Australian NGO review interim report on prevention of sexual misconduct

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CANBERRA — The independent review to improve how Australian Council for International Development members respond to and prevent sexual misconduct has reached an important milestone with the release of an interim report Thursday by the Victorian Institute of Forensic Medicine.

The report provides an overview of the barriers to identification, reporting, and prevention of sexual harassment and violence in the development sector. It’s aimed at directing the second phase of research, which will develop recommendations specific to Australia’s development sector.

Following the release of the interim report, Devex spoke with ACFID Chief Executive Officer Marc Purcell and VIFM lead researcher Maaike Moller, to discuss some of the initial finding as well as the direction the final report may take.

Understand that sexual harassment and violence is common

The interim report focuses on identifying just how prevalent sexual harassment and abuse is in both the Australian community and broader development sector. Identifying this challenge helps to demonstrate that a lack of reporting on harassment and abuse may require organizations to investigate whether their organizational culture is preventing victims from coming forward.

“In the general statistics around sexual harassment in Australia which the report cites, one in five women and one in twenty men have experienced sexual violence since the age of 15,” Purcell told Devex.

“It is a common phenomenon in Australian society. And we know in many of the countries where our members work, sexual violence or violence against women can be seen in extremely high rates.”

Purcell said it would be “foolish” to pretend that sexual harassment and abuse can’t happen or doesn’t happen — even if an organization appears to have no recent examples within their own programs.

Moller said the interim report demonstrates that sexual harassment and abuse is not an issue organizations could take lightly.

“We are learning more that within the aid sector, sexual violence does occur,” she said. “So the absence of reports would lead to questions as to why that is the case. And as more processes are put in place, we would expect reporting to go up.”

Prevent the re-employment of offenders

The report found that in some roles or countries, offenders go unreported with no criminal conviction. Elsewhere, there are insufficient processes to identify perpetrators and prevent re-employment. And the challenge of balancing a system that identifies perpetrators who may not have a criminal record will be a something the review will need to provide recommendations on.

But Purcell believes there are existing reporting requirements that could be expanded upon to achieve this.

“While I don’t want to pre-empt the review, there has been mandatory reporting of children at risk for over a decade under DFAT and also a requirement to have child protection and HR policies in place under the ACFID code,” he said. “So there is a system.”

Under system implemented by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, a partnering organization delivering Australian aid outcomes needs to report suspected and actual breaches of child exploitation or abuse. If they breach reporting requirements, they can face financial implications, including cancellation of funding and contracts. This can also prevent offenders from being re-employed in a role requiring work with children.

“If someone was found in being referred to the Australian Federal Police, for example, and convicted, they would not be able to get a working with children check which is required in all Australian jurisdictions and therefore it would mitigate against them being employed,” Purcell explained.

“That doesn’t solve every problem and every incident that you might encounter that is exploitative in the developing world, but it makes a bit of headway for children that are particularly vulnerable,” Purcell said.

Investigating the use of technology to make the system tighter, such as real-time reporting, will be one element of potential recommendations in the final report. But expanding the child protection policy to include wider reporting requirements is also a possible outcome.

“We think the child protection policy has a lot of strength and we think there is an opportunity to translate that,” Moller said. “The expansion policy has been discussed with DFAT and put on the table but we are not at the stage where we can report on that."

Respond to underreporting

One contributor told the report authors that “mandatory external review, accountability with financial sanctions” is the only way to tackle organizational incentives to underreport abuse. Moller explained that the quote highlights the perspective that exists for some that self-regulation on issues of harassment and violence have flaws that might be inherent or irreparable.

“That is one perspective but we haven’t been able to broaden that out yet as to whether we hold that belief to be true as well,” she said.

Purcell responded to the comment by saying he believed the DFAT and ACFID requirements were working: “There are statistics available that show things are being reported,” he said.

“This independent review is a strong reminder to leaders in our sector that you need to have these systems in place and be seen to be using them by your staff and partners.”

— Marc Purcell CEO at ACFID

“For organizations that don’t have a partnership with DFAT, there are reputational risks that could impact their work. In the era of 24 hour media and heightened scrutiny and less trust in organizations in general, an organization that fails to have systems in place or fails to use it can see reputation that have built over years destroyed in days,” he said.

And with a competitive market for donor dollars, Purcell said this is an important financial incentive to ensure reporting systems were robust and used properly.

“This independent review is a strong reminder to leaders in our sector that you need to have these systems in place and be seen to be using them by your staff and partners,” he said. “If you’re not, then the clock is ticking in terms of the risk of failure.”

Identify Australian-specific challenges and solutions

As the review investigates practices among 124 ACFID members, Purcell is expecting the final report to deliver solutions based around good existing practices that ACFID can assist in popularizing through their members and the wider-development sector.

“Our role going forward will be doing what we generally do in these areas around development in general to take good practice, look for champions and share what champions are doing so they can learn from it,” Purcell said.

But he also said it is important for the review to focus on challenges specific to Australia’s development sector.

“Big humanitarian crises in Africa in particular are often mixed armed forces and peacekeeping combined with the NGO community,” he said. “These are commonly situations of state collapse, but in our region the big humanitarian responses of the last few years include Cyclone Pam. The risk factors are still there but you have strong leadership within the affected countries and ACFID members have a pre-existing relationship with responders. This creates a very different context in emergency responses.”

Encouraging more contributions

While there are channels in place to encourage the contribution of ACFID member organizations, hearing stories of those who have seen, heard, or experienced sexual harassment or violence in the sector is important.

Through a confidential hotline and email address, the report is seeking feedback through informal avenues.

“We are here to listen,” Moller said. “We want to hear people’s stories. That is what we do professionally — we listen to people’s stories when these things happen and we will listen to people’s stories but we will also ask questions as well through those formal mechanism.”

But to date, there hasn’t been input into those mechanisms.

“We think there may be a variety of reasons for that,” Moller explained. “It could be that there are difficulties in reporting this information in general. Research suggests that hotlines are not necessarily used by people — they may want to report to someone trusted and known to them.

“But we think it is still important to have it as an option available — and while we welcome comments we don’t want to force and actively seek information from people that could re-traumatize them,” she said.

Understanding the limitations of the review

The final report from the review will be launched at the 2018 ACFID National Conference to be held at the end of October. And Moller explained that the time factor and scope of the investigation will mean that there are gaps.

“There will always be limitation to any process,” she said. “But we have used a wide range of tools and a wide range of people skills to increase the breadth — we have included research from Monash University’s Department of Forensic Medicine to really make sure our tools are robust. But ultimately this is a review that aims to reflect on policies and procedures to prevent sexual misconduct in ACFID organizations — it can’t be everything to everyone.”

In the end, the review aims to identify ways to convert good policies and procedures into practice — by creating safe spaces for victims to report and be heard; and by creating cultural change. And gathering insight into the challenges of reporting by those who have been victimized will be crucial to this.

ACFID members, partner organizations, and others who have been affected by sexual misconduct associated with the activities of ACFID member organizations, are encouraged to report into the review — with confidentiality assured. The VIFM review team can be contacted within Australia during office hours on 1800-00-PSEA or by email at

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.