The New Normal? The Rise of Toxic Working Cultures at Amnesty International and Big NGOs

The New Normal? The Rise of Toxic Working Cultures at Amnesty International and Big NGOs

Karolína Kašparová delves into the recent scandal of Amnesty International’s harmful and discriminatory workplace culture.

Amnesty International claims to be an organization uniting people ‘who take injustice personally’. ‘No government is beyond scrutiny’, says their website, and that same scrutiny has finally started to be aimed at them. According to The Guardian’s newly published report, Amnesty’s working culture is toxic. The report includes complaints of nepotism, bullying and public humiliation used by management, and even accounts of discrimination on the basis of race and gender. These findings naturally undermine the NGO’s human right’s mission and the accusations of hypocrisy are therefore rightfully deserved.

This report saddened me as someone who used to volunteer for Amnesty International. However, my experience was at the Prague headquarters – the office was comprised of no more than 30 employees and I didn’t observe any oppressive hierarchy. “It’s much more prestigious here to do an internship at Amnesty, or to be employed by them,” my schoolmates told me after I moved to London and described my Prague experience. Does more prestigious equal more bullying?

This might be the exact problem – when a human rights organization becomes similar to a corporate giant in the way it treats its employees, demanding them to overwork themselves and enforcing strategies to make employees as productive and obedient as possible. It is, in fact, even more questionable when this happens to a human rights NGO, because many people working at these institutions feel the moral urge to stay put, truly believing in their job. If we return to their report, The Guardian indeed referred to a ‘martyrdom culture’ at Amnesty International, in which staff would sacrifice their own wellbeing by taking on huge workloads. It is undoubtedly paradoxical that Amnesty is one of the key organizations frequently drawing our attention to the exploitation of workers all over the world.

This kind of disillusionment does not concern only this specific NGO but is part of a larger systemic problem. In the last few years, there have been instances of nepotism, hypocrisy or ineffective elitism related to other international organizations which are supposed to work ‘for the common good’, such as Oxfam or the United Nations. These affairs naturally give ammunition to the critics of human rights agenda: ‘Well, who are they to lecture us? Even they cannot adhere to the principle of equality!’ 

Furthermore, these problems might discourage and disgust committed people who would otherwise love to work in the non-profit sector and, as these organisations are so prestigious, might attract only those who do not mind these sorts of practices. This is what happens when an internship or a job at a human rights organisation has become merely an item on your CV.

Some say that multinational NGOs should not receive any support at all and most of the resources should go to local organisations who specialize in one particular region or activity. This might reduce corruption and prove more effective in each individual case. Yet, in my heart I struggle to agree with this entirely – it feels good and safe to be part of a multinational organisation with established funding, credibility (even though that might be disputed now) and a significant history of success. 

Would it be, for example, possible to put pressure on entire governments if Amnesty International or Human Rights Watch weren’t such ‘giants’? Hardly. One might argue that supporting local activist groups might trigger a more organic and long-term change. Last but not least, perhaps there is another reason for my reluctance to dismiss international organisations – they look good on my CV. It seems I have become complicit as well.

Image Credit: Richard Potts via Flickr