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Save the Children whistleblowers speak out

Brie O’Keefe and Alexia Pepper de Caires
Brie O’Keefe and Alexia Pepper de Caires

‘Save the Children bosses now publicly praise us for what they call a “wake-up call” on harassment but the past few nights I have been having nightmares,’ recounts Brie O’Keefe, a former staff member who helped expose sexual misconduct at the organization. ‘I made an informed decision when I decided to go on the record, but it is exhausting.’

In the past two weeks, two former executives at Save the Children, including the former CEO, have resigned from other positions within the charity sector. The current CEO, Kevin Watkins, has denounced the unsafe office culture under the previous leadership. But survivors say that not enough has truly changed.

‘For years we have been keeping the story alive, and been doubted and side-lined,’ says Alexia Pepper de Caires, O’Keefe’s former colleague and current partner in their campaign against harassment. The pair have been raising the issues they experienced at Save the Children since 2015 with very little coverage, other than one story in the Daily Mail, but now the #MeToo movement has given their campaign momentum. ‘To hear thank you and sorry through public statements – though sorry for what is still not fully admitted – and not see full disclosure nor be invited to help shape next steps to reveal and heal this crisis, feels to us whistleblowers like our voices are still being marginalized. So we have to get louder.’

In debates on harassment in the NGO sector, it is sometimes suggested, as historian Mary Beard did, that the conditions of life in host countries creates an environment where anxious, lonely men slip up, or where the desperate poverty of some women complicates the question of consent.

But Alexia and Brie’s story shows that these explanations are excuses. What happened to them, after all, took place in the NGO sector in London; the offences were committed against, among others, ‘middle-class white women with degrees’ by happily married men at the pinnacle of respectability in the NGO sector.

Since their story finally broke, Alexia and Brie have been on a whirlwind of media appearances – suddenly the TV news and major papers that used to interview their male bosses are now interviewing them. Brie, who now lives in Canada, has to do this remotely, waking up at strange hours, and leaving Alexia to face the spotlight in London – including a special event in UK Parliament and a protest outside an NGO meeting – on her own.

But this geographical separation has not weakened the bond of camaraderie between them that came from challenging mistreatment together at great risk. They are proud and protective of each other. ‘Taking on power can be very lonely,’ explains Alexia. ‘So many people have contacted us to say that they support us but that they are still too scared to speak up for us in public because it will harm their careers.’

Brie adds: ‘We were so grateful when our former senior colleague Faiza Shaheen also spoke out’ – she is so far the only other former staff member to talk openly on television about mistreatment – ‘but we also deeply understand why some of our colleagues feel unable to say anything.’

Finding the courage to go public did not result straight away in the media covering their story. Some were too close to some of the men involved: ‘I wrote to a powerful female editor whose recent positioning I truly admired. She never replied,’ explains Alexia. Others, Alexia and Brie say, were too frightened of being taken to court by some of those they were challenging.

‘But #MeToo has changed everything,’ notes Brie. ‘And we just refused to stop trying.’

Development leaders claim to be ‘shocked’ that such mistreatment took place. But ‘everyone knew’, Alexia and Brie insist, about stories of male leaders involved in bullying and having inappropriate relationships with junior women staff.

Earlier this week Alexia was protesting outside the Bond Conference, Europe’s largest international development conference, when officials told her that her one-woman protest with a placard was upsetting people. The police were called when she didn’t immediately leave.

‘I’m interested in why NGO senior leaders are so terrified that one woman with a sign might bring down the patriarchy,’ she says. ‘Those leaders who had failed were on the main stage. I was banned from even being outside.’ (The organizers have chalked the incident down to miscommunication from their security officials.) This week, Alexia and Brie, together with hundreds of staff and ex-staff, handed in a petition urging for Alan Parker, the man who was Chair of Save the Children UK at the time and is now Chair of Save the Children International, to step down, arguing that he is ultimately accountable. Alexia has also written to the CEO urging publication of key documents including reviews that the charity undertook that highlighted failings in following HR processes, and any references provided for the former CEO.

In response the organization said that the demands of staff were ‘precisely’ why a review was being held, a review which, it claimed, prevented any of the demands being acted on now. Alexia and Brie are unimpressed: ‘We whistle-blowers are the reason that this crisis is now being talked about – we don’t just want to be told we are appreciated, we need to be involved in fixing the crisis too,’ says Alexia.

‘What kept some of us from speaking out before was fear of our message being misaligned and used to criticize aid work itself,’ says Brie. ‘It is morally wrong to use our story to argue that aid should be scrapped or charities abolished. It is equally morally wrong to use the need for aid to tell us to be quiet, or to pat us on the head and move on.’

Brie and Alexia are doing all of this work without any support infrastructure beyond a few dedicated ex-colleagues providing them help behind the scenes. Meanwhile, messages keep coming to them from women who seek their assistance. ‘We are in the unforeseen position now of being a listening ear for a whole generation of shocking stories from our colleagues across the sector and around the world. People are disclosing to us their experience of harassment, sexual assaults and rapes. It can feel at times overwhelming and devastating.’

Pepper de Caires and O’Keefe emphasize that they are not the only or even the worst affected. They are clear that they are only two people, who happen to be more visible than others, within a much larger group, forming bonds of solidarity and alliance with women across the world. ‘The outpouring of support we’ve had from colleagues still too afraid to come forward has been overwhelming. It’s what keeps us going,’ says O’Keefe.

‘There is no choice to be made between doing effective development and treating your staff with respect and dignity,’ concludes Brie. ‘An environment in which men mistreat women at any level will never beget a development programme where the poorest women are empowered.’

Alexia and Brie have called for anyone who would like to share their story to do so anonymously via this link.

Ben Phillips, based in Nairobi, is a campaigner and writer on development, social justice, and power. He tweets at @benphillips76.


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