Aid sector 'sluggish and delusional' in responding to sexual abuse, MPs find

U.K. aid being unloaded and distributed to people affected by the 2010 earthquake in Haiti. Photo by: DFID / CC BY-NC-ND

LONDON — United Kingdom lawmakers have slammed aid bosses for a “collective failure of leadership” and “self-delusion” when it comes to tackling sexual exploitation and abuse, or SEA, branding the sector’s response “reactive, patchy, and sluggish” and at times “verging on complicity” with perpetrators.

The report published Tuesday by the International Development Committee, a cross-party parliamentary group that scrutinizes aid spending, is the culmination of a six-month inquiry launched in response to revelations that Oxfam GB staff had paid young local women for sex during the humanitarian response to the 2010 earthquake in Haiti. It was followed by allegations against two former senior Save the Children UK staff, who were accused of harassing female colleagues.

The inquiry looked both at alleged abuse of beneficiaries by aid workers and United Nations peacekeeping troops; and at abuse and harassment of aid workers themselves by fellow staff.

“The aid sector has been aware of sexual exploitation and abuse by its own personnel for years, but it has collectively failed to fully confront or address the problem. The reactive, patchy, and sluggish response of the sector has created an impression of complacency verging on complicity and more concern for reputations than victims,” a press release launching the report stated.

It offers a number of recommendations about how to clean up the sector internationally. Meanwhile, U.K.-specific suggestions include additional funding for the Charity Commission, which monitors U.K.-registered charities, after concerns were raised that budget cuts may have affected its ability to regulate NGOs.

The U.K.’s Department for International Development has taken the lead on finding safeguarding solutions for the aid sector in the aftermath of the Oxfam scandal. It hosted a U.K.-focused safeguarding summit in March, which resulted in an action plan from leading NGOs, and set up a new safeguarding unit. The department also wrote to 283 aid organizations receiving DFID funding to request information about their safeguarding policies and historic sexual abuse or harassment cases. Next, the department said it will host an International Safeguarding Conference in London on October 18, “to agree a package to deliver lasting change,” a DFID spokesperson said.
However, while IDC Chair Stephen Twigg acknowledged DFID has been “taking steps to respond to the crisis,” the report describes DFID’s historic response to reports of abuse as “disappointing.”

“The committee is deeply concerned that previous attempts have amounted to limited action in order to quell media clamor with no lasting impact or redress,” Twigg said in a statement, before issuing a warning to aid bosses.

“[T]ake note: We are putting all the relevant authorities on notice. The International Development Committee will continue to give this high priority and we will be tracking progress with a view to ensuring real improvement is made,” he said.

International development secretary Penny Mordaunt welcomed the report and said in a statement that the October summit would be an opportunity to demonstrate progress made.

“Until the sector is fully prepared to address the power imbalance, cultures, and behaviors that allow sexual abuse, exploitation, and harassment to happen, we will never stamp it out,” she said.

The two U.K. charities at the heart of the recent scandal also welcomed the report and pledged to act on the recommendations.

“Along with other charities, we have heard the wake-up call for the entire aid sector loud and clear. Measures proposed in the report could, if implemented effectively, transform the safeguarding environment — and we are committed to act,” Save the Children UK said in a statement.

“The committee is right to challenge all of us in the sector to do better — we need to give the same sustained priority to preventing and tackling sexual abuse as we do to saving lives during humanitarian emergencies.”

— Caroline Thomson, Oxfam chair of trustees

Caroline Thomson, Oxfam chair of trustees, said: “The committee is right to challenge all of us in the sector to do better — we need to give the same sustained priority to preventing and tackling sexual abuse as we do to saving lives during humanitarian emergencies … The report's recommendations demand serious attention.”

Call for reforms

The recommendations include a call for DFID to take the lead in establishing an “independent aid ombudsman” to offer victims of abuse a “a right of appeal, an avenue through which those who have suffered can seek justice by other means.” But the report was clear that such a mechanism should not be a regulator or a “global Charity Commission.”

Other, more general, recommendations include that aid organizations embrace a victim-centered approach to addressing abuse, stressing this must go beyond including victim and survivor stories at the forthcoming summit. To be meaningful, a victim-centered approach must be “fully integrated across all aspects of the sector’s SEA response,” the report states.

To address massive underreporting — experts believe the vast majority of abuse cases go unreported — IDC recommends organizations and donors, in particular DFID, fund stronger reporting mechanisms, as well as support services for those who do come forward. That could include a proactive approach, such as reaching out to survivors and creating safe spaces in which they can talk about their experiences.

“The ease with which individuals known to be predatory and potentially dangerous have been able to move around the aid sector undetected is cause for deep concern and alarm,” the report states. It calls for a global register of aid workers to be established to prevent those who commit an offense at one organization from moving on to work at another.  

The suggestion comes after it was revealed that some of the men who left Oxfam as a result of the Haiti incident subsequently found employment elsewhere in the sector. DFID should lead on the register, which must be “collectively resourced and independently managed,” said the report. Politicians also recommended that aid organizations agree to collectively reform and strengthen their referencing procedures and that clear guidelines around what information can be shared between organizations are developed.

Save the Children UK said it supports the plan for an international register which “would help to prevent abusers from working in the sector.”

Transforming organizational culture

The IDC report also dedicates space to transforming the culture within aid organizations.

“We are horrified at reports of ‘a culture of denial’ in U.N. and humanitarian organizations when confronted with allegations of SEA. Safeguarding policies and procedures will be utterly meaningless without a transformation of organizational culture,” it states.

Aid bosses, including trustees and management, must “ensure that what exists on paper is reflected in practice,” the report states. Bond, the U.K. NGO network, has set up a working group, including members from DFID and the Charity Commission, to explore how to create effective and positive safeguarding cultures within aid groups.

Both Oxfam GB and Save the Children are currently undertaking independent reviews of their workplace cultures, and DFID should push for this to become common practice across the sector, the report suggests. It adds that aid groups should set targets and timelines for achieving workforce gender parity at the upcoming safeguarding conference.

“I believe deep cultural change is required across all aid organizations, starting with their — all too often male — senior leadership. Sexual abuse of aid beneficiaries, and of women aid workers, which I believe is linked, must be stamped out,” said Pauline Latham, the politician who will be leading the follow-up on DFID’s response to the report.

Talking about its ongoing workplace culture review, the results of which will be made public, Kevin Watkins, chief executive officer of Save the Children UK, said: “We have made mistakes in our own handling of historical sexual harassment complaints from staff in the U.K. Although some progress has been made in creating a more respectful working culture, there is a great deal more to do.”

“We as NGOs know that ‘business as usual’ is not going to cut it and change has started and is underway,” Judith Brodie, interim head of Bond, said in a statement. “We need to see increased resourcing in safeguarding, particularly for smaller NGOs; more collaboration across organizations, donors, and governments; better transparency; unwavering leadership; and measures to ensure whistleblowers and survivors are at the heart of any solutions.”

About the author

  • Sophie Edwards

    Sophie Edwards is a Reporter for Devex based in London covering global development news including global education, water and sanitation, innovative financing, the environment along with other topics. She has previously worked for NGOs, the World Bank and spent a number of years as a journalist for a regional newspaper in the U.K. She has an MA from the Institute of Development Studies and a BA from Cambridge University.