A panel during the Safeguarding Summit in London in 2018. Photo by: DFID / Michael Hughes / CC BY

LONDON — A proposal to establish an independent international ombudsman to respond to allegations of sexual exploitation and abuse in the aid sector and hold abusers to account has been dropped, according to the United Kingdom’s development secretary Alok Sharma.

The news comes on the one year anniversary of the International Safeguarding Summit, which was hosted by the U.K. to discuss how to prevent abuse in light of the scandals that rocked the aid sector last year.

At the time, donors committed to a range of actions, including possibly setting up an international aid ombudsman. However, the idea, which was put forward by the Dutch government, has proved controversial and impractical, the head of the Department for International Development told members of Parliament’s International Development Committee on Monday.

“There is no real consensus … I don’t sense that right now there is the appetite internationally for us to be setting up this international ombudsman,” Sharma said, adding that it was unclear how such an ombudsman would work in practice. “Even if you had this, what is the mechanism for then dealing with individuals identified?” he asked.

Instead, DFID and the Netherlands have been collaborating to come up with pilot schemes to establish national and local accountability procedures, Matthew Rycroft, DFID’s permanent secretary, told MPs during the evidence session.

“Those who did put forward the proposal … wanted to make it easier for individuals to report cases …[and create] increased accountability ... We think we can achieve those results without having to create a supra-national body,” he said.

However, IDC chair Stephen Twigg said he was concerned that, to date, “self-regulation had failed,” and that survivors wanted “somewhere they could go” to report abuse.

This is not the first time that DFID has appeared skeptical about the international ombudsman proposal. Last November, the department said it had “actively considered the idea” but that no action had been taken. In May, former development secretary Rory Stewart also downplayed the idea, telling IDC that it was not DFID’s job to be an “international policeman” when it comes to safeguarding and that such an ombudsman could become “onerous” and “toothless.”

Last week, DFID published its progress report on safeguarding commitments made at the London summit, including DFID’s Misconduct Disclosure Scheme for employers, which it says has received 1,500 requests so far and already prevented 10 people from being hired for jobs in the sector.

The department has also put £10 million ($13 million) into a pilot with Interpol to strengthen the vetting of potential employees, which could result in action taken against individuals if identified, Sharma said. A resource and support hub aimed at smaller NGOs is due to launch by the end of the year, he added.

However, IDC members are not satisfied. In a report published the same day as DFID’s update, the cross-party committee urged the U.K. government to “display international leadership in making the ombudsman a reality.”

The report called more broadly for an “end to voluntary self-regulation of safeguarding standards [which] allows failures on sexual exploitation and abuse to slip through the cracks.”

About the author

  • 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.