“Swimming with sharks in the development sector”


The development sector is filled with various key players, some who are implementers while others are the funding partners or donor agencies that resource the work of social justice activists, researchers, human rights advocates and programmers, movement builders and supporters, to name but a few. I have been working in this sector for close to a decade and counting, a time that has given me exposure to these various players.

As the executive director of an international NGO, my role primarily is on building strong and sustainable partnerships, continuous brand management and positioning, strategic communication and management, and most importantly, resource mobilisation and fundraising. As a leader of whichever organisation, one needs to be proficient in making connections and contact with potential partners with common priorities who can contribute in various ways to advance and strengthen the work you do, and not just in financial means.

This responsibility is one that has gotten me to travel to strategic places around the world where I have met traditional donors and development agencies through fundraising tours and initiatives. I have also met with high net worth individuals and philanthropists with so much money and wealth they wish to put to organisations and work that has social impact and developmental contribution. I have the privilege of pitching our organisation to them as such a worthy investment, even though it is challenging to sell accountability as such an avenue to directly attain social impact and development. I continue to learn from the successes and challenges of this resource mobilisation and fundraising endeavours to advance accountability towards marginalised, most excluded and left behind persons and communities. It is encouraging to see how accountability is growing across this sector and no longer just an elusive concept within the various frameworks that social justice activists use to advance human rights, equity, dignity and inclusion.

Our work is premised on identifying the problems and challenges facing various members of society and their communities. It is built on calling out all the isms, phobias and exclusions in the world so all persons live equally fulfilling and equitable lives characterised by dignity, wellbeing and justice. This work stands strong on both fluid and organised collectives, movements and groups of individuals concerned and/or affected by the issues raised. Of recent years our movements have been confronted by a clear lack and need of internal accountability mechanisms, practices and systems. The development sector as a whole has seen some of the most shocking cases of sexual harassment, for instance, where we have seen very prominent organisations such as UNAIDS, Treatment Action Campaign (TAC), Equal Education and Amnesty International called to account by their own secretariats, affected victims, survivors and partners across the sector on a failure to make the work space as optimally safe and secure as possible. That which we are working so hard to correct in the world outside is very much present within our own working spaces where women, persons differently abled, youth and LGBTIQAP+ persons and bodies are objectified by those claiming to advance social justice. We have seen cases of large organisations and institutions in the development sector cause so much harm, hurt and violence to their own members, partners and staff, yet claim to advance the wellbeing of all people out in greater society. There is a lot of work still to be done internally if there is to be impactful shifts in the external environment.

We ought to do a better job of holding ourselves and our own accountable if we expect accountability to be a universal state of being. It is for this that I need to speak to a recent experience of yet another manifestation of sexual manipulation and exploitation that is a growing pandemic in our sector. At the just ended 3rd Specialised Technical Committee on Health, Population and Drug Committee of the African Union Commission (AU-C) meeting that I attended in Cairo – Egypt, I had conversations with various partners in the space ranging from the AU-C secretariat, human rights activists, ministers as well as policy developers, developmental and donor agencies that some of this work across the continent as part of the fundraising and resource mobilisation of our organisation. One particular engagement of the many I had is one that left me feeling sexually exploited.

This partner, who happens to be an African man and new to an executive level responsibility within the organisation that he is at, made not so inconspicuous advances at me. In our engagement, my focus was networking to understand his funding portfolio which he explained to me was an exorbitant amount of millions in USD and I on the one end speaking to the African Union Health Policy Accountability Framework my colleague was to present on the following day in a week-long of meetings of experts and ministers of health, population and drug control. The conversation which I am accustomed to in these spaces is one where there are pleasantries and introductions exchanged, business cards shared, high level summaries of the overall portfolio of work our organisations do and probing for potential areas of common priorities that we can collaborate on. However, this not so gentle gentleman progressed to make advances at me that looked less interested in my work than to do with my spending time with him over drinks at his hotel, all in the elusive ideation of him channelling some of his huge ‘pot of gold’ to the organisation I work for.

Now let us get something clear – that wining and dining potential partners are a part of the package of fundraising and resource mobilisation. However, this is one case that a seasoned feminist leader that I am knows very well to read for what it is.

This gentleman basically waved the potential of our organisation getting funding from his, if I got to have drinks with him in sexual undertones which I read quite late into that conversation that lasted all of 15 minutes in my count. In his choice to contact me via Whatsapp and not email, I acted decisively to pour water over his ambitions of getting any further time with me beyond the 15 minutes I wish I could take back but unfortunately cannot. In a subtle tone I managed to excuse myself from the evening drinks he was proposing, given that I had a work Skype call to make back at the hotel my colleague and I were booked at once the formal experts’ meetings were done. This all took place on the first day of meetings that were to follow the next coming four days. This Mr never spoke to me since then and avoided any direct eye contact with me at all times of our various encounters during various sessions all week. I strongly believe that he got the message that I was not seduced by what for me is financial peacocking of certain funding partners and donors who use the millions they have a responsibility to channel to good use to have sexually exploitative engagements with partners in need of funding to resource the work they do.

Surely this is a strategy that has worked for this guy and his kind before? And surely this is rape and in my case with him, an attempted case. Is this not gaining sexual favour through financial coercion and manipulation? How many of us whom – out of the desperation of the ever shrinking funding into human rights, social justice and inclusive developmental work – have fallen prey to such men who are sharks we are swimming with? Who holds these funding partners to account on these forms of sexual violence inflicted on us as various minorities and organisations representing us? How do we clean our house of such dirt? How do we protect other women, persons differently abled, youth, LGBTIQAP+ and other vulnerable persons from falling victim to this sexual exploitation by funding partners and donors? Put on a queer eye in seeking these answers.

About the Author: Tshepo Ricki Kgositau is a seasoned human rights advocate, researcher, trans personality, feminist, sexual & reproductive health rights specialist, Pan-Africanist, fashion designer, social entrepreneur, gender diversity & equity specialist, LGBTIQAP++ activist, queer theology scholar, motivational speaker and columnist.