An Australian embassy official observes humanitarian relief efforts in Guiuan, Tacloban, Philippines. Photo by: Gemma Haines / DFAT / CC BY

CANBERRA — In response to the Oxfam sexual misconduct scandal, the development sector has been looking at its standards and practices to determine how to create safe spaces for staff beneficiaries, free from sexual exploitation and abuse. The Australian Council for International Development’s response has been to commission two reviews into practices within the development sector.

An independent review into the prevention of sexual misconduct is expected to be delivered in November. And the review of the ACFID Code of Conduct, undertaken by Learning4Development, concluded with a set of recommendations, including to create a new high-level commitment for the prevention of sexual exploitation and abuse.  

The proposed commitment is: “We advance the safeguarding of those who are vulnerable to sexual exploitation and abuse.” This will be voted on by ACFID members at the annual general meeting in Sydney on Oct. 30.

If agreed to by the 122 ACFID member organizations, each will need to show or implement a prevention of sexual exploitation and abuse policy setting out standards of behavior for staff, representatives, and partners. This policy must specifically prohibit sexual exploitation and abuse, and each organization will need to demonstrate how the policy is implemented. Members will also need to appoint a focal person for the prevention of sexual exploitation and abuse, who will provide leadership for organizational change.

The new commitment aims to create stronger and clearer accountability to stakeholders including the public, partners, and local communities. While the wording may sound simple, ACFID said the commitment is an important way to facilitate leadership and cultural change — a key challenge in preventing sexual exploitation and abuse.

“This commitment is a new cornerstone for greater leadership, accountability, and a cultural shift for the prevention of sexual misconduct,” Marc Purcell, CEO at ACFID, said. “It is one to which an ACFID-member, its governing body, and its people can be held accountable.”

The review’s other recommendations aim to further improve leadership and culture, create greater awareness of issues and responsibilities, understand the accountability of primary stakeholders as well as while working with partners, reporting and investigation as well as broad issues of gender and power.

Gaps and potential solutions

The recommendations were made following engagement with ACFID members and other key stakeholders — including the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. It draws on insights into the work they are currently doing to prevent sexual exploitation and abuse along with their views on potential changes to the code of conduct. The review also considered international research and insights to identify potential areas of weakness in organizational practices.

ACFID explained to Devex that Learning4Development proposed a range of additional compliance indicators to further strengthen the code.

In assessing potential collaborative partners, assessing policies on prevention of sexual exploitation and abuse could be a requirement, as well as demonstrating a shared commitment to the prevention and reporting of sexual exploitation.

In governance, clear and documented systems to report, escalate, and assess complaints related to child exploitation and abuse could be a consideration. Expectations for staff behavior could be documented and supplied to communities in which they work, providing a mandate for better action. And governance procedures could additionally demonstrate a commitment to assist victims, including medical and legal support.

And in creating better people and culture, recruitment could include stringent checks related to misconduct with clearer outlines of expected conduct and consequence for breaches — ones that are addressed in induction and refresher training courses.

Areas for clarification

The review, ACFID explained, also identified issues of contention or confusion that will need to be considered in designing further changes. This includes whether the proposed changes could effectively support all areas required to prevent sexual exploitation and abuse, whether they can be implemented by both large and small NGOs, the practicality of implementing a single reporting system to accommodate the range and types of reports that would be required, and how the new code applies to partners and leadership in the space.

There has also been discussion of whether transactional sex should be considered in the same context of sexual exploitation and abuse, with members noting that sex work is not always exploitative and a legitimate livelihood strategy in humanitarian crises.

Because this is an area still to be discussed and debated, recommendations made for the code of conduct were not explicit on the topic of transactional sex. It recommended instead that each member organization create their policies in response to the issue.

Implementing further recommendations

The Code of Conduct Committee met in August to review the recommendations and supported the approach of enhancing existing systems.

It also believed the verifiers proposed will allow flexibility for the scope and size of member organizations. For smaller members in particular, tools, support and guidance would still likely be required to implement the recommended changes.

Beyond the voting of the new commitment at the AGM, the additional recommendations will be addressed, along with the recommendations of the independent review, to establish an overall approach.

The wider ACFID community’s similar response to that of the Code of Conduct Committee is likely to see Australian NGOs take a stronger stand against sexual abuse and exploitation — including zero tolerance of staff from partner organizations breaching the anticipated new standards.

About the author

  • Lisa Cornish

    Lisa Cornish is a Senior Reporter based in Canberra, where she focuses on the Australian aid community. Lisa formerly worked with News Corp Australia as a data journalist for the national network and was published throughout Australia in major metropolitan and regional newspapers, including the Daily Telegraph in Melbourne, Herald Sun in Melbourne, Courier-Mail in Brisbane, and online through Lisa additionally consults with Australian government providing data analytics, reporting and visualization services. Lisa was awarded the 2014 Journalist of the Year by the New South Wales Institute of Surveyors.