*Podcast available on googleplay, iTunes, and podcast apps like Castbox.
WE, EWB, and Doing Harm by Trying to Do Good
CW: abuse, institutional violence
Aakhil Lakhani and Chelsey Rhodes, two of the co-organizers of Total System Failure, talk about the WE Charity scandal and draw comparisons with EWB. They refer to Boris Martin (above left) and George Roter (above right) as the “Kielburgers of EWB.”
They go on to discuss labour issues in the nonprofit and charitable sector, the use of unpaid internships, lack of employment protections or union representation, and abuse in the workplace.
Chelsey draws distinctions between isolated or seemingly disconnected “victim narratives” versus a larger political critique, the latter being the intended focus of Total System Failure. Aakhil emphasizes that sexual harms in these organizations are connected to a larger culture of supremacy that operates globally.
They also discuss EWB’s ties to the mining and extractive sector; the myth of Canada’s foreign benevolence; NGOs’ relationship to the crushing of dissent; and EWB’s refusal to critique the engineering profession and their role in globalizing capital, militarism, and unfettered industrial development that is harmful to people and planet.
The episode concludes with a discussion of how to shift from a traditional aid model to mutual aid or reparations, and the urgent need for more people to speak up about these issues.
A big thank you to the rest of my team, the wonderful Alex, Aakhil, and Johnny, who were endlessly supportive, strategic, and brave.
Thanks also to those who donated, spoke up, wrote letters, started boycotts, called for resignations, sent kind encouragement, exited the organization in protest, and signed on as public supporters.
Below are the findings from over a year of looking into “ abuses of power, systemic harassment, and cover-ups” at Engineers Without Borders Canada (EWB) in Toronto, and organizing to try to stop them. Hint: The results aren’t great. [Content warning: assault, abuse, institutional violence]
Happy International Women’s Day, I guess.
When we started this project in the fall of 2018, we didn’t expect our title to be so prescient. What began as an accounting of past abuses at the Canadian development NGO “Engineers Without Borders” (EWB) morphed into a disturbing anatomy of present dysfunction. The mapping of power abuses and paradigm problems in one organization then spilled over into many others, leading us to sketch out a toxic web of corruption, discrimination, ethical and epistemic failures, and insidious silence across a sector that is ostensibly dedicated to social change and the public good.
I haven’t updated anyone about this project in some time, most of all because I’ve been heartsick from witnessing what’s happened at EWB in the past year. I knew it was bad, but I didn’t know it was so bad. In such a situation, being right is not what anyone wanted.
It might be useful to explain how the title “Total System Failure” came about, and how the project itself came into being—for it did seem to come into being with some force and life of its own, much to my surprise and oftentimes resentment.
The title and concept were borrowed from EWB’s own “Failure Report” which it has been publishing for some years, probably from around the time I worked there in 2011. The original ideals behind the Failure Report were fairly solid: transparency, learning, and encouraging organizations in the aid sector to admit their mistakes and flaws. I’d say that it accomplished this but in a very uncritical and sometimes self-serving fashion. I noticed an ethos of “failing forward”–corresponding with the organization’s adherence to “social innovation” and “social entrepreneurship” and “venture philanthropy” principles–began to pervade the organization and led to papering over serious harms while shirking accountability. A justice lens was mostly missing. Absent sustained critical reflection or historical contextualization, the Failure Report often seemed no more than an empty branding exercise or secular confessional.
The second influence for our project was a popular report published in 2002 by the UK-based think tank Demos called System Failure: Why Governments Must Learn to Think Differently, which describes itself as critiquing the dominant approach to policy-making (i.e. mechanistic, reductionist). Again, a justice lens and political-historical analysis are missing. Feminist ideas are absent. The thinking proposed is actually not that different from traditional policy-making, but with an updated focus on flexibility, experimentation, innovation. The deeper problems causing policy interventions to fail remain unaddressed.
This project was partially meant as a critique of the thought underpinning both EWB’s Failure Report and Demos’ System Failure, which favour depoliticizing approaches centred around “systems thinking” and “complexity.” It then aimed to link that critique to the growing revelations of abuse, discrimination, exploitation, and exclusion within organizations like EWB, and to flesh out how this is actually what is connected to persistent failures in global change or equity efforts… no matter how many silly “complex systemic innovative” interventions we in the Global North continue to come up with and then impose on others (for more of my thinking on this, see this essay).
I also wanted to analyze why this type of knowledge seems utterly resistant to individual or institutional understanding–in the past I have referred to this as the “Unknown Knowns.”
In my more hopeful moments, I thought I might also write speculatively about what a “without borders” transformative solidarity politics might look like, what a “feminist foreign policy” might really mean, what kinds of organizational configurations might support those, and what types of strategies are needed.
Anyway, the point of my writing this is to announce that I won’t be writing the full-length “Failure Report for 2019″, at least not the one that I originally envisioned. I’m tired of explaining things to people who are in a position to act but can’t or won’t, are unable to properly comprehend the problem, and won’t do the work to correct themselves. I’m tired of trying to do this myself, and fund it myself (our gofundme raised less than 10% of what we needed), and essentially act as an unpaid consultant. I’m tired of trying to parse how much legal danger or actual danger I’ll be in (or other survivors will be in) when I publish what I’ve found about the actions of people who’ve already proven they have no qualms about using violence and lies to protect their positions.
It has been rather stunning (in the bad sense) to watch EWB throughout most of 2019 apply its flawed approaches and shallow solutionism to the issues of abuse internally, framing it as a brokenness that could be fixed with quick policy measures and improved HR processes. It has been sort of like watching a slow-motion car crash.
You could say, EWB tried to “NGOize” the problem of sexual harassment by stripping our intervention of its political critique. It doesn’t matter whether this was intentional or not, the point is that they failed in much the same ways that they fail at meaningfully addressing the root causes of poverty—which is their stated mission and focus of their external work from the time EWB was founded.
It’s hard to know whether to laugh or cry about this: EWB EWB’ed itself, and not only didn’t solve the problem but made it much worse! However, the implications of this for their external work are very un-funny. The have likely caused immense harm to so-called recipient communities in the African countries they intervene in. I regret that this project didn’t have the scope, resources, or international reach to hear from more people who were hurt.
EWB’s actions in 2019 went far beyond failure
At the root of it is this: not mere “failure”, but violence. Violence, in the name of goodness! How does this happen? What does that mean for our society, what does that say about our world?
A “failure” implies a mistake. A failure suggests that people, despite their “good intentions”, messed up. That’s not what has happened here. And in calling this a “collective failure” I’m not trying to say that everyone is equally responsible for what transpired at EWB—although the widespread bystanderism and complicity of the staff, community, and broader sector certainly props this all up indefinitely. But the powerholders at EWB are responsible for something much worse than a failure to act. The executive team, past and present, and the Board (including those who tried to slink away into the night) are responsible for their essentially violent response to revelations of violence.
They have failed at their basic tasks of governance and leadership. They have failed at their duty of care to staff and volunteers, to the point of gross negligence. They have failed at repairing the harm they’ve done to people. They have demanded “reconciliation” while refusing to tell the truth. They have mismanaged the organization into a state of crisis, and then deployed the most cynical, cowardly, and counterproductive tactics to try to claw their way out. They have wasted charitable funds (including taxpayer funds) on PR firms and lawyers to attempt to cover this up, potentially reaching into the six figures. They have concealed an independent report that they promised to release to all stakeholders, and then continued to position themselves as standard-bearers for transparency in the aid sector. They sent students overseas while hiding the report findings from them that recommended they not be sent due to serious unresolved health and safety and management failures. They have lied, engaged in widespread gaslighting, bullied and smeared critics, resorted to intimidating student volunteers, drove mass staff resignations and student boycotts, and slandered and ignored survivors while simultaneously claiming to be survivor-centred and feminist.
They have, rather unbelievably, covered up new cases of internal harassment and bullying internally (involving the executive team) in the past year even while publicly claiming the issues we’re reporting are nonexistent. They have closed ranks around the CEO Boris Martin who has been centrally implicated in much of this. They have refused to have the issues properly investigated, while opening internal “harassment investigations” against whistleblowers who don’t even work there any longer. They have, throughout all this, continued to congratulate themselves on their humanitarianism. They have failed, apparently, to register these ironies and hypocrisies.
(Institutions, even violent ones, are disturbingly good at maintaining the idea that they are “good.” This can be extrapolated to understand much of what is wrong in the world).
But those are only the things that happened in the past year or so, merely the recent actions that the leadership of EWB deployed throughout 2019 as their way of “proving” to the public that they were essentially good, and that nothing bad had happened in the organization’s past.
What bad things happened in the past?
Here are the things that the Total System Failure team documented and reported to the EWB Board, incidents that stretch back nearly a decade. I personally relayed these incidents in person to the Board (notably, current Board Chair Rebecca Kresta was there both times), in April 2019 over 2 days of meetings in Montreal, and again in July 2019 in Toronto (this time I asked to have a lawyer present), which they have summarily ignored:
6x sexual assault/ rape
5x sexual harassment
1x physical assault
3x general harassment
3x racist harassment
4x sex/race discrimination
4x financial misconduct/exploitation
Who was affected?
Most of the people who relayed these experiences were young white or racialized women or nonbinary or trans folks, and a few were men. Most were in subordinate staff/intern positions, most were on temporary/ precarious/ low-paid contracts, and some were in volunteer chapter positions. They consisted of National Office staff/ interns, overseas staff and fellows, Junior Fellows, and chapter members. The perpetrators were mostly men, and mostly men in leadership positions at the National Office, overseas, or at the chapter level, and some were repeat offenders. One perpetrator was a man at a partner organization. Most of these men were protected from meaningful consequences or independent investigation, many were promoted within EWB, one was moved to another country, and all generally failed upwards. Now, many are visible in leadership positions at other organizations in the aid sector, as well as in the legal profession, academia, politics, and conflict resolution.
There also consisted a pattern of generalized backlash and bullying to those who raised the alarm on internal issues at EWB, leading to a harassment feedback loop that appears to be a central way that power maintains itself, the institution replicates itself, equity is denied, and truth-tellers and would-be changemakers are silenced (an NDA is obviously not the only way to shut someone up).
Many of the people who experienced harm within EWB expressed their belief in the founding ideals of the organization, their love for the community, and pushed for internal reform–sometimes for years (and were rebuffed or ignored)–before eventually exiting and/or speaking out publicly.
There were incidents or patterns that did not fit neatly into these categories, like pay inequities, the use of precarious contracts and unpaid or low-paid internships/fellowships, uneven patterns of promotion that favored white men and panderers, homophobia/transphobia and ignoring overseas safety issues for queer people, ableism, general health and safety issues, visa fraud, a culture of overwork and burnout, burying critical reports (a prior duty of care report was done a few years ago but was not made public, and a critical gender report was concealed by the Board/ exec while retaliating against its author), being asked to sign an NDA to cover a privacy breach, being asked to sign a NDA to cover harassment (my own case), tasking women at the org to fix systemic misogyny issues, generalized leadership and management incompetence, nepotism, and (to be blunt) an overall culture of assholery, white male entitlement, political ignorance, and egotism that mirrors what’s found in engineering culture.
[To survivors: I believe you, and I’ve got your back. I believe each and every one of the people who came forward or found a way to get their stories to us while understandably trying to protect their own safety, privacy, and peace of mind. I wish you could all have the support, acknowledgment, and apologies you deserve, and the resources you need to recover and rebuild your careers, health, and confidence. I wish I had that for myself, too. I wish we all had the opportunity (if we chose) to contribute to a robust, rigorous, and well-funded independent inquiry where the results would be fully public and transparent, and adequate reparations were made to all those harmed.]
What about Derek Evans’ report?
Regarding the “independent review” by Derek Evans commissioned by the EWB Board in February 2019, EWB has been concealing it since April 2019 despite documented promises by the executive team and Board to release it to all stakeholders. This is what an anonymous staff member sent to the Total System Failure team in November 2019:
“Maybe this doesn’t matter to you anymore, but I had access to Derek Evans report – a few staff members managed to get a copy – and I was shocked about everything I read. All I can say is that the message Boris sent out had nothing to do with the actual content of the report. The report highlighted your case and how EWB failed you at all levels. Boris [Martin, CEO] and Shivani [Patel, former VP, now COO] have made fun of you and TSF in different ways and they are glad you stopped “harassing” them. That’s the word they used. And of course, they lied to The Star over and over again. [the Toronto Star recently published this article.]
With more than 20 staff members and half of the Management Team leaving the organization this year, many without a job, EWB will reach 100% turnover soon. Many people left because of the way EWB handled your case. I have asked around and if Boris had resigned, most people would have stayed. But that’s not going to happen. In fact, Boris raised his own salary by more than 20% two months ago and promoted Shivani to COO right after she failed to secure Global Affairs funding for the next 7 years. All this when he claimed that EWB was going through a difficult financial situation. That’s offensive.
There are 10 new staff members who know nothing about you, your case or allegations against EWB. So that is working well for Boris and Shivani.
Prateek [Awasthi, Policy Director] continues to harass and mistreat people – I’ve experienced that myself – but we need the money so its difficult to leave without another opportunity. From the leadership team Prateek and Shivani are the only followers Boris has. They literally do whatever he wants. I guess Wendy (Finance), Elena (Investments), Namrata (Comms) and David (Fellowships) put their integrity first and left because they couldn’t deal with such an incompetent group of people.
There is no accountability and the Board lacks real life experience. The current Board is a joke. EWB needs a completely different Board.
All I wanted to say is that I’m no ready to speak publicly, but many people in the organization are with you. It is just taking a bit more time for us to come forward as we continue to be harassed and threatened. But believe me, I’m sure that all 20 former EWBers would like to see Boris, Shivani and Prateek be hold accountable for everything they’ve done. It’s just a matter of time, I guess.”
What about Global Affairs Canada, who awarded $9 million to EWB?
They have done nothing to help us, meet with us, or intervene, despite our multiple attempts to contact them and our repeated highlighting of the need for federal oversight and intervention regarding widespread abuses and lack of global accountability mechanisms in the aid sector.
“Conclusions” of our rogue review
In my most measured but admittedly biased opinion, the Board and executive team of EWB have done despicable things that constitute serious ethical breaches, human rights violations, institutionalized corruption, and in some cases may constitute actual crimes. As long as they continue to show no insight into their actions, refuse accountability, and peddle in “alternative facts”, I believe that all of them should be prevented from working in this sector ever again. I also unequivocally believe that EWB is a failed organization, is at this point irredeemable, and should be shut down.
It’s not just me who thinks this way. Upon hearing the above list of incidents in Montreal in April 2019, Cameron Charlebois, Board Chair at the time (he helped commission his friend Derek Evans to do the “independent” and “transparent” review of EWB), sat there looking like all the blood had drained from his face. When he finally spoke, he said “this is a very powerful act of whistleblowing,” and then, “I don’t know if this organization deserves to exist.” He promised to do something about it and to make sure EWB publicly apologized (never happened—what is the opposite of an apology? That’s what they did instead), saying that this issue was personal for him due to having 4 daughters. Then, along with Rebecca Kresta, he promised to take the issues to the rest of the Board. Shortly thereafter, Cameron along with 7 other Board members resigned and went silent. No word on how his daughters feel about that, but if Cameron asked me I’d tell him exactly how I feel.
This situation is a meta-failure of fairly epic proportions. It is also basically boring in its predictability. I am constantly struck by the similarities of these types of situations across settings. I still manage to be shocked by how you can tell people exactly what they will do wrong in response to this type of situation, and then they will proceed to do it anyway, like sad automatons. A few nights ago, I spoke for a few hours to another whistleblower who reported systemic racial discrimination at her non-profit. It mapped almost exactly onto this situation in ways that were eerie and disturbing, so much so that either one of us could have scripted the others’ situation in advance. “It’s boring,” she told me, “I’m sorry to use that word but it’s boring.” “Yes, yes, it is boring,” I said, “I’ve used that word myself so many times.”
The boringness of evil, the basicness of white supremacy and misogyny, the predictability of abuse of power, the naked careerism and social climbing of so-called humanitarian leaders, the utter banality of it all.
For some reason that conversation with the whistleblower, following closely after the Weinstein verdict and Elizabeth Warren’s nationally televised evisceration of Bloomberg’s use of NDAs, landed me at the sad impasse that resulted in my writing this. I am sad because of how long it takes people to understand stuff that should be obvious, how hard it is, how everyone expects the work to be done by those most impacted, and how many people continue not to get it despite hours (and in some cases, years) of explanation and mountains of evidence.
I actually don’t know what to tell any of you about why this happens or how to stop it—and ultimately we tried and failed to stop it. “Total System Failure” project: itself a failure.
I want to note how much harm the rest of you (the EWB community past and present) have done with your basically good intentions, your fairly innocent ignorance, and your ill-advised attempts at “neutrality” and “civility” which are just fancy excuses for bystanderism. The activist collective Sprout Distro’s Betrayal zine provides a good summary of the re-traumatization visited on victims by communities supposedly oriented around social change and social justice:
“This conspiracy of silence seeks not only to end a survivor’s struggle before it even begins, but also to provide the backdrop for what will happen to the few survivors who refuse to be muzzled. For a survivor to speak openly of their experiences in such a climate can only be understood as an act of resistance, and as with all acts of resistance, repression is a likely outcome. This repression is more nuanced than the clubs of police officers or the guns of soldiers, though these too have been turned on survivors. The repressive forces are more likely to be mentally and emotionally devastating. Those who doubt the brutality of this internal repressive apparatus have likely never been on the receiving end.
The ‘communities’ that are so often turned to with the expectation of support are more often mobilized against the survivors on behalf of their perpetrators in a stunning counter attack. It’s difficult to properly illustrate what so many survivors have had to endure at the hands of their supposed comrades.
Perhaps a survivor gave no clue of abuse as they endured it, perhaps they consented to certain sexual activity but not all of it, perhaps they felt the need to disclose certain experiences and withhold others, perhaps they needed time to process their trauma and only revealed it gradually, perhaps they have their own issues with power or boundaries. What’s important is not the details themselves, but how they can be twisted, taken out of context, or else used to undermine a survivor’s credibility. Past histories, addictions, coping mechanisms, debts, insecurities, even a survivor’s political identity, all are fair game. When this strategy is successful, survivors are villainized and their attackers are recast as the victims of lies and manipulation.
But even if the apparent objective of discrediting a survivor in the eyes of community fails, the process itself can still be effective at forcing survivors out of that community. Knowing that simply walking into a space means that nearly everyone there has discussed your personal life at length creates a tremendous barrier, regardless of the conclusions people may have reached. Survivors may feel compelled to pre-empt this dynamic by engaging their critics. Often, this plays into demands for “proof” or details of assaults or abuse. The retraumatizing aspect of this is yet another further attack on the survivor, and often feeds rather than undermines the conflict.
As tensions grow, it begins to spill over into new arenas. Previously uninvolved parties become caught up in the mounting bedlam, and organizing becomes disrupted. Of course, at this point normalization has been broken, and the repressive apparatus no longer has anything to lose by not holding back. “These divisions are hurting us!” they cry. Of course, such divisions are never blamed on the perpetrator or their actions, but on the survivor for insisting that the trauma they’ve experienced cannot go unanswered.
They will often liken the survivor’s struggle to a ‘witch hunt,’ when they themselves share more in common with the executioners than with those who burn at the stake.”
A stark and accurate picture of what I and many others have experienced.
Despite the sounds of this letter, by no means are we giving up. Many people worked hard on this project and all it represents, and we’ll continue to do so in many ways and forms. Resistance to these forms of domination is building; experiments in dislodging tired hierarchies are growing.
For me, my genuine dismay about my inability to answer the question “How does this happen?” has led me back to the academy (though not without trepidation), and I am starting a PhD in the fall. So, give me some years and I hope I’ll have the semblance of something useful to say about this mess, and be in a better position to say it without dissolving into inchoate rage (which is still admittedly rather fresh).
In the meantime, I plan to rest and try to recover my health and finances, which are both in a state of general disarray because of all of this. If I do write something, it will be in whatever form I feel like—memoir, creative nonfiction, or maybe just notes to myself. If I write something public it will be for me and for others who have gone through similar things, and definitely not for people who are unable to listen and unwilling to act. I’m tired of blowing a whistle into the void, I’m tired of knowing many other recovered EWBers are sitting on even worse information and evidence but can’t/ won’t publicly reveal it even though I already paved the way for you, and even though you know that people are getting badly hurt. I’m exhausted by a decade of this bullshit and backlash, and the few of us who have been trying to drag others into a state of integrity (often kicking and screaming) are also exhausted. I am going to read and go to the beach and go for walks and listen to podcasts and sleep and try to dream things that aren’t nightmares.
Hello Boris [Boris Martin is current CEO of Engineers Without Borders Canada/ EWB],
The last time we spoke was immediately after the EWBetter session in Ottawa at the Spring Leadership Retreat. I approached you and very directly said, to your face, that if you didn’t solve the inherent issues within your management of this organization that I would have to take a more drastic approach to my role as President of the UManitoba Chapter. I gave you a soft deadline of September, and now that month has come and gone without any significant changes made whatsoever. Marginal improvements in health and safety/sexual violence policies are not the type of systems change that EWB claims to be at the very core of its mission statement. Hiring an Ombudsperson is not systemic change. I am refusing to sign an MOU that is hypocritical and ignorant of the way you have acted as CEO.
[After facing chapter boycotts EWB’s “solution” was to attempt to force the chapter presidents to sign a MOU/Code of Conduct, and has been using other intimidation tactics like contacting their deans, and threatening student boycotters with legal action.]
I have spent almost 5 years within various roles in EWB and that time is now ending. I have submitted my letter of resignation [Dear EWB UManitoba Chapter] to my chapter executives and I encourage you and all other staff, chapter presidents and co-presidents to read it. I can no longer pretend as though nothing is wrong and recruit new members into an organization that I know firsthand is deeply flawed, starting with your leadership as CEO. You told me in Ottawa that it was “unfortunate” that I draw such a line in the sand because “we are supposed to be a family”. If this is the type of community or family that you want to cultivate, by silencing dissenters, encouraging them to resign if they disagree with changes made, threatening legal actions if chapters continuing using the EWB brand while boycotting, then that is a community I am more than ready to leave, but not without making it well known to both my fellow presidents and friends how I feel about all of this. This is what I think a Systems Change Leader would do.
In my eyes, the people actually advocating for systems change have been those dissenting voices. The folks from McGill, Concordia, Queens, Alberta, ETS, etc. who have challenged your status quo. At least 6 current and 15 former (from the past 2 years) Presidents or Co-Presidents signed a letter demanding substantial change. 80 people have signed on to support the website http://www.totalsystemfailure.org/support-us/ to support the efforts of these folks in the attempt to force change upon this organization, all of us will recognize names on this webpage. 8 out of the 13 Board members resigned en masse in response to the boycott movement beginning. Your staff have attempted to convince me that we shouldn’t speculate that this had anything to do with the boycott – that is bullshit and I completely reject that characterization. We aren’t stupid, we are students. EWB has taught us to think about systemic change as not only necessary, but inevitable. I appreciate this knowledge but will now use it to end the toxic environment you have created within this organization.
Boris, you must resign. This is the only way to help EWB survive as an organization. You could have avoided all this dissent by admitting your faults and role within the botched investigation into various complaints made regarding sexual violence within this organization. You may not have had to resign at the beginning, but now you must. You’ve withheld information (reports), failed to address our questions (at the EWBetter), and generally neglected to show remorse or regret in how the organization has treated survivors of sexual violence in the past. I understand the Board of Directors has requested you remain silent about this issue – but when the first public address to the community I see from you since this whole thing began in January is an email about donating my Aeroplan Miles to EWB… I felt not only disgusted but betrayed. Is this really the most important thing you needed to speak to us about?
Don’t take the whole organization down with you. There is a movement mounting against patriarchal, sexist and misogynistic approaches to allegations of sexual violence. Oxfam recently went through a similar scandal, and EWB will too if you don’t take these dissenting voices seriously. Media sources have already been contacted, chapters have already committed to boycotting, presidents and co-presidents have resigned, staff have quit. This calls for a drastic response – not trying to convince us that everything is fine and we can move on to the future. You were involved when the mistakes were made, and now you’re trying to cover them up using your role as leader.