A representative from the Department of International Development. Photo by: © Crown Copyright 

LONDON — United Kingdom Secretary of State for International Development Penny Mordaunt has launched an internal investigation after a review uncovered that at least four Department for International Development staff were reported for sexual harassment in 2017.

DFID confirmed the figure was correct, but said it was released before a full investigation into locally reported allegations of sexual misconduct involving DFID staff — which was announced by Mordaunt in Parliament earlier this week — had been completed. The review is only three-quarters of the way through and is due to be finished next week in time for the safeguarding summit on March 5, a DFID spokesperson told Devex.

The figures were posted online by Minister of State for International Development Harriett Baldwin on Monday in response to a Parliamentary written question. The figures said there were “under five” formally reported allegations against DFID staff for sexual harassment in 2017, and no allegations in the previous two years.

The minister’s answer was quickly replaced with a corrected version, which removed the figures and said a review “will complete shortly” and that DFID is “not currently in a position to share the detail of any cases.”

The announcement comes less than 24 hours after Mordaunt revealed that 18 charities have missed the Feb. 28 deadline for submitting historic sexual abuse or harassment cases, as well as their safeguarding protocols. “We are following up, but without a compelling justification, they will have lost our confidence, and we will carefully consider whether it is right to continue their funding,” Mordaunt said.

At a safeguarding summit next week, DFID and the Charity Commission — together with the aid sector and U.K. counterparts — will agree to a set of actions to strengthen safeguarding processes and mechanisms, including around staffing and recruitment, to be followed by a series of events throughout the year. The summit follows weeks of revelations of sexual abuse and exploitation in the aid sector, sparked by reports that Oxfam staff working in Haiti in 2011 paid hurricane-survivors for sex, blatant violations of humanitarian codes of conduct.

The Oxfam scandal triggered a wave of revelations from other aid organizations, including Save the Children and BBC Media Action, involving not just sexual harassment, but poor recruiting and hiring practices that allowed known alleged offenders to move easily between organizations and humanitarian crises, providing ongoing access to vulnerable populations.

Alexia Pepper de Caires, a former Save the Children employee who witnessed and experienced sexual misconduct while working for the organization, said she was not surprised to hear DFID had uncovered allegations against its staff members, but said the most important thing would be how it chooses to respond.

“It’s not really of any surprise to me to hear it is happening [in DFID] and if it’s reported and dealt with, then that’s excellent,” she said. But she added that “if it’s being reported and not dealt with, then that’s frightening.”

“There is nothing different about the development sector or development ministry that makes this any different to any other part of society … [and] anyone using this as an excuse to try and attack development staff and structures per se is a red herring,” she added.

De Caires was a witness for Save the Children's sexual harassment case against executive Brendan Cox, who was accused of sexually assaulting another female employee. Cox resigned from Save the Children before an internal investigation was complete. De Caires recently published an open letter to Save the Children’s current CEO Kevin Watkins with a list of demands in the wake of the sexual harassment scandal, including compensation for staff harassed and the resignation of the charity’s chairman Sir Alan Parker.

Update, March 2, 2018: This article has been updated to clarify the nature of Alexia Pepper De Caires testimony again Brendan Cox. This article also incorrectly stated that Cox stepped down from a position at UNICEF. The correct statement is that Deputy Executive Director Justin Forsyth resigned from UNICEF in the wake of complaints from his time at Save the Children.

About the authors

  • Molly Anders

    Molly Anders is a former U.K. correspondent for Devex. Based in London, she reports on development finance trends with a focus on British and European institutions. She is especially interested in evidence-based development and women’s economic empowerment, as well as innovative financing for the protection of migrants and refugees. Molly is a former Fulbright Scholar and studied Arabic in Syria, Jordan, Egypt and Morocco.
  • 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.