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Story Publication logo September 13, 2021

The U.N.’s Own Humanitarian Crisis



The UN is at the forefront of addressing the ills that ails this world, and yet on many fronts, it...

Kirstie Campbell, who accused a U.N. colleague of sexual misconduct, is shown working for the United Nations World Food Programme in 2011, a year after the alleged incident. Image courtesy of Kirstie Campbell.

In the fall of 2010, Kirstie Campbell, a 32-year-old aid worker from Edinburgh, met a colleague named Mick Lorentzen at the bar of the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad, Pakistan. Campbell and Lorentzen were both working for the United Nations World Food Programme, providing humanitarian relief to victims of Pakistan’s recent floods, one of the worst natural disasters in the country’s history. Campbell mentioned that although she had worked for the WFP on and off for the past five years, she was still on short-term contracts, some lasting just 30 days. Campbell said that Lorentzen, who ran the WFP’s security unit and said he was a former British Royal Marine, suggested that she work for him on a fixed-term contract, which comes with better working conditions and a pension. “You know I can get you that job,” he said, adding, “So when should we go and have sex?”

Campbell recalled being alarmed but not wanting to draw attention, she would later tell investigators. Hiding her phone underneath the table, she texted a friend who was with other aid workers in the bar, asking for help. When the friend walked over and invited Campbell and Lorentzen to join the larger group, Lorentzen, who is physically imposing at about six and a half feet tall and 250 pounds, told the friend they would not be joining him. The friend left, and Campbell again tried texting for help. Lorentzen leaned over and, she recalled, whispered in her ear, “You f----- up, you f----- up.”

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Campbell left the bar. Later, she was hesitant to do anything about what happened. She said Lorentzen had told her that his security officers had been accused of sexual harassment but that those complaints “all go across my desk.” Also, Lorentzen was head of security; his job was keeping track of everyone’s whereabouts at all times, including Campbell’s.

A week or so after the encounter at the hotel bar, Campbell said she told her immediate supervisor that Lorentzen had offered her a job in exchange for sex. Soon after, Campbell spoke to a WFP counselor, who took notes and seemed concerned, until she named Lorentzen as the man who had harassed her. The counselor closed his notebook. “I am terribly sorry,” she recalled him saying. “There is nothing I can do. He is my boss.” The counselor tried to comfort Campbell by telling her that Lorentzen was moving to a new position at the United Nations Department of Safety and Security, the agency’s security-services arm.

Campbell considered filing a formal complaint with the WFP’s ombudsman. Lorentzen, however, had told her that he was a close associate of the WFP’s executive director who, Campbell believed, was in turn close to the ombudsman. Campbell’s belief rested on the fact that they were both Americans in an organization where factions form along national lines. (“Any suggestion that the ombudsman could value the views of one person above another is based on misconception,” a WFP spokesperson said this month.) Campbell decided not to report the incident until the WFP named a new ombudsman. By the time that happened, six years had elapsed; she had finished her contract in Islamabad and gone on to work for the WFP on Libyan and Syrian aid. When Campbell finally looked into filing a formal complaint, she learned that the six-month statute of limitations had long since passed. She had left the agency and eventually left humanitarian work altogether. Years later, an outside investigator would substantiate a sexual-harassment allegation against Lorentzen, but not the one made by Campbell.

The U.N.’s attempts to balance its lofty mission with its responsibilities as a sprawling global employer have led to deep contradictions. According to its standards of conduct, “the United Nations and the specialized agencies embody the highest aspirations of the peoples of the world.” But its more than 100,000 staff, thousands of volunteers and interns, and tens of thousands of contractors are governed by varying, and at times inconsistent, sets of regulations that often contravene host-country laws. “This idea that we are special is undermining us,” a longtime U.N. manager who has served in both the field as well as headquarters told me. “We are special, yes, but the organization is also made up of human beings, and human beings screw up.”

Since 2017, when the global Me Too movement took off, I have encountered 43 workers who reported they had experienced sexual harassment during their time at the organization. Eighteen reported experiencing violence that the U.N. would classify as a sexual assault. Eight said they were raped, including two who said they had been raped more than once. U.N. workers described being sexually harassed or assaulted at a workshop on emergency management in Norway, during an internship in Spain, on missions in Ethiopia and Somalia, and in the U.N.-headquarter cities of Vienna, Nairobi, Geneva, and New York. The victims of harassment and assault, the vast majority of whom were women with precarious employment status, included an administrative assistant in Pakistan and a legal intern in Cambodia. They identified the alleged perpetrators as U.N. workers investigating human-rights violations in Syria, expanding women’s access to reproductive health care in South Sudan, negotiating the Paris climate agreement, and building cases against war criminals at the Hague. They named security officers, spokespeople, hiring managers, and human-rights lawyers.

In the course of my reporting, I have watched as the U.N., not unlike other closed organizations facing abuse scandals, such as the Catholic Church and USA Gymnastics, vowed to reform itself. Secretary-General António Guterres has issued multiple policy statements on how his organization would combat the “scourge” of sexual abuse within the U.N. Three high-ranking officials — all women — were named to address issues regarding victims’ rights, sexual exploitation, and sexual harassment and abuse. There have been some policy changes, such as lifting the statute of limitations, which deterred Campbell from reporting; extending access to the U.N.’s internal justice system to cover people who aren’t currently employees; and introducing a screening database meant to ensure that those who are let go from one U.N. agency for sexual misconduct are not rehired at another. There have been changes in firings: In 2016, one person was separated from service from the U.N. Secretariat for sexual harassment or assault. In 2019, that number rose to ten. “My heart goes out to every member of our personnel who has been assaulted, harassed, or abused in the course of their work over the years,” Secretary-General Guterres told New York Magazine this month. “These appalling crimes go against everything the United Nations stands for, and we will do our utmost to investigate all allegations and bring those responsible to justice,” he said.

Despite such proclamations, U.N. staffers told me the day-to-day working environment inside the organization has remained mostly unchanged. The U.N.’s Office of Internal Oversight Services still only has nine investigators for all sexual-assault claims. “It is these nebulous discussions of jobs and offices that the U.N. likes to hide behind,” Priyanka Chirimar, a human-rights lawyer who worked for various U.N. war-crimes tribunals, told me. “High-profile announcements are a standard U.N. response to a public scandal.” In fact, by early 2021, one position born of such an announcement — an executive coordinator to address sexual harassment and other forms of discrimination at the U.N. Women agency — had been dissolved entirely. The Guardian reported that the official who had occupied it, Purna Sen, said that the U.N. had put the issue of sexual harassment “on the back burner.” (When asked, a representative of the U.N. Women agency said the position had been “a time-limited special assignment.”)

The U.N. is by design ill-suited for disciplining its employees. It cannot unilaterally make policies for its various agencies, which span multiple continents, sociocultural norms, and economic realities. The internal justice system answers to the General Assembly, which appoints the secretary-general, who does not have authority over the goings-on at U.N. agencies, some of which avail themselves of the International Labour Organization for settling disputes, while others use the dispute and appeals tribunals, which in turn draw on findings from the Office of Internal Oversight Services, which can only investigate — not sanction — employees accused of misconduct. And so on.

Even when the internal justice process makes a finding, it cannot reinforce sanctions beyond the remit of what a human-resources department can do. The U.N., contrary to right-wing fever dreams, is not a government and has no power to make criminal prosecutions. “The United Nations does not have a mandate to criminally prosecute its personnel or maintain a prison system to incarcerate them,” said Stéphane Dujarric, the spokesperson for the secretary-general.

In 2018, I met the World Food Programme’s executive director, David Beasley, at the agency’s office in Washington, D.C. Beasley, a former governor of South Carolina who joined the WFP in April 2017, told me that the organization was at times overwhelmed by humanitarian crises, implying it could not be held responsible for the actions of every one of its employees. “When I arrived, there were four nations facing famine. There were 80 million people we were trying to feed,” he said. “Twenty-nine million on the brink of starvation we weren’t even getting to. Sixteen thousand employees. When I arrived, Rome was burning. So you gotta tell me what’s more important, saving millions of children or potential abuse?” He paused, then answered his own question: “Actually, both. And neither one should be neglected.”

Diplomatic immunity has been around for as long as states have needed to forge alliances and secure one another’s people safe passage. It is mentioned in ancient texts including the Indian epic Ramayana, the Herodotus histories, and the Quran. A few historical events (such as the French Revolution and the Iran hostage crisis) aside, diplomatic immunity has largely been respected by most modern states. The U.N.’s topmost ranks have complete diplomatic immunity, which means they are protected even when not performing official U.N. duties. Everyday U.N. workers — attached to the U.N. refugee agency, the children’s fund, the development program, the World Health Organization, or the Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (known by its acronym UNESCO), along with 35 other bodies — have functional immunity against prosecution by host governments when conducting official business only. This functional immunity means that any act that has criminal ramifications under a host country’s law can be referred to local authorities. Yet, in practice, that seldom happens. In the past 14 years, the U.N. has referred just 33 cases of sexual abuse and exploitation to national authorities globally. Over that same period, it received 120 reports of sexual abuse and exploitation in Haiti alone.

Many of the women and men I spoke with said they did not formally report sexual misconduct because they had little faith in a system they called byzantine, haphazard, and unreliable. Some U.N. agencies abide by the standard of “beyond a reasonable doubt,” while others have a lighter burden of proof: that of providing “clear and convincing evidence.” The system has been criticized as unfair by alleged perpetrators as well: In the words of one staffer, who was accused of sexual assault and denied the allegation, “The U.N.’s system has no clear standards for adjudicating guilt or innocence.”

Victims told me the U.N. did not allow them, or make them aware of, certain basic rights that are afforded to citizens of most democratic countries, such as the right to counsel during interviews or the right to a speedy trial. Some U.N. workers told me they were stranded in bureaucratic limbo, operating in a liminal space with no access to the local courts of the countries in which they served, far from the legal system back home, where they would have the option to bring forward a civil suit or pursue a criminal claim. For the thousands of U.N. contractors, consultants, interns, volunteers, and workers on short-term contracts, reporting an assault appears to be even more precarious. Campbell, the former WFP worker, told me that contractors and consultants hired by the U.N. work without job security or a pension, have limited health insurance, and are often put on mandatory leave following a rotation because they don’t qualify as full-time employees.

How to best address employee misconduct has tested the organization from the start. The first U.N. body designed to handle allegations of employee misconduct began hearing complaints in 1950, five years after the U.N.’s founding. The U.N.’s internal justice system was partially staffed by volunteers, some of whom had no legal training. It didn’t meet year-round, and its judgments could not be appealed. The tribunal would not review a complaint of sexual harassment until 1991, when Catherine Claxton, an American employee, accused Luis Maria Gomez, a top administrator, of closing the door to his office at the U.N. headquarters in New York, grabbing her breasts and buttocks, and forcibly kissing her. Claxton’s claim leaked to the press, and defense lawyer Alan Dershowitz was hired to represent Gomez. Claxton’s claims were upheld by U.N. investigators, and she was paid a $94,000 settlement by the U.N. Gomez resigned but kept his pension, and was later invited back to work as a senior adviser with a reported daily allowance of $200, though the offer was rescinded after the case attracted international outrage. “In the middle of New York City,” the 1994 New York Times op-ed page read, “7,000 employees work beyond the reach or protection of the law. They can be harassed, discriminated against or fired, and they have nowhere to turn. Their employer is not some sweatshop in Chinatown but the Secretariat of the United Nations.”

The next high-profile scandal came in 2004, when Cynthia Brzak, an American U.N. staff worker, filed a sexual-harassment complaint against Ruud Lubbers, the former prime minister of the Netherlands, who was then the head of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. According to Brzak, after a meeting in the agency’s Geneva headquarters in 2003, Lubbers grabbed her from behind and pressed his groin into her buttocks. After Brzak filed her complaint, U.N. investigators were tasked with reviewing the allegations and uncovered five other harassment allegations against Lubbers, all of which Lubbers denied. Lubbers voluntarily resigned in 2005, but only after receiving pressure from higher-ups. Afterward, Lubbers vociferously denied any wrongdoing. In 2006, Brzak filed a suit in a New York court against Lubbers for retaliation. Both the district and appeals courts dismissed the suit, citing the diplomatic immunity of senior U.N. officials.

Mark Gough, who began working for the U.N. in 1996 and served as the U.N.’s deputy director for investigations from 2006 to 2008, a job that involves reviewing harassment claims, told me that after the Lubbers case began, investigators started referring all sexual-harassment complaints involving senior officials directly to the assistant secretary-general’s office instead of going through standard channels. When Gough began his tenure at the U.N., “Senior officials were a protected species,” he told me. Among the worst punishments was moving offenders laterally, a practice that became less common, but still persisted, during his time as deputy director. “If someone was a bad egg, you offered them up to another division or promoted him.” Ed Flaherty, the lawyer who represented Brzak, told me that, despite decades of complaints, the U.N. system fails employees who are harassed. “There is no real penalty for committing sexual harassment,” Flaherty said. “The U.N. is its own judge. You can’t be the judge in your own case. That is a fundamental aspect of any developed legal system. The U.N. doesn’t abide by that.”

The U.N. distinguishes between sexual exploitation and abuse, defined as acts committed against the local population they are there to serve, called beneficiaries, and sexual misconduct, which encompasses sexual harassment and assault perpetrated against staff. The U.N. argues, correctly, that it does not have prosecutorial authority over peacekeepers, who are on loan to them from member states. And yet the distinction comes as cold comfort to local communities, to whom all peacekeepers appear wearing the same blue helmet and serving under a singular U.N. flag, both of which bear the same U.N. emblem: a world map encircled by white olive wreaths against a smoke-blue backdrop. “It shouldn’t matter who the victim is. The nature of the act should determine the crime,” a diplomat at the U.N., who asked not to be named as he is not authorized to speak, told me.

Despite good-faith reform efforts, the current U.N. system for adjudicating sexual-misconduct claims among its staff retains a core structural flaw: It is a supranational body operating in a world bound by nation-states. Chirimar, the human-rights lawyer, told me that a very simple way of looking at the U.N. is to see it as a state. “The state owes you health care, education, legal protection, and other things. When we work for the U.N., the U.N. takes over those responsibilities. We become global citizens. We become citizens of the U.N.”

Mission environments can be strange parallel universes where, in the lingo of U.N. workers, “geographically single” men keep “mission wives” and run deuxième bureaux, or “second offices.” In many remote posts, U.N. workers live in walled-off enclosures filled with trailers and tents that serve as both lodging and office space. These compounds function more or less around the clock, and there is little boundary between one’s personal and professional lives.

In such settings, workers feared that speaking out about their alleged abuse would harm those they had dedicated their lives to helping. Many described not wanting to inflict reputational damage on their agencies and worried that filing complaints would distract from their mission. They worried too that whatever they had experienced paled in comparison to the human suffering they routinely witnessed in their work. Those who had been harassed noted they hadn’t been assaulted. Those who had been assaulted often stressed that they hadn’t been raped. Those who had been raped pointed out that they hadn’t been raped by multiple assailants or multiple times. All who spoke said they were choosing to share their experiences after having exhausted all other recourses to justice. They, like the institutions they belonged to, frequently subscribed to the utilitarian logic of doing the greatest possible good for the greatest number of people, at times at the cost of their own private lives. Victims were made to feel that formally complaining would take away from the U.N.’s larger mission of world peace. And so, even four years into Me Too, they remained conflicted.

Women and men who said they were assaulted on overseas missions observed patterns emerging after they filed formal complaints. Almost every victim said U.N. investigators never clearly explained to them the standards of proof or why, exactly, their claims were rejected. In some instances, U.N. colleagues were dismissive of those who spoke up, telling them they were being difficult or delicate. “They made me feel like I was crazy when I reported him,” Elizabeth Lang, an OIOS employee who reported harassment that took place in 2009, told me. “They made me feel like I was a liar. They made me feel like I was a hysterical woman.” In recent years, many unresolved cases have yielded some kind of sanction, reflecting shifts taking place within the organization. But the victories were pyrrhic: Victims reported being maligned during investigations; watching their alleged assailants get promoted while their cases lingered; or receiving financial compensation, but only after years in deliberation.

Often, the best-case scenario for an alleged victim is that the U.N. refers a dispute to a national authority. An NGO worker who asked not to be identified told me she was drugged and anally raped by a U.N. Development Programme communications specialist, Karim Elkorany, after a party in a hotel in Baghdad in 2016. U.N. investigation records show that after she reported the incident, she was asked by UNDP investigators when she had started drinking at the party, how regularly she drank, and if she had ever had anal sex in the past. (A spokesperson for UNDP said that “all our investigators are highly trained to ensure that interviews, especially ones related to incidents of sexual misconduct, are conducted with the utmost sensitivity.”) Elkorany was placed on leave by UNDP by the end of 2016, but was officially still employed at the U.N. until he resigned in 2018. UNDP referred the case to the FBI, and, in 2020, Elkorany was charged in a Manhattan court for making false statements during questioning by the FBI “in an effort to conceal his drugging and sexual assault of multiple women while he worked for the U.N.,” according to the DOJ (Elkorany did not respond to requests for comment, though he pleaded not guilty last year.)

More often, victims said they faced opprobrium from those they were meant to get support from. Another woman, who asked not to be named, described being raped twice by U.N. workers while working overseas, first with an aid organization and later with the U.N. She said that a U.N. worker whom she had never met before raped her while they were both working on tsunami relief in Indonesia in 2004. Five years later, after she was deployed to Afghanistan to work for the U.N., a colleague asked her to join him on a visit to a Kabul bazaar two weeks after she arrived in the country. Before departing, he invited her to his room for tea, where he began undressing her. She resisted, and in the violent altercation that followed, he ripped her underwear off. She told me that she eventually submitted. “I was scared,” she said. “I thought, He’s going to do it. I’ll let him do it, get it over with, and deal with it after. So he did it. He rolled off. After he finished, he goes, ‘Okay, let’s go to the market.’ ”

The woman reported the rape to the discipline-and-conduct unit, where she said she was discouraged from filing anything official. “ ‘Why did you go back to his house?’ ” she recalled being asked. “ ‘Didn’t you think this was going to happen?’ ” Six years later, she was having a drink with a female colleague at the Delegates Lounge, a bar at the U.N. headquarters in New York, when two men came by to speak with them. She looked at their name tags and realized that one of them was the man who had raped her in Kabul. Later she told her colleague, who persuaded the woman to lodge a formal complaint, which she did in 2016. According to the OIOS, “a comprehensive investigation was conducted into both the allegation of rape and the allegations of cover-up; however we were unable to satisfy ourselves to the requisite standard that misconduct had occurred.” The reports were issued in 2017, but the complainant never heard about the outcome of her case: She says that OIOS tried to call her once, while she was at a medical appointment, and they told her they’d call back, but she never heard from them again. In 2021, she was still waiting.

In a third case, a staff member for the U.N. Population Fund (UNFPA) told me she was in Burkina Faso in 2016 for an agency meeting when a more senior colleague invited her to join him for drinks and suggested she meet him in his hotel room. When she arrived, his door was open. As soon as she stepped into his room, she told me, she felt something was off. “I think there’s been a mistake here,” she recalled telling him, before turning around to leave. “But he wouldn’t let me leave. He grabbed me.” She escaped his grip and reached for the door, but he restrained her again and then raped her.

A week later, when she traveled to New York for agency business, she told a superior what had happened, and after a few months of deliberating, she formally reported the incident to the UNFPA’s internal-investigations unit. Its agents promised to look into her complaint but did not contact her again for seven months. While she was waiting for the results, her assailant was promoted within the agency. Eleven months after the attack, she received an email informing her that the U.N. found her allegations to be unsubstantiated. She asked why and was told that the information was confidential. “UNFPA is responsible for preventing gender-based violence and supporting survivors, but I got no support from the organization,” she told me.

The next turns in her case show the ups and downs of the organization’s recent reform efforts: By May 2020, her alleged assailant had been dismissed by the UNFPA for misconduct. In 2021, however, the matter is still the subject of ongoing litigation, showing how the process can spread over years. The alleged perpetrator denies the allegation and the UNFPA declined to comment.

Another case demonstrates that even when a U.N. investigation substantiates an allegation, the U.N. has little to offer victims in the event that their alleged assailant leaves the service. A former U.N. volunteer in the Democratic Republic of Congo told me that in 2016, an inebriated superior put his hand between her legs and tried to kiss her after she offered him a ride home. The next week, when she confronted him about what had happened, he accused her of being “one of those women” before telling her, “Whatever your account of the events, I am not going to accept it.”

The former volunteer filed a complaint with the U.N. Investigators contacted and interviewed her promptly, but she didn’t receive an update for the next two years. In parallel, she tried filing a criminal report in her home country but was told the police had no jurisdiction. In 2020, she was informed that U.N. investigators had substantiated her claim, despite the accused perpetrator’s continued denials. But because he had already resigned from his post and “significant time had elapsed,” the only thing left to do was make a note of the event in his file.

In nearly all cases, victims described the experience of moving through the U.N.’s internal justice system as enervating and wounding. Those who remained at their jobs expressed ambivalence about their posts. Those who left found new lives and new careers, sometimes on different continents, away from the war zones, humanitarian crises, and sense of mission that had set things in motion long ago. One former employee for the U.N. refugee agency who asked not to be named said she was harassed by her boss in four out of nine countries they traveled to for work a few years ago. This included being solicited for information regarding her sexual experiences in Amman; being shown revealing photos of other women in Geneva; being solicited for sexual intercourse in Nairobi; and being sent a link to a woman simulating a hand job, a link to phallic images, and another link to a website featuring audio clips of female orgasms. “I didn’t know what to do because I was always on few-month contracts,” she told me.

The former employee filed a sexual-harassment case in 2018. Investigators found that sexual harassment had not occurred but that the accused had “failed to act as a role model.” As a result, he was demoted, barred from being promoted for four years, and provided with training “in matters related to professional conduct.” (When contacted, the accused denied the allegations, saying that he had been disciplined for “limited managerial experience” but nothing related to harassment.) The former employee was never contacted about the result of her case; UNHCR only informed her after New York began making inquiries, admitting that the failure to contact her was “an oversight.” “There was a judgment of misconduct,” she told me, “but I somewhat feel there was no real outcome.”

The U.N.’s response to sexual harassment and assault is encumbered by the realities of multilateralism, where 193 member states of the General Assembly must establish consensus before a decision can be made. And then there are the dynamics of a bureaucracy with infinite tiers. A U.N. task force developed a “model policy” for how to handle sexual harassment and assault almost four years ago, for example, yet adopting it has stalled across agencies. Member states may support a cause but not release sufficient funds for programs to be implemented. “I don’t know of a single secretary-general who hasn’t ultimately been driven to despair by the powers of the Fifth Committee,” former Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd told me, referring to the budget committee that is controlled by member states. Nicola Dahrendorf, who ran a U.N. office addressing allegations of sexual exploitation and abuse in the Central African Republic and the DRC, said that the pace of change at the world’s largest intergovernmental organization is necessarily going to be glacial. “What you get at the end is a simplified version of what people set out to do because it has to reflect various people’s interests.”

The U.N. emerged as a postwar institution built for victor states to safeguard victor interests, and its governing body has remained largely unchanged since. By contrast, the mission of its humanitarian-aid and development agencies is, in many ways, an exercise in redistributing wealth from the developed world to the developing world. This contradiction, the inequalities that are at the core of the enterprise, may be a reason why true parity has remained elusive. As James Lang, a former UNDP consultant on gender, violence, and rights, told me, “An institution that is built on hierarchy is probably going to allow for sexual harassment. Sexual harassment is going to be used as a tool to maintain that power in the system.”

U.N. staffers past and present told me they feared that if they spoke up in the current atmosphere, they would be contributing to the dismantling of an organization many of them had first revered as Model U.N. participants. Several — like Kirstie Campbell, or a UNICEF worker who told me she had slept with a UNICEF flag over her bed as a youth — described how their identities were enmeshed with an organization that was deeply flawed but also genuinely beloved. They wanted to avoid scandals like the one at Oxfam Great Britain, which in 2018 was accused of covering up an investigation into staff members’ hiring sex workers for “orgies” during earthquake-relief operations in Haiti in 2010. One of the staff members accused was the former country director, who resigned following an internal investigation. The U.K. Charity Commission, which regulates the aid industry, launched a statutory inquiry. Actress Minnie Driver cut ties with the charity, as did Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Oxfam’s chief executive accused critics of having an anti-aid agenda, fueling further backlash. Within 11 days, Oxfam lost 7,000 donors, which amounted to more than $20 million in funding for operations and relief programs. Haiti temporarily suspended Oxfam GB’s right to work in the country, and Oxfam GB agreed to stop bidding for U.K. government funding until it could show that it met its “high standards.” After a three year ban, Oxfam GB was allowed to apply for funding once more — only for new allegations of sexual exploitation, this time in the DRC, to surface one month later.

In September 2016, Campbell was home in Edinburgh recovering from her years in the field when she saw online that Lorentzen had been promoted and was now working as the WFP’s country director in Afghanistan. She alerted a friend in Kabul, who, a few months later, put her in contact with a woman who said that Lorentzen had also propositioned her. The woman decided to file an official complaint, with Campbell serving as a supporting witness. Ten months after the woman filed, WFP hired investigators from an outside firm to review the case. The external investigators substantiated the Kabul allegations against Lorentzen — not Campbell’s — and in January 2018, the WFP suspended Lorentzen. Two months later, he was summarily dismissed by the WFP. The agency declined to say why, citing privacy rules. That July, Campbell received an email informing her that there was “insufficient evidence to substantiate your claim of sexual harassment against Mr. Mick Lorentzen.” (Repeated attempts to contact Lorentzen went unanswered. A spokesperson for WFP said that the agency cannot comment on individual cases.)

In 2018, I went to Kabul to interview U.N. employees about stories like Campbell’s. Not long after I arrived, I received a call from Jane Howard, a WFP spokeswoman, who told me that reaching out to WFP workers to ask about their experience of sexual harassment and assault was “inappropriate” and asked me to stop. (When asked in 2021, a spokesman for WFP denied this took place.) The WFP sent out an email to staff, titled “holding lines,” containing step-by-step instructions for how to respond to press inquiries. The same year, WFP announced it was eliminating the statute of limitations for filing complaints. Complaints flooded in. A WFP consultant who was interviewed regarding one of these cases said that investigators told her they were looking at more cases because “the press will come after us.” (“WFP does not initiate or reopen investigations due to media interest,” a spokesperson said in response to a request for comment.)

Miles away from the field — both physically and psychically — and years after leaving it, Campbell still feels deeply disappointed. “I gave every single shred of my everything,” she said from her mother’s flat in Edinburgh, where she now lives. Campbell had been pushed out of an institution she had loved — a strange collateral damage to that institution’s efforts to elevate women, eradicate gender-based violence, and, crucially, save the world from itself.

Since returning home, she has become a forager, for sea buckthorn berries specifically. “I’ve gone from feeding the poor to living off berries,” she joked of her new profession. She first came across the plant in Pakistan, where she met Lorentzen. Sea buckthorn berries grow best in harsh conditions, where other plants cannot survive, she told me.

Campbell had found something approximating peace, but there was still a part of her that was angry about how things had come to pass. Her anger was primarily directed at the institution that failed her, and the sexual harassment and abuse of power that distracted her from her original mission of helping others. In her work, she expected to witness trauma; not to become a victim herself. “You sign up for the dead bodies turning up,” she told me. “What you don’t sign up for,” she continued, were those abusers, who were “coming to abuse us.”


Three women grouped together: an elderly woman smiling, a transwoman with her arms folded, and a woman holding her headscarf with a baby strapped to her back.


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