DFID chief says UK will take global lead on dealing with aid sector abuse

Penny Mordaunt, United Kingdom secretary of state for international development. Photo by: Foreign and Commonwealth Office / CC BY

LONDON — The United Kingdom’s aid chief Penny Mordaunt offered more information about how the Department for International Development intends to tackle sexual exploitation and abuse within the sector, including a cross-government approach, working with other countries, and supporting “practical solutions” such as accreditation systems for aid workers.

Speaking in the House of Commons on Tuesday, Mordaunt read from a statement to update lawmakers on DFID’s response to sexual abuse and exploitation by Oxfam workers in Haiti in 2011, and the subsequent allegations of abuse across the sector that have emerged since.

“A cultural change is needed to ensure all that can be done to stop sexual exploitation in the aid sector is being done. And we need to take some practical steps. Now,” she said.

More regulations and safeguards needed for aid sector, UK groups tell watchdog

Humanitarian aid workers should be subject to the same regulations, including background checks, as other sectors that work with children and vulnerable adults, aid bosses told a special government hearing called in the wake of the Oxfam sexual exploitation scandal.

Mordaunt gave more detail on a raft of measures first outlined last week, including writing to all 192 DFID-funded U.K. organizations asking them to outline their safeguarding policies and to report any outstanding cases to the relevant authorities. The department will be demanding the same from all of its non-U.K. charity partners and private suppliers — totaling more than 500 organizations — and also multilateral partners, she said.

Mordaunt reiterated the message that DFID “reserves the right to take whatever decisions about present or future funding to Oxfam, and any other organization, that we deem necessary.”

Mordaunt’s speech came a few hours after charity bosses from Oxfam, along with the head of the Save the Children U.K. and DFID’s permanent secretary, were questioned by Britain’s Parliamentary aid watchdog, the International Development Committee, which said it will hold an inquiry into the issues raised by the Oxfam scandal.

A global effort

The DFID boss emphasized the importance of Britain working with other nations to provide global safeguarding solutions. She specifically mentioned Canada, the Netherlands, and the U.S. — but she affirmed that the U.K. will take the lead.

“The U.K. is not waiting for others to act. We are taking a lead on this,” she said.

Mordaunt met with U.S. Agency for International Development Administrator Mark Green on Tuesday, during which the two aid bosses “shared their mutual concern over reports of abuses by staff from charitable institutions,” according to a press statement. They also “exchanged information on what steps their respective organizations have taken in the last few days to investigate allegations of inappropriate conduct by implementing partners.” The aid bosses agreed to try to make a joint trip to Africa in 2018, the statement said.

Cross-government collaboration

Mordaunt also told MPs that DFID was in the process of scrutinizing its own HR systems and whistleblowing records for signs of mismanagement, but said she was “assured” there were none. She said the department was reviewing any allegations of sexual misconduct involving DFID staff and said the report would be finished in two weeks.

During questions, Mordaunt said DFID is looking to strengthen its code of conduct, which is currently in line with the U.N.’s code, to explicitly ban staff from using sex workers, saying the new approach would make it clear that “if you work for us, you cannot take part in those activities.”

She said she had written to other government departments that administer ODA funds, asking them to the same. She plans to share details of DFID’s new approach during her meetings, including with the Department for Defence and the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport, which took place last night. When questioned by MPs about her meeting with the defence minister, Mordaunt said she planned to discuss what more British troops could do to help “raise standards” in U.N. peacekeeping troops, including through “capacity building” and training around gender-based violence and sexual exploitation.

“We have huge expertise and I’m very interested in how we can use that expertise … to see what we can do to help raise standards,” she said. She also said she was strengthening ties between DFID, other government departments, and the National Crime Agency in how they respond when serious allegations come to light.

Safeguarding summit

Mordaunt gave more detail on the previously announced safeguarding summit, now set to take place on March 5. DFID and the Charity Commission will host the event, which will include U.K. charities, regulators, and experts and is intended to explore “practical measures, such as an aid worker accreditation scheme we in the U.K. can use,” she said.

When pressed about a possible accreditation scheme backed by Interpol, the minister said she met with the National Crime Agency liaison officer to Interpol to discuss the idea, but said it was one of many ideas to be discussed at the summit.

“Funding the Interpol system may not be the answer but … this is an important issue. We can’t deliver our work unless we can ensure the vulnerable are protected, and so we need to resource that,” she said.

DFID also said it plans to organize a larger, global conference on safeguarding later this year and said that the U.S., Canada, and the Netherlands have already indicated their support. Speaking during the IDC session earlier, DFID Permanent Secretary Matthew Rycroft said the summit and subsequent conference will be an opportunity for the aid sector to learn from the Oxfam scandal.

“This is a huge crisis for the aid sector, I welcome the inquiry that you announced today,” Rycroft said, adding that he hopes it will “contribute to turning this crisis around, to learning from it, to rooting out the evil that exists within the sector, and through those improvements to grab an opportunity to create something better.”

Kate Osamor, shadow secretary of state for development, praised Mordaunt for her “swift commitment,” but added that the summit must provoke “real commitment to reform.”

“Reform must not just improve tools and procedures … [it] must also involve aid agencies themselves, looking at their culture,” she said.

New faces

Last week, Mordaunt announced the creation of a new safeguarding unit to be headed by Gerald Howe, who gave evidence before the IDC.  

Mordaunt also said that Sheila Drew Smith — a recent member of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, which monitors and reports on ethical standards of conduct among Britain’s public officials — has been brought in to advise DFID on its safeguarding reforms and will report directly to the secretary of state.

About the author

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    Sophie Edwards

    Sophie Edwards is a reporter for Devex based out of Washington D.C. and London where she covers global development news, careers and lifestyle issues. 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.