Aid organisations fail to protect LGBTQI+ aid workers in the field

‘We are not getting it right for diverse employees in the field, nor are we are meeting our duty of care obligations for those working at HQ.’

Person stands looking out of an airport window.
Many of the most pressing humanitarian crises take place in countries that criminalise LGBTQI+ people, meaning some members of the community feel endangered when working abroad. (Ana Maria Arevalo/Reuters)

Staff from my organisation were recently training personnel in a partner NGO in the Philippines on climate change adaptation and disaster risk reduction. They were pleasantly surprised to see LGBTQI+ people were already included in the evacuation plan of even remote villages in the poorest islands.

In places like the Philippines, sexuality can be a taboo subject, but the overall goal is to ensure that no one is left behind when a disaster hits. 

Humanitarian programmes are taking LGBTQI+ people’s rights and needs more and more into account. This is a fantastic move forward. But what about the humanitarians themselves? 

My organisation has operations in Jordan and when I visited the Amman office earlier last year, even though being gay is legal there, I put myself back in the closet. For some, like me, coming out wasn’t easy.

Being part of the LGBTQI+ community whilst on deployment in countries where homosexuality is illegal can force people back into the closet. 

Sometimes aid organisations lurch towards addressing buzzwords, like LGBTQI+, in their programming whilst not considering those who work in their organisations and deliver those programmes. 

Donors want to see that funding proposals include consideration of marginal groups, that communities are engaged within programme design, and that project information is “disaggregated” – to distinguish people with certain needs and requirements. Yet they fail to demand the same of the organisations themselves. 

“Being part of the LGBTQI+ community whilst on deployment in countries where homosexuality is illegal can force people back into the closet. ”

This is a failing of aid organisations in general. We are not getting it right for diverse employees in the field, nor are we are meeting our duty of care obligations for those working at HQ. 

When going on holiday, we make our own decisions on our destination, and our decision may factor in the country’s attitudes to the LGBTQI+ community. However, there is often no choice in a work context, and this can cause great distress and even danger.

A recent report by a UN expert looking more broadly at sexual orientation and gender identity said that, despite “immense progress” in reducing discrimination, there is “a vicious cycle of hatred... It impacts on their social inclusion and hinders their access to healthcare, education, housing, employment, political participation, personal security and freedom from violence.”

This is alarming and shameful. And the risks to aid workers are real.

The most pressing humanitarian crises take place in countries that criminalise LGBTQI+: Iraq, Lebanon, Nigeria, South Sudan, Sudan, Syria, Yemen, and so on. Should I stop working in those areas – where humanitarians are most needed?

Countries such as Australia, Austria, Canada, Denmark, Iceland, Netherlands all allow for an X as a gender identifier in passports, but how would that work if an aid worker deployed to a country where having an X for a gender identifier could be culturally unacceptable? Most humanitarian travellers have to juggle passports for visa reasons, but this would add an extra dimension. 

So how do aid agencies uphold their duty of care to staff, in deployment countries where being queer is illegal or culturally not accepted? 

I am worried about the failure of organisations to have policies, processes, and procedures in place, whether it is to offer LGBTQI+ staff legal protection from discrimination, to give them recognition of their relationships with same sex partners, or to help those who are unable to apply for accompanying visas for their loved-ones.

Only a very few international aid organisations have specific policies to prevent LGBTQI+ discrimination.

How can this all improve?

Five actions to drive change:

1. More diversity in aid agency leadership. A study of Britain’s top 100 charities revealed that most leaders are middle-aged white men – the absence of any form of diversity in leadership is stark. When there is homogeneity at the top, there is a tendency to assume that staff are also homogenous. This also applies to boards of trustees, many of which lack diversity, and where training in equality and diversity could facilitate a trickle-down effect.

2. A top-down, cohesive approach to diversity. CEOs, boards, and trustees should devise global policies for inclusive organisations, not singling out LGBTQI+. They should stop perpetuating issues by permitting different policies in different regional or national locations. One example: addressing conscious and unconscious bias in recruitment, where people aren’t recruited for locations where homosexuality is illegal or socially unacceptable because the interviewer assesses them to be LGBTQI+ because of their hair, clothes, mannerisms, the way they walk or talk etc. We can’t force people in an office environment to come out, nor is it acceptable to guess a person’s sexuality and make decisions based on that guess.

3. A public champion. The sad truth is that only high-level panels, star personalities, or the exposure of system-wide deficiencies such as safeguarding failures seem to drive real change. One example of this is Penny Mordaunt, the former UK aid minister, and her fight for recognition of challenges of people with disabilities. Her focus on this protected characteristic led to a strong mindset change on addressing the needs of disabled people within an aid context. It is time for a major figure to champion LGBTQI+ challenges and needs.

4. Legal changes. The current state of play is damned if you do, damned if you don’t. Singling out somebody with a protected characteristic in order to protect them whilst deployed can land an employer in court for not treating them equally, but failure to identify protected characteristics can also end in a lawsuit if an incident does occur and the employer had failed to take sexuality and/or gender into account.

5. Enhancing informed consent. I strongly believe that deployment risk assessments must provide specific information regarding LGBTQI+ humanitarians so that all staff – LGBTQI+ or not – can give informed consent for deployment, and that risk assessments include the cultural and legal environment. Staff should never be punished for deciding not to deploy.

Here are some good ideas to start with, so what are we waiting for?

RedR UK provides humanitarian training and support for NGOs and aid workers worldwide. We give people the skills to be ready for, and respond to major disasters like earthquakes, floods, conflict and drought. We trained 4,015 people in 32 countries in 2018/2019.

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