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.
All staff resident in Australia and New Zealand, whether working in our international programs or in our Sydney office are required to sign the MSF Australia code of conduct. This code of conduct outlines minimum professional and personal behavioural standards. All staff are expected to: understand, adhere to and abide by the framework in this document. MSF Australia also offers channels at every level of the organisation for misconduct to be reported in confidence.
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.
Grievance and whistle-blowing mechanisms
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.
At MSF Australia we have thorough recruitment and management procedures. We conduct police checks for criminal records as well as working with children checks for all Australians and New Zealanders going to the field. All potential employees undergo reference checks with previous employers and we verify the medical registration licenses of medical practitioners. All field staff also receive pre-departure training including briefings on appropriate behaviour and core values.
Managing misbehaviour 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. All MSF Australia staff office and field staff members have access to free and confidential psychological and psychosocial support services through our employee assistance scheme.
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 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 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.
MSF continues to face a challenge of under-reporting when it comes to responsible behaviour. 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%) 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 carers. 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 per cent 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 behaviour (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 behaviour, down from 56 in 2018 (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).
While the overall number of complaints is down by 10% 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 continue to be under-represented, accounting for only 45% of all complaints despite making up more than 90% 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%). 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.
We will strive to do more
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 generalised violence and impunity, and where populations may be highly dependent on external assistance. The size, turnover 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 ongoing endeavour, 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 behaviour which they come across.