U.K. Secretary of State for International Development Penny Mordaunt meets aid workers just back from Yemen, in Djibouti. Photo by: Benet Coulber / DFID / CC BY

LONDON — The United Kingdom’s Department for International Development will provide “clearer guidance” around when and how to report potential safeguarding violations in time for the International Safeguarding Summit in October, officials said Tuesday, after concerns were raised that previous guidance could put victims at risk in some contexts.

During a parliamentary evidence session, Secretary of State for International Development Penny Mordaunt and Peter Taylor, head of DFID’s new safeguarding unit, were challenged by members of the International Development Committee over a letter sent to aid organizations in March which asserted that “any and all safeguarding concerns” would be referred to “relevant local authorities.” It followed revelations in February that employees of Oxfam Great Britain had paid survivors of the 2010 earthquake in Haiti for sex, including some who may have been underage, and that the incidents were not reported to local authorities.

“As secretary of state for DFID, I’m not going to take a dim view of an organization that takes a course of action to protect a victim from further trouble.”

— Penny Mordaunt, U.K. secretary of state for international development

But the chair of IDC, Stephen Twigg, warned there are situations when reporting to local police may endanger the victim further, for instance, if they are a sex worker in a country where it is illegal.

“We’re working toward, by October, being able to provide that clarity which works across different sectors with different partners,” Taylor said.

Mordaunt defended the order, saying that DFID — alongside the Foreign & Commonwealth Office, and other aid-spending departments — is well equipped to make those kinds of “careful judgments.”

“As secretary of state for DFID, I’m not going to take a dim view of an organization that takes a course of action to protect a victim from further trouble,” she said. “That is a very different issue to people ... letting an individual off the hook because it would damage their fundraising opportunities, and we need to separate those two things.”

She added that while “there may be a reason why [an organization doesn’t] want to take a course of action in a particular instance, there’s no reason they should take no action in that instance.”

Mordaunt explained that since the Oxfam revelations in February, DFID has had “hundreds of meetings” and “thousands of pieces of correspondence” in an attempt to “really drill down on the details on this, because the complexity I think has really been a barrier.”

Member of Parliament Richard Burden said: “It’s a complicated message to put across that without prejudice to an overall zero tolerance approach, there has to be an element of judgment when it comes to protecting victims.”

“I think it would be very helpful if, when it gets to the [safeguarding] summit and before then, that that could be clarified,” he said.

Taylor responded that, in the process of the safeguarding unit’s inquiries, many of DFID’s delivery partners have come forward to request “some clarity about when to report and the kind of guidelines you’re talking about, and that’s exactly one of the things one of the working groups [is] looking at,” he said.

Another example is the visibility of victims who don’t wish to come forward, but still want to communicate their experiences — an issue that had been raised during a meeting with the Gender and Development Network. “We are going to work closely with them over the next few months, to make sure any policy ideas we come up with and work with other donors on really takes that into account,” he said.

Responding to concerns from IDC members that the public discourse about safeguarding in the aid sector has, as Twigg put it, “excluded the voices of victims,” Mordaunt shared the government’s plans to use “the first session” of the upcoming safeguarding summit in October as an opportunity to hear from victims of sexual abuse in the aid sector.

The summit is envisioned as a larger scale follow-up to a summit held in March, which produced an action plan to improve safeguarding in the sector.

About the author

  • 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.