Exclusive: EU ready to tighten NGO funding rules after sex scandals

Neven Mimica, European commissioner for international cooperation and development. Photo by: European Union

BRUSSELS — The European Union is open to an aid worker register as well as revamping the “rules of engagement” with the charities it funds in the wake of sexual misconduct by staff at Oxfam and elsewhere, the bloc’s top development official told Devex.

The European Commission recently wrote to more than 200 organizations that receive funding from its development — DEVCO — and humanitarian — ECHO — departments. The letter asks the groups to explain what policies they have in place to prevent, detect, and respond to misconduct, such as codes of conduct, whistleblowing channels, and disciplinary measures.

Neven Mimica, the EU development commissioner, said in an interview: “We made it clear to Oxfam and all our implementing partners that without explanations and guarantees that in future there will be an internal structure in the organization that would prevent similar unethical behavior, we won’t be able to continue with our funding and cooperation.”

Mimica said the need to clarify the procedures of groups that had already been cleared to receive EU funding also signaled a possible need to revise how Brussels approves those who implement its projects in the first place.

At present, the Framework Partnership Agreements, which NGOs must sign with the Commission, require “‘zero tolerance’ for sexual exploitation and abuse through effective and coordinated prevention, reporting, and response mechanisms."

Organizations must also have “an effective and efficient internal control system for the management of actions, which includes the respect of ethical and humanitarian values, effective segregation of duties and appropriate risk management mechanisms, identifying risks and appropriate risks responses.”

Mimica said it might be necessary to revisit “our rules of engagement with partners in order to make it even more clear what the procedures [and] the criteria for implementation contracts would be, and what timelines of suspension or any other actions [are] once we establish the misbehavior.”

In the United Kingdom, Oxfam agreed to temporarily stop bidding for new state funding, and the government gave all charities until Feb. 26 to provide assurances about their safeguarding and reporting practices. Once it received these, the British government said it would then “make further decisions about continuing or amending how those programs are delivered.”

The European Commission has put on hold the signing of new development and humanitarian contracts for all Oxfam affiliates while it completes its assessment, which is more detailed than the enquiries put to the other organizations. 

Mimica said: “When it comes to Oxfam, it’s been more than 40 million euros ($49 million) of projects where they’ve participated, be it in humanitarian or development assistance, and we shall now really look into — but not for too long — the explanations that we shall get from them.”

The Croatian commissioner also did not rule out a register of aid workers to prevent perpetrators moving between organizations — an idea that has been floated by the U.K.’s international development secretary, Penny Mordaunt.

Mimica said he hoped the example of Oxfam in Haiti, where employees there to assist recovery efforts after the 2010 earthquake sexually exploited local women, would “really make us think about how to somehow strengthen and fortify our own procedures.”

He added, “that might lead in the end also to this register, or any similar type of criteria that would be more effective in preventing misbehavior in the future.”

In discussions with the Commission, Oxfam said in a statement that it wanted to respond “to the allegations with full transparency and share with them Oxfam's code of conduct, the existing safeguarding measures, policies and mechanisms, and our new comprehensive plan of action, which aims to protect Oxfam staff and those we support with our programs from sexual or other abuse.”

About the author

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    Vince Chadwick

    Vince Chadwick is the Brussels Correspondent for Devex. He covers the EU institutions, member states, and European civil society. A law graduate from Melbourne, Australia, he was social affairs reporter for The Age newspaper, before moving to Europe in 2013. He covered breaking news, the arts and public policy across the continent, including as a reporter and editor at POLITICO Europe.