Consequences of war for civilian population in Bangassou
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Promoting a work environment free of harassment, exploitation, and abuse

June 22, 2020

Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) promotes a working environment free of harassment and abuse. Our leadership is 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 behavioral commitments and our guiding principles as stipulated in our charter.

The integrity of our organization 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 behavior from our staff that exploits the vulnerability of others, or of employees taking advantage of their position for personal gain.

Grievance and whistle-blowing mechanisms

Procedures, including grievance mechanisms, are in place to encourage prevention, detection, reporting, and management of all types of misbehavior, harassment, and abuse. Through these mechanisms, all staff members are encouraged to report inappropriate behavior 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 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 behavior and management of abuse are regularly updated and improved.

There is a range of ongoing work in this area that has been taking place across the MSF movement in recent years. Examples include:

  • Creating new positions and/or increasing staff support to provide training, field visits, and investigations on these issues
  • Undertaking workshops and other forms of consultation with staff to assess the problem and the steps needed to address it
  • Revising, promoting, and strengthening guidance provided to staff on how to report harassment, abuse, or exploitation
  • Reinforcing awareness at the patient and community level where we have operations
  • Improving data-gathering and sharing across the MSF movement

Managing misbehavior cases confidentially

MSF aims to ensure that these situations are addressed with the utmost confidentiality. We strive to create an environment where people feel they can file complaints without fearing for their safety or their job security. 

Our first priority when misbehavior 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 to bring—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 the availability of such procedures.

2019 update: Reducing barriers to reporting

(Updated on June 22, 2020)

MSF continues to face a challenge of under-reporting when it comes to responsible behavior. Since 2017, we have seen an increase in the number of complaints being reported, which is an encouraging sign that MSF’s reporting mechanisms are being more widely used. While the total number of reports has dipped slightly (by 10 percent) between 2018 and 2019, we believe this is primarily due to a large number of historical cases having been reported in 2018—likely a result of the increased levels of communication on this issue, both internally and externally.  We need to continue working to improve levels of reporting, especially among groups which have tended to be under-represented when it comes to making complaints—including locally-hired MSF staff, patients in MSF projects, and their careers. 2019’s figures have showed increases in the number of reports received from these groups, which is encouraging, though we acknowledge that there is still a long way to go.

In 2019, we had approximately 65,000 individual staff movement-wide, of more than 90 percent were working in the field. We saw a total of 322 grievance complaints made, down from 356 in 2018. This figure relates to alerts and complaints made in the field but does not cover headquarter offices.

Of those complaints, after investigation, 154 were confirmed as either situations of abuse or of inappropriate behavior (134 in 2018). This includes 104 cases which were qualified as abuse, compared to 78 confirmed cases of abuse in 2018  (This covers many forms of abuse: sexual abuse, harassment, and exploitation; abuse of power; psychological harassment; discrimination; physical violence.) A total of 57 staff members were dismissed for all forms of abuse in 2019 (52 dismissals in 2018).   

Of the 104 cases of abuse, 63 were cases of sexual harassment, abuse, or exploitation, up from 59 in 2018. 37 staff were dismissed as a result of those cases in 2019 up from 36 in 2018.

There were also 50 confirmed cases of inappropriate behavior, down from 56 in 2018 (inappropriate behavior includes: mismanagement of people; inappropriate relationships; inappropriate behavior not in line with societal standard or affecting team cohesion; and the use of substances).

While the overall number of complaints is down by 10 percent compared to 2018, it is encouraging to see an increase in the number of complaints being made by groups that have been particularly under-represented: The number of complaints made by national staff increased from 128 in 2018 to 144 in 2019. This is a step in the right direction, although national staff continues to be under-represented, accounting for only 45 percent of all complaints despite making up more than 90 percent of MSF’s field-based workforce.  The number of complaints made by MSF’s patients and their carers has also increased, although it must be noted that this was from a very low base: from 13 in 2018 to 19 in 2019 (an increase of 46 percent).  Underreporting from patients and their carers clearly remains an area where we must continue to focus, to ensure that mechanisms are accessible and understood. During 2019, a number of measures were taken to address this, including the development of staff training modules and workshops to get input from patients and carers.

The reasons for under-reporting are 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 generalized 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 endeavor, for which we are all responsible. We also commit ourselves to do no harm to vulnerable people we are striving to help.

We continue to urge staff, patients, or anyone else who comes into contact with MSF to report any incidents of unacceptable behavior which they come across.   

2018 update: Promoting a safe work environment

(Updated on June 17, 2019)

Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) promotes a working environment free of harassment and abuse. Our leadership is unequivocally committed to fight abuse and to reinforce mechanisms and procedures to prevent and address it. All staff are expected to abide by the MSF movement's behavioral commitments and our guiding principles as stipulated in our charter.

In early 2018, MSF published a statement on the actions we had taken to combat abuse and harassment, the challenges we faced, and the number of cases recorded in 2017. One year on, we have compiled a short update on progress so far, including figures from 2018. We hope that this reporting will help maintain a constructive focus on this important issue.

One of the most significant challenges we identified is of underreporting—and the need to do more to ensure that our staff and patients are aware of, and trust, our reporting mechanisms. 

While the 2018 figures show an increase in the reporting of incidents of unacceptable behavior 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 65,000 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 behavior (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 behavior, up from 22 in 2017 (inappropriate behavior includes: mismanagement of people; inappropriate relationships; inappropriate behavior 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 behavior which they come across.  

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.