“Total System Failure” is the working title for an independent (i.e. no institutional funding or affiliation) research project on abuses of power, systemic harassment, and cover-ups in the humanitarian aid, development, and NGO sector.

While we are focused broadly on issues in the sector, our current work in early 2019 focuses on the organization Engineers Without Borders Canada ( https://www.ewb.ca/). All project team members have been associated with the organization in past, as staff or volunteers. Many of these issues and dynamics were present within the organization and this can help to form an important case study.

The central question we will explore is why development and aid institutions or those claiming to be committed to “systemic change” are unable/ unwilling to deal with their own institutional violence, and what does that mean for their work and impact more broadly?  We will focus on interviewing staff, ex-staff, and volunteers within the sector, as well as academics, critics, and others associated with this work.

These are issues being grappled with by many institutions and communities, from academia to government to activist collectives to religious and spiritual communities.  #metoo (started by Tarana Burke in 2006), #aidtoo, #metooSTEM, and related movements have profoundly changed the landscape and have forced some long overdue accountability, while centering and connecting women and other survivors of these abuses and helping us develop long-term strategies.  


This project will be placed in a critical framework and we will draw on research from various disciplines. We do not believe this issue is just about sexual harassment, assault, discrimination, or bullying- although it is about that.  In our experience working in these settings, similar patterns and forces of backlash repeatedly and predictably arise and converge on those raising important critiques- especially towards women, and even more so towards women of colour, i.e. “the system snapping back.”  The reasons for this will be discussed with others and rigorously investigated through this project in hopes of drawing out important insights and pathways to change.

There are many similar reports and policy recommendations being developed right now, usually from within institutions themselves.  This project will not become beholden to institutional norms, reputational concerns, or funding pressures; and will avoid producing a vague, jargony, one-off ‘report’.  The final product will unapologetically speak truth to power, and will attempt to build and strengthen networks of solidarity.

Why (a note to the reformists)

We don’t think it makes sense at this juncture to appeal to organizational leadership themselves to handle these issues (we have tried that extensively and been subject to incredible backlash).  They have had plenty of opportunities to recognize and remedy them, and have shown no real interest or ability to do so. Instead, we think we need to get ourselves organized, form networks of support, and start analyzing and addressing this head-on.  That starts with a truthful accounting of the pervasiveness and seriousness of these abuses, which are common in this sector and every other sector.

Dr. Jennifer Freyd, who coined the term “institutional betrayal”, proposes that the antidote to that is “institutional courage.”  We are not sure that our institutions, in their current formations, can be courageous. That remains to be seen.

We DO think that communities and individuals can be courageous.  Once we start pulling on this thread, a lot of things may start unravelling- including, perhaps, deep parts of ourselves.  We have confidence that we can gather ourselves up again, and will be better and stronger for it.

A Note on Methods and Ethics

This is not a traditional academic study, nor is it a journalistic exposé (although we will engage with media eventually).  There is a tension between the academic imperative to anonymize participants or subjects, and the journalistic one that requires names to be named.  Ultimately, any recommendations and the final form of the project must be driven by ethical concerns, participants’ needs/safety, and desired impact.  It is beyond past due that we start having this conversation openly and publicly- especially when those who have harmed and others who were complicit are still in leadership positions in the sector.

This project will come from a feminist perspective, and the general approach taken is “systemic action research.” The research will be qualitative.  Due to some of our own experiences with workplace harassment and abuse, or witnessing abuses of power by aid and charitable sector workers, we will also utilize autoethnography.

We are in active discussions with others regarding the ethical, legal, and methodological implications of this project.  Discussions will be ongoing and we hope that this becomes a collaborative project that is shaped by its participants and supporters. The form of the project may shift and change over time.

If you would like to share your own story with us, we will treat it with the utmost care and confidence. We can talk together about how you would like to be included or represented in this project, or not.  No one should feel pressured to talk about their experiences or participate.  We have training and experience in conducting research interviews covering difficult or traumatic material, as well as crisis training.  We will be thinking and talking with others about how to provide support and follow-up.

What’s Next

We’re working on our first case study of EWB Canada, but welcome any and all input on issues in other organizations. We have an anonymous form set up to gather stories, and we welcome stories and experiences from other organizations and institutions.

If you want to get involved or support this project, you can reach us at total.system.failure.org[at]gmail.com or support us through our GoFundMe page.

You can also share your experience, sign on as a public supporter/ receive email updates, or write a letter of support that we’ll post on our blog.


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