U.K. Secretary of State for International Development Penny Mordaunt at the International Safeguarding Summit. Photo by: MichaelHughes / DFID / CC BY

LONDON — Hundreds of delegates from government and civil society gathered in central London Thursday to discuss how to prevent sexual abuse in light of the scandals that have rocked the aid sector in recent months.

The key announcement at the International Safeguarding Summit was a register of aid workers to be piloted at hubs in Africa and Asia, in partnership with Interpol, with the aim of preventing abusers from moving between countries and organizations. The United Kingdom’s Department for International Development is putting up a fifth of the £10 million ($13 million) needed for the project.

Although several safeguarding experts told Devex such a register could be part of the solution, there was controversy and confusion over who would be leading it, and observers pointed to major practical challenges that may be hard to overcome. Some aid professionals — including Paula Donovan, co-director of Aids-Free World, who pulled out of attending the summit at the last minute — complained of a lack of consultation on the “radical move.” At least one senior aid insider told Devex they had few details about the register but suggested that opportunities for input might come after the pilot phase.

Controversy as investigated charity takes on key role in UK safeguarding scheme

The U.K.'s flagship safeguarding project was mired in controversy at its launch Thursday morning over the role of Save the Children, itself under investigation for its handling of sexual harassment allegations.

Beyond the register, a group of donors, accounting for 90 percent of aid funding, committed to global standards on the prevention of sexual exploitation and abuse. The plan is for donors to publish “relevant information” about alleged or confirmed cases and be subject to independent review by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, according to a summary issued after the summit’s close.

Among several other initiatives, U.K. Secretary of State for International Development Penny Mordaunt announced a “Disclosure of Misconduct Scheme,” a reference-checking system which 15 organizations have signed up to so far, covering around 50,000 staff worldwide, she said.

And away from government, Bond, the network of U.K. aid NGOs, announced that after months of consultation, its 420 members had committed to 34 actions on safeguarding, covering both practical short-term solutions and long-term cultural change. Several of these are focused on joint working and sharing of resources, with further research on how best to strengthen safeguarding in the pipeline.

“No environment is so chaotic or complex ... that the protection of people from the abuse of power becomes unimportant. It is the most fundamental duty we have,” Mordaunt said during her keynote speech. The aim is “not just to tinker around the edges, but to fundamentally rewrite the way this sector operates, from root to branch,” she continued.

But not all agree that is happening. Whistleblower Alexia Pepper de Caires interrupted Mordaunt’s speech to declare a need for “systematic change” over “fancy new systems.” She also said that some long-time campaigners had been closed out of preparations for the summit.

Donovan, whose organization runs the Code Blue campaign to tackle sexual abuse by United Nations personnel, wrote in an open letter to Mordaunt that the agenda and speakers list had been issued at late notice, preventing any opportunity for input from others, and that since the outcomes of the summit had largely been determined in advance “I fail to see your purpose in convening us.”

Some delegates also pointed to a lack of diversity, with the summit mostly made up of representatives from large organizations who could afford to attend, an issue especially for those coming from abroad.

But Mordaunt won praise from many for her response to the on-stage intervention at the start of the summit, during which she donated her closing speaking slot to de Caires. The campaigner later took to the podium alongside fellow whistleblowers Lesley Agams and Caroline Hunt Matthes to speak about accountability and access to legal advice and psychosocial support, among other issues.

Earlier in the day, delegates heard recorded testimony, drawn from existing reports, on the extent of abuse in the aid sector, in which community members described being asked for sex in exchange for goods. “Aid workers have so much power … [that] no one can challenge them,” said one.

Speakers also addressed sexual violence against aid workers themselves, with Megan Nobert, founder of Report the Abuse, saying that “an overwhelming number of female staff” experience it.

“Too often the perpetrators are our managers, our donors,” she said, calling on leaders to “integrate what will work for [victims and survivors], not you. Not what is politically right, not what sounds good on paper, but what will really work for those at the core of the problem.”

About the author

  • Jessica Abrahams

    Jessica Abrahams is Devex's Deputy News Editor. Based in London, she works with Devex's team of correspondents and editors around the world, with a particular focus on Europe & Africa. She has previously worked as a writer, researcher and editor for Prospect magazine, The Telegraph and Bloomberg News, among other outlets. She holds graduate degrees in journalism from City University London and in international relations from Institut Barcelona d'Estudis Internacionals.