Consultancy, Confidentiality & Scholarly Responsibility: Glimpses from the UN OHCHR

Last December the United Nations Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights, Kate Gilmore, commissioned an ethnographic consultancy of the organizational culture of the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR). The consultancy was assigned to a team consisting of Agathe Mora, Julie Billaud, and myself, three political and legal anthropologists who combined have extensive experience in the ethnography of human rights and international organizations.

The call for the consultancy outlined as its motivations the desire to “identify remaining barriers and obstacles to, and under-utilized enablers of, greater equality and dignity within the workplace, with recommendations to leadership on concrete steps to close those gaps.” The project was envisaged to be based on desk review, focused discussions and interviews, observation of meetings and field mission, on the basis of which a final report was to be written.

This call for an ethnographic consultancy was the first of its kind for the UN OHCHR. It was a significant step for an organization seeking to work for the realization of the rights of others in turning the analytical gaze onto itself to decipher how it realizes—or does not realize—the ideals of human right formally governing its operations.

Simultaneously it was neither unprecedented nor exceptional as one might talk of a broader “ethnographic turn” via which both IOs and INGOs seek to revisit their mandates while simultaneously examining what their organizational practices have yielded in over the past decades—whether they are able to realize the values that underlie their work and offer its formal legitimation.

If gaps exist between ideals and practices as many insiders suggest, what are their root causes? To what extent do they derive from “cultural” factors—however one defines them in the world of IOs—and to what extent from structural or systemic elements?

The turn to ethnography may also find a motivation from experiences of past reform failures perhaps initiated on the basis of consultancies by professionals with different backgrounds, awakening hopes that things might be different with the help of the ethnographic gaze.

A Utopian Vision at Retirement Age

Considering the overall temporality of the contemporary human rights phenomenon queries into the organizational logics and operations of IOs make perfect sense: many leading international and human rights organizations were founded around the 1970s.

Today we are seeing their last remaining pioneers retire. As they go, so too do their particular visions of what a better world might look like and their conceptions of how international organizations might assist in their visions’ realization.

Simultaneously the organizations themselves are approaching retirement age—the UN founded in 1945 is already 74. During the past decades these organizations have acquired a life of their own, developing in ways that likely nobody foresaw back when they were started. One outcome is the significant expansion of IOs and INGOs, embodied as well in the broadening of their mandates, infinite-seeming proliferation of projects, and tremendously enlarged staff.

Also the world around these organizations has changed considerably. Today we have tremendous numbers of organizations competing for the same resources to realize their vision of world improvement, or rather for resources that are continually growing slimmer with government budget cuts.

These developments introduce a practical necessity to reassess the operations of IOs by examining whether they still hold roles of relevance in the world, whether their organizational models are viable in the changed environment of resources, as well as whether they have remained true to the values and ideals that accompanied their founding.

Queries into existing practices may be further supported by the arrival of a new generation of professionals at the helm of these organizations, equipped with new visions emanating from different world experiences and expectations.

A Culture of Toxity?

Sometimes studies of organizational cultures have yielded in devastating results. This was demonstrated by the report on staff wellbeing published in February of 2019 of the working culture of Amnesty International. The report—prepared by social psychologists—drew a troubling portrait of a hierarchical and defunct organization with a working atmosphere described by many staff members as “toxic.”

The Amnesty report was commissioned in 2018 due to an organizational trauma following the suicides of two staff members—a long-term Amnesty official Gaëtan Mootoo and an intern Rosalind McGregor. The report sought to both account for elements in Amnesty’s working culture that might have contributed to these tragedies as well as to identify steps for changes to that culture.

It is possible that these developments offered motivation for the consultancy commissioned by Kate Gilmore. Prior to becoming the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights she was the Executive Deputy Secretary General of Amnesty International—a detail that also speaks to the smallness of the international human rights community.

Initially the findings of the Amnesty report may appear shocking. Yet in reality it outlined many features that are familiar to most who have followed the work of human rights NGOs and IOs up close. The report showed how for much of the staff in human rights organizations the work is much more than just work: it is also a commitment, a belief, and an identity.

Simultaneously many insiders of the human rights field are quite disillusioned with the organizations in which they operate; better than anyone, they are able to draw a distinction between the (defunct) organizations in which they work and the visions that motivate them.

They are also intimately familiar with the chronic scarcity of resources that often characterizes these organizations’ operations—a reality embodied in temporary contracts, project work, and extensive reliance on interns.

Commissioning the Ethnographic Gaze

Does the finding of a “toxic” working environment apply to the human rights field more generally? What about the Amnesty report’s division of staff into “us” and “them”: does this translate into “lack of inclusion and diversity” at the UN OHCHR—and if it does, how could this be changed?

Given the loaded nature of these questions, going to the very heart of the raison d’être of the entire human rights field, it is noteworthy that in seeking answers the OHCHR ended up turning toward anthropologists.

As is widely known, the relationship between anthropology and human rights remained tense for decades, instigated by the now widely condemned 1947 statement by the American Anthropological Association questioning the parameters of a planned international declaration of human rights.

Much has been written on this statement—even if less on whether the statement was actually on to something. Suffice it to say that the AAA has since moved on; in 1999 they issued a new statement to confirm full associational support for human rights.

Many anthropologists have become profiled as champions of human rights, particularly as they have labored on the land rights of the indigenous populations with which they work. Simultaneously many anthropologists have over the past few decades turned their ethnographic gaze toward international organizations and human rights, exploring as well the organizations’ bureaucratic practices and the ideologies motivating their staff.

Moving in this ethnographic field has perhaps not been self-evident for anthropologists who are—at least according to the fetishized notions still held inside the discipline—more at home as the lone (bearded) explores of the exotic and the remote. Thus the study of elites—to which international human rights workers undoubtedly belong—has been marked by keen scholarly awareness of the complexities of “studying up,” as anthropologist Laura Nader once phrased the matter.

An undoubted part of this complexity relates to a certain collective self-doubt over whether our analysis will eventually be considered as relevant by those with more societal power, including the leaders of world diplomacy as well as scholars from the more powerful disciplines of international relations and law, for example.

From this angle this consultancy of the UN OHCHR can be seen as certain collective affirmation: that anthropology and ethnography matter also in the eyes of international human rights bureaucracy.

The Grip of Confidentiality

What did our consultancy conclude at the end—is the OHCHR able to realize the lofty ideals governing its operations or not? Importantly, this is not for me to say: the consultancy was accompanied by a confidentiality clause, making it impossible to share its results without authorization from the OHCHR.

Such contracts are standard in the field of consultancy, yet they are not entirely unproblematic from the viewpoint of scholarship, awakening further questions on the relationship of consultancies, independent research and scholarly responsibility.

What do these clauses mean for scholars who have already done extensive research in the same ethnographic field? In my case this refers to my ethnography at the UN Human Rights Committee operating under the auspices of the OHCHR for which I have not signed, nor been asked to sign, a confidentiality agreement. How are insights derived from this consultancy to be kept separate from the observations that I have acquired in my earlier research?

What is the scholar’s responsibility—if any—in cases where one might encounter evidence of actual wrong-doing and later learn that these findings were not shared by management who commissioned the consultancy, or that appropriate action was not taken to redress the wrongs?

What would have been the responsibility of an academic consultant studying the relief operations of Oxfam at Haiti, tarnished not only by the sexual misconduct of senior officials but further accusations of attempted cover-up by Oxfam’s management? Do the scholar’s responsibilities end with the specifics stipulated by concrete consultancy contracts?

From the viewpoint of contractual law the answers are clear: the consultant’s responsibilities lie with the consultancy’s commissioner. Yet the matter is more complicated for independent scholars committed to a different set of ethical concerns, particularly when their consultancies are commissioned by the world’s leading human rights organizations such as the UN OHCHR.

Existing ethnographic knowledge on how international human rights and humanitarian bureaucracies operate does little to alleviate the dilemma. In contrast, this work has shown how the end result of any process may be the writing of a report, which then becomes synonymous with actual action to address existing wrongs.

Thus at its very worst, when accompanied by lack of external oversight and appropriate resources, ethnographic consultancies may be transformed into tools to legitimate and solidify the positions of current management by indicating that action is being taken to address existing wrongs—particularly if no steps follow the writing of their final report.

At its most extreme, instead of consequential or circumstantial such a legitimating function may be intentional and strategic on the part of existing management. Consultancies may be sought as a credible and objective-appearing guise for unpopular reform initiatives—for example budgetary cuts—that assist to sooth the in-house resistance that such proposals might otherwise awaken.

The Emancipatory Power of Reflection

These viewpoints concretize some of the challenges that accompany instances where scholars transgress the boundary between the “real world” and the world of scholarship. Due to the intensifying number of collaborative projects between universities, IOs and corporations, the questions accompanying such border-crossing will likely acquire greater importance in the future.

Confidentiality clauses of different kinds are also no strangers to universities, where these clauses have become increasingly common and embodied among others in questions over data ownership and intellectual property rights inside research projects.

Together these circumstances generate increasingly complex dilemmas on the relationship of independent research, ethical considerations, confidentiality, and data/knowledge ownership.

Anthropologists—like other scholars—hold particular responsibility in remaining vigilant in the face of these changes. This is at least if we are to remain true to the motto summarized by Ruth Benedict of the purpose of anthropology to “make the world safe for human difference”—for example by examining whether human rights organizations are remaining true to their ideals.

Scholars must resist the temptation of managerial co-opting, especially in instances where succumbing might appear attractive from the viewpoint of individual career advancement, for example in the possibility for new consultancies.

Despite these complications, such collaborations offer the possibility for genuinely novel insights. Even when confidentiality clauses prevent the discussion of “results,” anthropological imagination opens unforeseen angles for considering confidentiality, the scope of scholarly autonomy and the practicalities of good-doing.

Together such reflections may turn out to offer the kind of tools for lasting changes that have motivated the commissioning of an ethnographic consultancy in the first place—thus testifying that the potency of ethnographic methodology ultimately lies in its fundamental unpredictability.

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About Miia Halme-Tuomisaari

Miia Halme-Tuomisaari is legal anthropologist specializing in human rights. She is currently a Core Fellow at the Helsinki Collegium for Advanced Studies where she is working on a monograph on UN human rights monitoring. Her recent publications include “Methodologically Blond at the UN in a Tactical Quest for Inclusion” (Social Anthropology, 2018) and Revisiting the Origins of Human Rights (Cambridge, 2015, co-edited with Pamela Slotte).


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