CARE's Lee vows to fight sexual misconduct as it reports its own problems

Laurie Lee, interim secretary general at CARE International. Photo by: Care International

LONDON — CARE International said it investigated 28 cases of sexual abuse and exploitation of community members or of sexual harassment within its organization in 2017, and that 11 members of staff were fired as a result. This is the first time the women- and children-focused international charity, which has more than 9,000 staff members working in over 90 countries, has reported figures on sex abuse cases.

The CARE numbers come as the aid industry is rocked by cases of sexual misconduct and abuse, following recent revelations that some Oxfam aid staff used sex workers while on mission in Haiti in 2011. Save the Children and Oxfam said they fired 16 and 22 staff, respectively, over the past year, while Médecins Sans Frontières said 20 people were sacked in 2017 for sexual abuse or harassment, and 10 people the year before, as reported by Reuters.

Laurie Lee, who is currently serving as interim secretary general of CARE International and has been head of CARE International UK since 2014, said the organization decided to publish the figures as part of a broader and ongoing effort to “really stamp out something we don’t want to have as part of our sector.”

In an interview with Devex, Lee, spelled out the steps CARE is taking to better protect beneficiaries and staff from sexual abuse, harassment, and exploitation, but said that governments, donors, and other NGOs will need to work together to solve the issue that is roiling the sector.  

Talking about the crisis, Lee said: “It’s an opportunity for ourselves to really encourage people to report [and] take all of the action that we should.” Lee also said it was an opportunity for governments and NGOs, working together, to stop aid workers from carrying out abuse or engaging in sexual misconduct, and then sometimes repeating the offences at other aid organizations.

“There are several things involving the government where, working with the NGOs, we could do some significantly stronger things than we’ve been able to before to make it much more difficult for people like this to find their way into the sector and definitely not to stay within the sector,” he said. This work will require additional resources, Lee said.

“We can’t pretend that safeguarding doesn’t cost any money and I think that both NGOs and their donors need to collectively commit to putting the resources in that are required,” he said.

New data

CARE was relatively late in publishing its data compared with other organizations. Oxfam has been putting the information in its annual reports for years. Lee, who previously worked as Africa director at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and has held positions within DFID, said this was partly due to the complexities of gathering data from across multiple country offices and making sure that data was comparable.

The newly released figures show that CARE received 13 complaints of sexual abuse or exploitation toward community members in 2017, of which eight were substantiated. Seven staff members were dismissed as a result and one resigned, the NGO said in a statement. In addition, CARE handled 15 cases of sexual harassment within the organization, of which eight were substantiated. As a result, four staff members were dismissed, two contracts were not renewed, and the remaining two staff members were given warnings.

Lee said he hopes and expects that the numbers will increase over the next few years as people become more confident about reporting problems. However, ultimately he hopes numbers will go down as people who are likely to commit these sorts of acts “start to see it’s not as easy as that and will stop joining our organizations. And “at that point, you would hope the numbers start to go back down,” he added.

Continuing CARE’s work

According to Lee, CARE has been improving and reforming its policies and procedures around preventing sexual abuse and exploitation over the past two years. This includes updating its internal policy last year, particularly around protecting children from abuse, and also appointing and training staff to roll out the policy. The charity has also introduced a new online reporting system for “people who don’t feel comfortable reporting through the normal channels,” Lee said. The system is still being made “more user-friendly,” he added.

Over the past six months, CARE has also strengthened its “messaging” to staff around reporting incidents, Lee said, adding that “while recognizing there are all sorts of reasons why people might feel reluctant to report … [we have been] doing a lot of messaging to people [to say] we have a strong policy, we want you to report, and if you report it means we can act on what’s happened.”

However, the Oxfam scandal has “prompted further thinking” and CARE is determined to strengthen its work, the Lee said.

New reforms around references

A key new reform, which Lee said the organization now plans to push forward in the wake of the Oxfam scandal, is around how the organization supplies and receives references. This is in order to prevent people like Roland Van Hauwermeiren — the former Oxfam country director at the center of the Haiti scandal — from circulating within the sector. It was revealed that Oxfam did not flag the fact Van Hauwermeiren had been investigated for sexual misconduct when his subsequent employers asked for a reference.

“We’re not just going to let people resign for this anymore.”

— Laurie Lee, interim secretary general of CARE International

While Lee said he is hopeful that NGOs and the U.K. government can push ahead with ideas to start a global register of humanitarian workers and roll out background checks on all staff, potentially administered by Interpol, he said these reforms will take time to implement. In the meantime, CARE has been pursuing its own internal measures to tighten up its reference processes. Lee said that CARE looked into the issue of references in October, but said the matter was dropped due to legal concerns about employee rights, data protection rules, and defamation.

“There’s been a lot of reluctance to share sensitive information about individuals with other organizations if you don’t feel you have the full legal protection to do that,” he said. “People haven’t felt it was completely legally okay to do that.”

However, CARE is now determined to tackle the issue within its own organization and plans to introduce new measures. The first is that CARE will no longer allow staff accused of serious safeguarding breaches to resign. “We’re not just going to let people resign for this anymore,” Lee said.

A second step is that if someone has been fired for sexual or other kinds of misconduct, then CARE will share this with future employers when asked. “We want to move to a situation where they are told ‘this is going to be on your record’ and shared with anyone who asks us for a reference,” Lee said.

Lee also said that the organization is “tightening up” its systems around collecting references from individuals.

“One of the risks is that individuals giving references, possibly in completely good faith, may not know that person is also being investigated, or has been investigated for an issue,” Lee said, adding that CARE’s new policy will be to always get at least one reference from the organization and also explicitly ask whether there are any safeguarding concerns about the prospective employee. “Equally, we are going to explain to staff the same risk in the other direction: If CARE staff are asked to give a reference, they need to check it with HR.”

Lee said that some of this still needs to be checked with lawyers, but he is confident CARE will implement the new policies and the organization has been sharing the ideas with other NGOs.

“If we all start moving towards doing that, we can get to quite a lot of the problem,” he said.

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About the author

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    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.