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

United Kingdom Secretary of State for International Development Penny Mordaunt. Photo by: Jo Harrison / DFID

LONDON — The United Kingdom’s flagship project aimed at tackling sexual abuse in the aid sector stirred controversy at its official launch Thursday morning over concerns about its leadership.

During a keynote speech at the International Safeguarding Summit in London, government aid chief Penny Mordaunt announced that a register of aid workers would be piloted in Asia and Africa in an effort to prevent perpetrators of sexual abuse and misconduct from moving around the sector.

According to a press release sent to the media on Wednesday afternoon by the Department for International Development, “the pilot will be led by Interpol, ACRO (The Association of Chief Police Officers’ Criminal Records Office) and Save the Children who are coordinating NGOs participating in the project.” It noted that DFID would be putting £2 million ($2.6 million) toward the £10 million project.

That raised eyebrows in the sector as Save the Children is currently under investigation by the U.K. charity regulator for its handling of and response to sexual harassment allegations, and is not bidding on DFID contracts until the investigation is complete.

Mordaunt was interrupted on stage after she announced the register by campaigner Alexia Pepper de Caires, a high-profile activist in the #AidToo movement and a Save the Children whistleblower. De Caires said she was “disgusted” to learn “that Save the Children would be awarded a headline project to try and tackle sexual misconduct in the sector when they are still under investigation by the Charity Commission themselves.”

Alexia Pepper de Caires, #AidToo activist, interrupts Penny Mordaunt on stage at the International Safeguarding Summit in London. Photo by: Jessica Abrahams / Devex

She also claimed that some activists had been prevented from speaking at the summit, adding: “We do not need fancy new systems, we do not need technology. We need systematic change; we need to understand the sexism, racism and abuse of power that comes from the very top of the [aid sector’s] leadership.”

Her concerns about the role of Save were echoed by delegates at the summit. One safeguarding insider told Devex that the decision “seems like a significant conflict of interest given that Save remain under statutory inquiry by the British government. [It] doesn’t speak well to those in power [in terms of] broadening the base of voices they are listening to on these issues.”

When questioned about the issue by Devex, Mordaunt said: “Both Save the Children and Oxfam have withdrawn from any new [DFID] funding ... since they have been under investigation by the Charity Commission … It is not the case that Save are getting funding. The project [de Caires] mentioned is with us [DFID] and Interpol ... It’s British NGOs that we’re working with but they are not our partner in the project. Save are not receiving any funding from us.”

A press release issued by Save the Children on Wednesday states that the charity “will sit on the Advisory Board of the project alongside DFID, Interpol and ACRO Criminal Records Office, supporting the practical implementation of project plans and the co-ordination of NGOs participating in the project.”

Save the Children has been working on the idea of an aid worker “passport” for some time. The organization was hit by controversy earlier this year as allegations of sexual harassment against two former senior members of staff emerged, dating to between 2012 and 2015.

Save the Children says it has introduced significant reforms since then. It launched an independent review of its workplace culture earlier this year and recently said it is “strengthening its safeguarding systems to ensure we meet the highest possible standards of prevention, reporting and response.” The charity also co-authored a key 2002 report on the exploitation of refugee children by aid workers in West Africa.

In response to de Caires’ interruption, Mordaunt said that “unless we are ensuring that all are able to not only contribute, but also to set the agenda, [then] we haven’t done our job.”

She offered to give up her slot at the end of the summit to allow de Caires to speak.

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.