than many of us have. Thanks for sharing, but please do not take things out of context just to defend your perspective.

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  7. Fernanda

    This is exactly what we (women) need! Courage!!! To speak up… to act… to express! Great article and I really admire you!

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  8. Estrella

    Wow, quite amazed, and thank you for your bravery in writing this up. It’s incredible the amount of things we tolerate as “normal” as well as what happens to us women when we want to be part of the boys club, and turn a blind eye to the obvious.
    I think it is possible to continue loving what we do as an organization, even though we don’t love many of the things that happen within the organization. Self-criticism is part of that love, and we definitely need to fix this. Several motions are being proposed to the upcoming GAs to better monitor GBV and to ensure that the MSF culture is sensitive to this issue. It’s not a definite solution but it’s a start.

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  9. Luca

    I am reading and crying at the same time. From your words I could easily identify those people. They are still there, and what they do in the field is much worse. On my first day on the field I was told by the Project Coordinator, a woman, that to survive in the field I would need to follow 3 rules: smoke everything, drink everything and F#ck everybody.

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  10. ce11ard00r77

    I am an OBGYN physician in private practice in the middle of my career … Opted to take my 5 wks of vacation all at once so that I could volunteer with MSF in Northern Nigeria during the summer of 2014. Most dysfunctional arrangement ever. I was treated like a punch card worker in a factory. The field officer spent his days browsing the web and wanted to make sure no one was around to witness his laziness so every morning he would blaze through the compound questioning why people weren’t “working”. .. little did he realize the few physicians that were there, spent endless hours day and NIGHT managing an extremely overwhelmed and short staffed maternity ward and may actually be trying to catch up on the sleep they missed out on the night before while manning the non-stop flow of obstetrical catastrophes throughout the night. I was so disappointed with how I was treated that month.. my lifelong dream of working with MSF forever shattered. The physician before me was also treated awfully. I thank this blogger for having the courage to post her experience and I am grateful that now I know it wasn’t only me who had experienced the “dark side” of MSF.

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    1. Ex-MSFer

      MSF is no longer the lovey dovey humanitarian NGO that it used to be in the 90’s. It is now very much a greedy capitalist corporation that is trying to live on its old fame, full of corruption and people who are so unfit and nonprofessional, I say this after going on various missions with them as a medical … MSF is now a great waste of donors money. It’s just a matter of time that donors will wake up and have more awareness and put their money where it will actually go to the beneficiaries, rather that towards corrupt and lazy staff and field workers …

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      1. waterboy

        That’s a bit f***ing harsh for the people who are risking their necks right now in the field to do the important that MSF did in the 90s and is doing now. Easy with the broad brush, my dude. The blog author raises an important critique regarding pernicious parts of the culture that need to be fixed — but comments like this are just garbage.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Bill

        So funny, or naive. Talk to people who worked for MSF during the the 90’s, it is much more professional now. I’ve had the misfortune of being in the field with people who are effectively unemployable. How they got through recruitment amazes me. Having said that I met many more fantastic colleagues on mission. The author is right, about some in the emergency team(s), a lot of heroes there, just ask them.

        As for the sexual harassment, let’s have the msf metoo, and get these clowns out.

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  11. Third Culture Wanderer

    Thank you for this. This is shocking but sadly not surprising. I’ve been working in child safeguarding for over a decade and sadly I know there are issues in every NGO, faith-based setting, school setting, scouts, sports, on and on…and sexual harassment and abuse, also found everywhere, is finally getting called out. It’s about time. I was working with Save the Children and in Papua New Guinea when MSF started working there, first in Lae and then in Tari. They were doing some amazing, critical work supporting women victims of violence. I didn’t know the program had closed – that also saddens me. MSF is one of the only organisations I’ve continuously donated to over the years. I won’t stop, because these efforts need funding, but I will be watching to see what real actions come from this. As with all the organisations who are now making claims of zero tolerance and making change. I’ve got my eye on you…

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  12. Sandy

    I see you are only posting replies that agree with you. That’s certainly your prerogative. I just hope you consider that your perspective isn’t the only one. You have written blanket statements that implicate many people, including those who don’t deserve it.

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    1. Virginie

      I agree with you. I am a first missionner in the field. They exist some jerks (like everywhere in society) but most of my male colleagues are a awesome. Just working hard to help people and being very nice with their male and female colleagues. Dont include every male manager in your accusation. And dont include all first female missionner as being “ambitious” and so. Its very sexist. All women are not poor things…

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  13. A

    My experience as a physician volunteer a few years before you started is consistent with what you are describing. Like you and many others I had hoped to have a more meaningful relationship with MSF but abandoned those aspirations when it became clear that all long-term positions, leadership roles, and general admission to the inner sanctum required fitting into a culture fueled by cigarettes, alcohol, sex, and power. And while the culture is the most toxic to women, it also results in a loss of good men. When a male colleague called me up in the midst of a career crisis to ask about my experience because he was considering pursuing a long-term role with MSF, I told him in no uncertain terms that while he would certainly find the field work rewarding that I advised against it because he would not fit into the culture and I was concerned he would be unbearably lonely. I hope MSF can change but I have to disagree with other commenters who think it is just a few bad apples, it is not. And while men certainly drove the culture and were its greatest beneficiaries at the time, as you mention there was no shortage of women who found reason to protect the statis quo. I appreciate you speaking up about it and I am sorry for the further abuse you will have to endure for doing so.

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  14. amandascothernnew

    Sarah, good on you for writing this and drawing attention to the realities of what goes on in most humanitarian organisations especially in the field (where I have more experience than at HQ). I’ve worked for more than 15 years with organisations including UN DPKO and the International Red Cross and Red Crescent as well as smaller NGOs and recognise all the behaviours you are talking about. And have also experienced the ‘culture of silence’ that goes along with it. Just one thing I would like to add: you talk about powerful males in the organisation prioritising their sexual pleasure over their work. I would challenge that reading. What we know about gender-based violence including harassment, is that it is about POWER, not sex, and I believe that is the case here too. It is power not sex that is the big motivator here – and that is why it goes along with intimidation, silencing and ridiculing of anyone who challenges it. I admire your courage for having the courage to do so even in the face of all of that.

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  15. bubble

    I read this blogpost with interest, yet after reading it a few times and allowing the content to sink in, I got angrier and angrier. I am a young female MSFer at the start of my career, I consider myself a feminist.

    My first issue is that the author points to “a number of events” allowing her to claim that she had joined a “toxic and sexist” organisation, and therefore brands a whole organisation toxic and sexist.

    In addition, the judgmental comments on people having affairs while married, large age differences between partners as well as liberal sexual behavior are uncalled for, none of these are against the law and don’t point to any misbehavior on the part of anyone as long as there was consent. If you hope this point makes your case stronger it really does not. MSF does not claim to be holier than thou, moreover, MSF is but a reflection of the society so of course you will have some people not behaving appropriately and by all means these should be reported using the appropriate means. Furthermore, if someone wants to sleep around, it’s not really for you to judge, and come on this happens everywhere, so why on earth would it not happen at MSF.
    My biggest issue is that I feel denigrated as a women, you imply that every women who is perfectly happy and content at MSF is so only because she is playing by the rules of this “toxic and sexist organisation”,and the only way a woman can get ahead is by flattering males and sleep with them. Do you have any idea how denigrating this is to all the hardworking young women trying to advance their careers within MSF, a large majority of which I am sure do not engage in this behaviour and more importantly DO NOT NEED to engage in this type of behaviour to advance their careers.

    You had the opportunity to address all of these issues in a constructive way and have chosen not to do so in my opinion. I would encourage you to use the mechanisms available to report these things rather than going for cheap wins. I am sorry you have experienced these things, but am concerned you chose to address them in this way and more importantly the way you perceive the happy and content women at MSF as condoning and going along with this alleged behaviour.

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  16. Nobuhle

    My sympathies for your experience. My experiences were different, albeit already a while ago. I put this down to the fact that I come from african descent. In actual fact I had the feeling that I was “categorised” as a third gender in my group. i.e. The Caucasian men, the Caucasian women and then the African. I did face some frustrations as a result, but perhaps this status also saved me from experiences similar to yours.

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    1. waterboy

      This is a real thing. The racial dynamics at play in the organization — and the humanitarian sector at large — can also be pretty messed up.

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  17. jewels

    I have done several missions with MSF, I have seen this in the field, experienced it in the field, and generally have been really disappointed in the integrity of the organization top down. The power dynamics are exploited and the level of sexual harassment is unparallel to any job I’ve ever worked in North America. So much of it is accepted as part of the MSF culture. This is “reality”. Most Head of Missions are sleeping with another expat, many sex jokes are made that are off side and embarrassing to witness, and speaking up makes you suddenly “have no sense of humour” or ostracized.
    I would never choose to come forward to speak about these experiences because I think it would simply hurt my career the most, and I believe in the work and want to continue to go to the field and keep my head down and work. I don’t trust that an “external party” will be able to determine if sexual harassment occurred in many cases as it is one person’s word against another (in many instances unless there are witnesses), and especially at high levels, it is easier to keep on these powerful people and people in lower positions simply have less credibility.
    I believe in the work, but I always am anxious meeting a new team because there are almost always toxic or sexually inappropriate personalities.
    You shouldnt have to fend off sexual advances from all the male figures in positional leadership or your peers, and its just so disappointingly common.

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  18. TT

    “A recent blog post describes MSF as a sexist and toxic organization. And yet the writer chooses sexist and toxic words to denounce the organization’s office culture. I understand – crusades for ‘right’ so often mirror the language of their enemies. But, given the writer’s background in humanitarian affairs, I expect her to know this. Given her background in public writing, I expect better.” https://tellingthetimes.tumblr.com

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    1. Y

      TT, I read your piece and had a tough time understanding what point(s) you were trying to make. Your blog post consists quoting a passage from this blog and then following with a critique of her passage, over and over again. Each time you seem to agree she has a legitimate point but the way in which it is said is deficient; the language she uses is inappropriate. It is a criticism of the form and not the substance of her writing.

      Your approach just seems to add confusion where you could have used your skills to provide clarity and help identify the problems you see exist in the organization and even give some suggestions for improvement.

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    2. J. Banks

      I couldn’t work out what point the author of the tumblr blog was trying to make. It sounds mosylu like tone policing and ad hominem attacks rather than adding anything substantive to the discussion. Is the author saying that this stuff doesn’t happen? Or it is just that the author wants to point out this article’s puritanical and prudish view that supervisors shouldn’t aggressively pursue their subordinates and colleagues for sex at every and all opportunity is in fact mistakingly characterizing it as an obsession with sex to the detriment of the mission when what is really going on is these hot young thangs are just expressing their sexual liberation (and the subsequent promotion is clearly incidental). If you want to be taken seriously as an organisation you need to clean up your act, MSF. The defensiveness really doesn’t do you credit.

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  19. Ntombi

    it is too obvious who wrote this blog. The style is very identifiable and circular logic too.
    These are the kind of women MSF brings out to defend them.
    Women who go to the top BECAUSE they are part of this boys club and because they ignored abuse of other women to showed how tough they are.
    “For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house”.
    MSF is getting excited now only because of the blog but many women and men reported many times and ignored.
    They are racist to Africans in our own country. They say horrible things and if we complain they say its a joke. They do not respect us, they think they doing us a favor.
    If they can not respect us and our people then it is better they go somewhere else. We do not want more colonialism.
    We do not want more expats behaving badly and making us all ashamed.
    When expats involved in abuse, MSF does not notify local police. The man will be shipped out over night. This breaks local law. they protect MSF name instead of women.

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  20. Sam

    Thank you for speaking-up, Sarah. Your courage to do so means a lot for those of us from smaller MSF sections on the other side of the world, where the abuse and exploitation also exists but staff choose to protect the MSF brand or are too scared and inexperienced to challenge and withstand further bullying and harassment from the Executive and HR when they do speak-up. As a medical humanitarian organisation, it is shameful it took going public for MSF to address meaningfully these well-known and long-standing issues and speaks to other issues such as professionalism, ability and accountability gaps which also need to be addressed during this process. I sincerely hope the new investigations undertaken by external actors will be 100% impartial, honest and deliver justice to staff, past and present, who have been harmed by MSF so they may heal. I sincerely hope those found guilty of abusing their positions of power, including those in the Executive and Management teams who chose to turn a blind eye or spent their energy covering up incidents and losing records, are also removed from the organisation. MSF staff and beneficiaries deserve and need great leadership with credibility and ability as well as working environments free from abuse to live up to the values and mission of the organisation. This should be a given not something we have to repeatedly ask for.

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  21. Not my experience

    This is quiet an unbalanced perspective. Since when is an employer responsible for its employees affairs outside of work? Neither MSF or any other body can responsibilize themselves for the employees behaviour outside of work. That men or women may seek to have affairs is not isolated to MSF, it occurs even in the most academic health care settings. At least that is my experience. What gives us the right to be so righteousness?
    It is a shame to bash all managers and MSF with opinions that are not based on fact but hear say.

    My experience with MSF has been fair. I have had great managers and I worked my way up from front line volunteer to HQ without ever having given any type of ultimatum. I thank my managers for their mentorship and commitment to their work in order to assist those vulnerable. I feel for those great managers and the fact that their reputation is placed in a large sac with those exceptions that might not have behaved appropriately. Humans are not perfect, and MSF is made of humans.

    I think there needs to be more understanding in what is the scope of MSF when on the field. At times, MSF can not be the savoir for everything and concessions need to be made. We all know the story too well. Do we speak out? If we do we may loose access to our population. Loosing access means loosing the ability to assist them in their survival.

    Let’s keep it all in perspective before unprofessionally lashing out.

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  22. EC

    Sarah, I understand your personal frustrations and accept that maybe you went through a different experience. But this is not tbe msf that I know.
    I have been working in hq and the field for over 15 years with different sections and I don’t relate to the organisation you are trying to picture here at all!. On the contrary, by no means perfect, but super proud of the work that msf does. I have also been other organisations in both field and Hqs so I do have points of Terence.
    Lots to improve for sure but I don’t see how you can aim for change by destroying things first. Lots of your comments are VERY subjective and many contain annecdotes and adult consented relations for what i am able to see. There were other bridges and pathways you could have built but you choose expresely a destructive one. I heard you plan is
    to go the international media and wonder what’s the gain of this? You will further take things out of context and you will be further destructive on your way.
    Simultaneously AGMs are being held world wide within msf were association and boards members are debating and discussing prevention and treatment of abuse as part of their agendas, to use our own medical terms. Something we have been addressing for some years now and that we expect with the constructive contribution of all of us we can manage to improve and find solutions together. You probably could have managed more positive changes down that path if you wanted to actively and effectively achieve those changes that you seem to
    eagerly support.

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    1. Y

      What is the destructive path she is taking? The author gave an opinion and recounted her experience, how is that destructive? Having a discussion and being transparent about the problems in the organization can lead to addressing these serious issues if the organization is open. The author recounted multiple instances of what I consider inappropriate behavior, abuse of power and conflicts of interest. If you saw no serious issues presented in the blog then it is understandable you think the organization is doing just fine.

      The last comment you make AGMs seems strange to me. The association can have an impact on policy but we all know this rarely happens and if it does very slowly. This is the not the operational realm of the organization where there are often policies and procedures in place that are simply not enforced. God help us if the vehicle of change for MSF is the AGM. You can be sure all the good work discussing how to deal with sexual harassment and abuse of power at the AGM can be thrown out the window at the alcohol-fueled after party.

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  23. RDW

    i was at a HA conf in december, presenting on a gender panel, and someone from MSF said they were tired of hearing this feminist shit..

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  24. Olga

    To read experiences from former, present, future MSF colleague is always interesting and good to have an easy access to it through different media. Presented topic became popular last days and it brought to discussion a lot of polar thoughts. With all respect to the autor, but does an accusative and misandric tone of the blog really help to increase an awareness about gender-based violence programs or about sexual harassement issues among staff? Probably it will just complicate a conflict. It is completely understandable that sometimes person reaches a point, when only with such a strong presentation it is possible to break the wall of ignorance. But unfortunately it is very difficult to make a positive change through destruction. I didn’t see here objective and constructive critics or
    some ideas to solve a problem raised. But may be because the blog was not about search for solution, it is was about sharing personal emotional experience.
    I don’t know about HQ, but in the field we are always a group of “caracters”, may be a little bit more pronounced, than colleagues in stable 40 hours/week office/clinic job. Expectable, people choosing humanitarian work are not the easiest people to deal with, but such an interesting people. We all are adventuristic, independient and strong personalities. Some colleagues experienced to be a victim of humanitarian crisis or had a family involved, some colleauges grew up far from it, basically it doesn’t matter, mostly all of us joined the organization voluntary, having the same humanistic motivation. And it is predictible, that in such a multicultural, multipersonal environment communication is difficult. To bring a clear opinion, to be well understood is not easy. Also it takes a lot of effort to learn how to find an approach to different people, to be a médecin sans frontières but still with your own borders, to separate private from professional, etc., but it is still possible to learn or develope. To name a difficult people or situations “toxic” and give up – it is easy. Frankly speaking, many times I did the same. But it will not change a situation, or will not open eyes on things, which other people may be can not see or didn’t see, as you’ve seen.
    In this work there are occasions to feel frustrated, hopeless, useless. But much more frequent I feel inspired, motivated, hopefull and thankfull, no matter how simple it may sound. May be I was lucky.

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  25. Anonymous

    I am surprised that more people have not yet shared their experience.
    Although it is very true that an organisation is not responsible for the behaviour outside of working environment, or office hours, we are not only talking about ethics – we must also remember that there is a Charter that must be upheld. This Charter is the basis of all action and activity of MSF. Why should the Charter not apply to expats in the field or at HQ?
    Why should a strong code of conduct not be upheld in the field? There are easy avenues to resolve a conflict arising because of sexual harrassment or sexual violence in a regular office environment – the same MUST happen in the humanitarian field.

    I do not wish to have a public expose, I wish to have concrete change happen that leads to an absolute zero tolerance policy on sexual harrassment in the field. We live with our colleagues in the same house(s). Women deserve a safe working environment.
    If nobody will listen and protect the working environment for women, then the only avenue useful to effect such a change is to use the public domain, and start a public conversation.

    What happened in the field, and this is a combination of personal experience and experience of trustworthy colleagues:
    – for two years many many women complained about a man from the capital team that would not stop contacting them, myself included, sending non stop messages, unsolicited invitations etc. We were all told at different times that it is too difficult to get good staff, and that there is no intention of disciplining or firing the man. Yes two years!
    – a man sent messages saying he was masturbating while talking a female colleague on the phone. She was told that people in HQ have a positive view of him, and must remember that if she wishes to complain.
    – expat men using the organisation vehicles to pick up prostitutes, and bring these women to the compound.
    – HR saying to women why do they want to raise a complaint or enter a fight that they cannot win.

    Real concrete zero tolerance policy toward sexual harrassment is what is needed and wanted.
    That being said the organisation is otherwise quite an amazing and great place to work. I would not want to be anywhere else.

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