MSF UK's commitment to responsible behaviour and a workplace free from abuse
MSF considers itself a responsible employer and association, and this rests on the responsible behaviour of its members. We actively promote responsible behaviour and a working environment free of exploitation, harassment and abuse.
Use the tabs below to find out more about our behaviour commitments, and our progress on promoting a working environment free from harassment, exploitation and abuse. This includes statistics from 2019.
Our commitments to responsible behaviour
There is a mutual and complementary role of the employee and the employer to prevent, detect and address unacceptable behaviour and MSF staff should deploy the means to inform its patients and direct beneficiaries on the behavioural commitments stated below.
Within MSF, all members of staff (employees, including staff on international assignment, volunteers, daily workers) and operational partners (including consultants and guests) understand and adhere to the commitments below, incorporate them into their professional and personal conduct, and abide by them.
Should this not be the case, MSF offers channels for reporting at every level of the organisation and any non-compliance will entail due consequences.
These Behavioural Commitments are considered as a minimum behavioural standard, more specific rules may apply to MSF staff members depending on the context in which they work and their area of activity.
1. MSF staff members and operational partners shall behave respectfully and not discriminate against patients, colleagues or members of the local population on the basis of their race, opinions, lifestyle, gender, sexual orientation, socio-economic background, origin, religion or beliefs and others markers of identity;
2. MSF staff members and operational partners shall not abuse anyone physically (i.e. physical violence, sexual aggression or other form of physical abuse) or psychologically (e.g. bullying, abuse of power, harassment, discrimination or favouritism);
3. MSF staff members and operational partners shall not accept, under any circumstances, behaviour that exploits the vulnerability of others, in the broadest possible sense (sexual, economic, social, etc.). This includes exchange of goods, benefits or services for acts of a sexual nature, including the use of sex workers' services while on assignment;
4. MSF staff members and operational partners shall not accept child abuse, exploitation and violence and not engage in sexual relations with children;
5. MSF staff members and operational partners shall not take advantage of their position for personal gain. Each member shall use MSF resources (including premises, goods, money, reputation, image etc.) with respect and care and in the interests of the organisation and the populations it seeks to assist.
Promoting a work environment free of harassment, exploitation and abuse
Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders (MSF) promotes a working environment free of harassment and abuse.
Our leadership has 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 Behavioural Commitments and our guiding principles as stipulated in our Charter.
Each year, MSF publishes a statement on the number of reports of responsible behaviour incidents that have been received and the actions that have been taken in response; along with an update on activities undertaken by MSF to address the wider issue. These statements can be found below.
In 2020, MSF had more than 63,000 individual staff movement-wide. We saw a total of 444 complaints made across our staff working in medical and humanitarian projects in the field (389 complaints) and across international headquarter offices (55 complaints).
Further details below break down field and headquarters cases separately, as they are not necessarily comparable in terms of terminology and reporting processes.
The overall number of complaints received increased by 22 percent in 2020 compared to 2019. While MSF continues to face the challenge of under-reporting of behaviour incidents, this increase can be seen as a sign that MSF is starting to address this long-term problem. It indicates that complainants and witnesses have increasing confidence to speak up and that there is growing awareness of the various reporting mechanisms and channels that have been reinforced and put in place.
The pandemic has led to a reduction in face-to-face activities to prevent unacceptable behaviour, however, significant effort has been put towards virtual training. The total number of staff trained to deal with behaviour issues actually increased compared to 2019.
Despite these improvements, under-reporting continues to be an issue. Of particular concern is the limited (if increasing) number of complaints from patients, caregivers and community members. This indicates the need to focus on prevention and to develop adapted community complaints mechanisms for these groups.
2020 figures in detail
Complaints from our projects in the field
- Ninety percent of MSF’s staff (57,429 individuals in total) in 2020 were working in the field. A total of 389 complaints were made relating to this category of staff, up from 318 in 2019.
- Of those complaints, after investigation, 150 were confirmed as either situations of abuse or of inappropriate behaviour (156 in 2019). (Please note that 15 reported complaints for 2020 remained open at the time these figures were compiled).
- This includes 82 cases that were qualified as abuse, compared to 106 confirmed cases of abuse in 2019 (this covers different forms of abuse: sexual abuse, harassment and exploitation; abuse of power; psychological harassment; discrimination; physical violence). A total of 37 staff members were dismissed for all forms of abuse in 2020 (55 dismissals in 2019). Depending on the severity of the case, other sanctions were also issued, such as suspension, demotion or formal written warnings.
- Of the 82 confirmed cases of abuse, 55 were cases of sexual harassment, abuse, or exploitation (SEAH), compared to 63 in 2019. Twenty-eight staff were dismissed as a result of those SEAH cases in 2020 (40 in 2019).
- The other confirmed cases of abuse consisted of: psychological harassment (14 confirmed cases); abuse of power (eight confirmed cases); physical violence (three confirmed cases); and discrimination (two confirmed cases).
- There were also 68 confirmed cases of inappropriate behaviour, up from 50 in 2019 (inappropriate behaviour includes: mismanagement of people; inappropriate relationships; inappropriate behaviour not in line with societal standards or affecting team cohesion; and substance use).
We have continued to see small but notable increases in the number of complaints submitted by previously under-represented groups, though there remains a lot of work to be done:
- The total number of complaints submitted by locally hired staff increased again in 2020 to 172 (up from 144 in 2019). While this may be a marginal success in improving awareness and trust for colleagues to submit complaints, there is still more to be done considering that locally hired colleagues account for 80 percent of the MSF workforce.
- The total number of complaints submitted by patients, caregivers, community members and other external parties showed a very slight increase, to 23 in 2020 (up from 20 in 2019). Considering that MSF undertakes millions of medical consultations each year in all its various projects, along with many other forms of contact with the communities we assist, this is very likely to be significant under-reporting. Existing complaint mechanisms need to be further adapted and improved to better reach patients and communities in individual project locations, especially given the extremely vulnerable position of many of those people whom MSF assists.
Complaints from our offices worldwide
2020 is the first year for which MSF has compiled complaints from our offices around the world, in addition to the data gathered from our medical projects in the field. Around 10 percent of MSF’s total workforce is based in these international offices.
As we have noted in previous years, the absence of these figures has led to a significant gap in our data. There is no prior-year comparison. It is also worth noting that, while efforts have been made to standardise reporting, this data relates to a large number of different legal and HR processes, and so may not yet be fully harmonised.
- Out of 37 headquarter offices (non-operational entities) which accounted for 5,596 staff (10 percent of MSF's workforce) in 2020, 55 cases were reported either through management lines or office-specific behaviour reporting mechanisms.
- After investigation, 38 cases were confirmed as either abuse (20) or inappropriate behaviour (18).
- Out of these cases, 20 people were either dismissed or received other sanctions, such as formal warnings, depending on the severity of the facts.
MSF continues to face the 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 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 carers.
2019’s figures have shown 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.
There is a range of ongoing work to address issues around responsible behaviour 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 investigation 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.
2019 figures in detail
Total grievance complaints
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 318 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.
Confirmed cases of abuse or inappropriate behaviour
Of those complaints, after investigation, 156 were confirmed as either situations of abuse or of inappropriate behaviour (134 in 2018).
This includes 106 cases that 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 55 staff members were dismissed for all forms of abuse in 2019 (52 dismissals in 2018).
Of the 106 cases of abuse, 63 were cases of sexual harassment, abuse, or exploitation, up from 59 in 2018. Forty 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 standards or affecting team cohesion; and the use of substances).
Complaints by under-represented groups
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 continue 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.
Complaints by MSF’s patients and carers
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 20 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.
Staff numbers: Please note that the 65,000 figure for MSF staff refers to the total number of individuals that have worked for MSF in the course of a year, as opposed to the total number of full-time equivalent positions – which will be a lower number as more than one individual can hold the same position in the course of a year. The latter figure has also been used in some previous statements.
In early 2018, MSF published a statement (see '2017' tab) 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 put together the following short update on progress so far, including figures from 2018, which we hope will help maintain a constructive focus on this important issue.
One of the most significant challenges we identified previously was that 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 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 underreporting and data gathering.
Our statement last year set out a number of ongoing measures to improve the detection and prevention of unacceptable behaviour. These included training, workshops, field visits, and the production and distribution of leaflets and audio-visual materials.
2018 saw continued activity in all these areas, as well as the allocation of increased staffing to MSF’s responsible behaviour teams; the development of new tools for improving awareness, prevention and detection of unacceptable behaviour; and the improvement of data-gathering and sharing across the MSF movement.
It is worth acknowledging that an increased public focus on this issue will very likely have contributed to increased awareness and reporting.
2018 figures in detail
In 2018, MSF had 43,000 staff working in the field (the following figures relate to complaints from the field and do not include the additional 4,000 staff working in MSF HQs).
2018 saw a significant increase in the number of complaints from the field recorded about all types of behaviour, a total of 356, up from 182 in 2017.
Confirmed cases of abuse or inappropriate behaviour
Of those complaints, after investigation 134 were confirmed as either situations of abuse or of inappropriate behaviour (83 in 2017).
This includes 78 cases qualified as abuse of all forms, compared to 61 in 2017 (this category includes sexual abuse, harassment and exploitation; abuse of power; psychological harassment; discrimination; and physical violence).
A total of 52 members of staff were dismissed for all forms of abuse (58 in 2017).
Of the total 78 cases of all forms of abuse in 2018, 59 were confirmed after internal investigation as cases of sexual abuse, harassment or exploitation, up from 32 in 2017. Thirty-six staff were dismissed as a result of those cases, 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 standards or affecting team cohesion; the use of substances).
It is worth stressing again that this is still not the complete picture that we would like to have – while we have improved data-gathering since last year, we still have more work to do to address both this issue and the challenge of under-reporting.
However, we hope that these figures are an indication that an increased focus on the issue has encouraged more people to come forward.
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.
Changes to the 2017 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 estimated: 182 as opposed to 146; the number of confirmed cases has also risen slightly. The above comparisons use the updated 2017 figures; but for the purposes of comparison, the original figures remain available in last year’s statement.
Please note that some cases from 2018 are still being investigated and have not yet been qualified, so the figures may change slightly.
In the wake of recent scandals concerning abuse and exploitation in the humanitarian sector, we have rightly been asked whether MSF has faced similar problems, and what steps it takes to combat them.
It is positive that this issue is coming under the spotlight, regardless of how uncomfortable it may be for the organisations involved.
MSF is not free of problems on this front – we know that there is work to do and no room for complacency.
We have received reports of abuse by MSF staff, we have processes for investigating and dealing with those reports, and we have dismissed people – 19 in 2017 and 10 in 2016 – for sexual harassment or abuse.
We are very aware that we have work to do. We are concerned that there is a significant problem with under-reporting of abuses, which means that the real number of cases is likely higher.
We need to work to improve our processes, and to increase awareness of – and confidence in – those processes, among both our staff and the people we help.
Numbers of complaints
The data we have is incomplete, but still we believe it is important to share publicly what we have been able to gather.
We currently have 42,000 staff members. The available figures indicate that MSF received 95 grievance complaints in 2016, of which 29 related to sexual harassment or abuse, with the rest relating to other forms of abuse of power, discrimination, or inappropriate behaviour.
Sexual harassment and abuse include a large variety of cases from verbal disrespect to physical aggression. In 2016, MSF dismissed 10 staff due to sexual harassment or abuse.
In 2017, the total number of confirmed cases of abuse or harassment received was 40, of which 24 concerned sexual harassment or abuse (as with the 2016 figures, the others concerned other forms of abuse or harassment).
Two of these 24 cases were situations of sexual abuse or harassment by MSF staff against non-MSF staff (patients or members of the community).
Of these 24 cases, 19 people were dismissed from MSF, with the remaining five cases seeing other sanctions.
It is worth stressing again that these figures represent a partial picture, capturing only complaints received from our medical programmes that have been documented at HQ level.
This means that they don’t cover any complaints which may have been made in MSF HQ offices, each of which will have their own procedures – collating that data is an ongoing process.
The figures above will also not necessarily include cases dealt with directly by our programme teams which haven’t been referred to the HQ level.
MSF has codes of conduct, procedures and behavioural review committees in place, including whistle blowing mechanisms, through which all members of staff can report inappropriate behaviour or abuse – with a range of sanctions available, ranging from warnings or suspension to dismissal.
In some cases, we may alert the local police (in agreement with the victim). We also support the victim as needed, which can include providing psychological and medical care and finding legal support.
We’re currently stepping up efforts to increase awareness across MSF of these processes, to make sure that everyone knows how to access them, and that victims and whistleblowers who register complaints feel protected at all times. This is included in training, field visits, briefings and internal staff regulations.
Reasons for underreporting may relate to a fear of not being believed, stigmatisation, or reprisals. This is all the more acute in many crisis settings where we work, such as conflict areas, where there’s often a general lack of protection mechanisms for victims, a high level of generalised violence, where impunity is common, and where populations may be highly dependent on external assistance.
For the past 15 years, MSF’s leadership have recognised the need to fight abuse. Earlier last year, in May and again October 2017, the leadership bodies of MSF emphasised their unequivocal determination to fight abuse and ensure there is no tolerance for such behaviour throughout the organisation – including the reinforcement of grievance channels at all levels.
Vickie Hawkins | Executive Director, MSF UK
June 2019: Due to improved data collection and compilation, MSF has updated its figures for 2017. In 2017, the total number of confirmed cases of abuse of all forms or inappropriate behaviour was 83, of which 32 concerned sexual abuse, harassment or exploitation. Of these 32 cases, 20 people were dismissed from MSF, with the remaining 12 cases seeing other sanctions.
MSF UK is part of an international movement of legal entities, commonly referred to as MSF, which are bound by a shared name and identity, and shared commitment to the MSF Charter and principles.
The figures in these statements relate to the international movement’s global field projects and not to the MSF UK office.