Reporting #AidToo: how social media spaces empowered women in the 2018 charity scandals
By Dr Glenda Cooper, Senior Lecturer in City, University of London's Department of Journalism
A recent report from the UK’s Charity Commission into allegations of sexual harassment by senior staff at the charity Save the Children UK is incredibly damaging. The report concluded that the charity failed the women who reported abuse as well as its staff and the wider public.
Save the Children’s handling of such matters was so poor in some respects that it amounted to mismanagement, the report concluded. The issue the Charity Commission examined related to allegations of inappropriate behaviour and sexual harassment that came to light in 2018 about the charity’s former chief executive, Justin Forsyth, and former director of policy, Brendan Cox.
But the complaints against Forsyth went back as far as 2012, and 2015 for Cox. So why the delay in reporting on these and how did the matter finally come to widespread public attention?
Journalists such as Sean O’Neill, chief reporter of The Times, Simon Walters, political editor of the Mail on Sunday, and Manveen Rana of the BBC played a crucial role in bringing these problems to public attention. But also important was the way women working in the aid sector used social media to support each other and ensure justice was done.
Academics Chris Greer and Eugene McLaughlin call this process intermediatisation – “the viral interaction within and between corporate and social media”. They describe scandal as a process with stages – latency, activation, reaction, amplification and accountability – to explain how a story can move from being an “open secret” to publication.
Having researched the #AidToo scandals that engulfed Save the Children UK and also Oxfam GB in February 2018, I believe it is clear that the scandal conforms to this model.
When the Oxfam scandal concerning abuse of the charity’s beneficiaries in Haiti first came to light in 2011, it received no more than a handful of short news stories. Brendan Cox’s departure from Save the Children UK merited a piece in the Mail on Sunday but little follow-up from other nationals.
But this did not mean that women were not using different media spaces to support each other. Women from aid agencies used WhatsApp groups to share information and support as well as closed Facebook groups. The “Fifty Shades of Aid” Facebook group launched in 2015 when its founder wrote an article for The Guardian’s Secret Aid Worker series about “flaky aid boys and comedy dating stories” in the humanitarian world.
The group was originally full of lighthearted stories until one poster shared a story of being harassed and abused. In solidarity many started to share similar stories – 800 people joined the group in one week.
Meanwhile, the Humanitarian Women’s Network was set up by aid workers working on the Ebola response in Guinea in Dec 2015 when they realised they had all experienced some form of discrimination and abuse. They launched an influential survey to which more than 1,000 responded, as well as a closed Facebook group for women. So, while the stories around harassment of aid workers were limited in the mainstream media, online spaces were keenly debating the issue.
The #MeToo campaign was also a very important moment. When that hashtag started circulating in October 2017 as the revelations around Harvey Weinstein emerged, many of those I spoke to said it gave those in the aid world considering whether to tell their stories about abuse more courage to do so. The hashtag #AidToo emerged, and the humanitarian website Devex hosted a tweetchat on December 6th 2017 to discuss this issue.
But the big revelations came two months later. O’Neill’s award-winning investigation about abuse by Oxfam in Haiti was published in The Times in February 2018 and was followed by stories about Save the Children UK from Walters and Rana. These reports were undoubtedly hugely important in influencing the public debate. Donors started to desert the agencies, senior staff resigned and the Charity Commission and UK parliament’s international development committee launched investigations.
But, as the Charity Commission outlines in its report, Save the Children UK’s attitude to the media reports was “unduly defensive”. In fact the charity spent more than £100,000 on lawyers in order to try to shut down media reporting. But the result was that aid workers became more – not less – willing to speak, which meant the story would not go away.
Finding a safe space
In particular, the campaigners Alexia Pepper de Caires and Shaista Aziz led the formation of the intersectional feminist platform NGO Safe Space, which gathered testimonies on sexual harassment, abuse and exploitation, and spoke out in many arenas about the issue. Meanwhile Changing Aid set up an online open letter which was signed by more than 1,500 women aid workers calling for change and reform in the patriarchal structures of the aid world.
Others realised that social media was a potent way to get the message across; as one interviewee told me:
Every time I say something on Twitter … the Charity Commission listen; if I write to them on email, they don’t do anything.
So while mainstream media was clearly hugely influential in shining a light on abuse and harassment by Save the Children UK and Oxfam staff, it’s likely that the use of social media platforms, such as WhatsApp and closed Facebook groups, allowed women to connect with other women discussing their experiences, form new media spaces and strategise around how to liaise with mainstream media.
This meant that the scandals were not limited to the usual timescale that all mainstream media operate under but the pressure on aid agencies was kept up, and afforded women a voice that they felt they had been denied in previous times.