A scene from a women's shelter for victims of sexual abuse in Goma, the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Photo by: Marie Frechon / CC BY-NC-ND

LONDON — Reports of sexual exploitation, abuse, and harassment — or SEAH — at the U.K. Department for International Development rose fivefold last year, its latest annual report has found.

Sexual abuse in aid sector still 'widespread'

Little progress has been made on safeguarding since a landmark summit almost two years ago, according to aid experts.

There were 26 reported cases of SEAH at DFID from 2019-20, compared with fewer than five in the previous year, according to the new report, which was published Tuesday.

“This followed a strong internal communications campaign that drew attention to DFID’s Safeguarding Investigations Team and encouraged staff to report any concerns,” the report states.

High levels of sexual abuse in the aid sector have been in the spotlight since the 2018 Haiti scandal, which set off a wave of revelations and outcry that became known as the #AidToo movement.

DFID categorizes internal SEAH as “any case where the survivor, or the subject of complaint, is a DFID staff member.”

The department concluded 14 such cases in 2019‐20. Allegations were upheld in 11 cases, and a range of disciplinary action was taken, although the full details were not published. “Fewer than 5 staff were dismissed and fewer than 5 were issued warnings,” according to the report, which said it was “standard practice” not to report precise numbers under five.

It added that: “In some cases ... the subject of complaint was not a DFID staff member. The disciplinary outcome for these cases has not been included.”

The statistics highlight the struggle against SEAH even within DFID, which has attempted to position itself as a leader on safeguarding efforts within the development sector, holding a landmark summit on the issue in 2018.

But safeguarding experts recently accused the department of failing to go far enough in rooting out sexual misconduct in development, lagging on protections for whistleblowers, and continuing to fund organizations that have not taken sufficient action on SEAH.

Another recent report produced for DFID about the Democratic Republic of the Congo found: “Very few cases of sexual exploitation and abuse involving actors in humanitarian aid are reported. … Perpetrators are typically aid workers who are in direct contact with aid recipients ... especially in emergency settings where women are particularly vulnerable.”

It added that “Survivors are often between 14 and 22 years of age” and are typically internally displaced people, orphans, or members of other vulnerable groups.

DFID’s annual report highlighted its progress on safeguarding, including internally — all staff now undertake compulsory training “to build confidence and ensure everyone knows their responsibilities,” it said.

The work that began with the 2018 International Safeguarding Summit “is starting to deliver results,” according to the report, and officials are consulting victims and survivors of SEAH as they develop policies and responses.

Initiatives that began with the summit include a partnership with Interpol to check the criminal records of aid workers and to encourage information sharing by aid agencies and law enforcement, as well as the development of a misconduct disclosure scheme. An aid worker registration initiative is also set to launch in pilot form by the end of the year.

About the author

  • William Worley

    William Worley is the U.K. Correspondent for Devex, covering DFID and British aid. Previously, he reported on international affairs, policy, and development. He also worked as a reporter for the U.K. national press, including the Times, Guardian, Independent, and i Paper. His reportage has included work on the Rohingya refugee crisis in Bangladesh, drought in Madagascar, the "migrant caravan" in Mexico, and Colombia’s peace process. He can be reached at william.worley@devex.com.