Experts criticize new DNA project designed to track sex offenders

A DNA project aimed at tackling sexual abuse and harassment in the aid sector raises concerns about undermining wider safeguarding efforts. Photo by: Caroline Davis2010 / CC BY

Experts are raising concerns about a new project that seeks to use children’s DNA to identify aid workers who had sex with women while working in sub-Saharan Africa.

The project — the brainchild of Andrew MacLeod, a campaigner against child sexual abuse in the aid sector — would see DNA samples taken from children in West and Central African countries whose suspected fathers are foreign aid workers. King's College London has provided £44,000 ($60,000) to MacLeod’s team to expand on a proof-of-concept project carried out in the Philippines with six people, which identified four fathers and gained some child support.

The issue of sexual abuse within the aid sector has been in the spotlight since Oxfam’s Haiti scandal in 2018 prompted promises from governments, NGOs, and United Nations agencies to reform. But several years on, abuse is still believed to be widespread.

In an email to Devex about the project, MacLeod wrote that “This technology, dealing with a tiny subset of victims … will highlight the scale of the problem and put pressure back on the aid industry to make real change in how they stop abuse — not just empty words and platitudes like ‘zero tolerance.’”

But while experts in the field of sexual abuse and exploitation acknowledged the sector’s failure to tackle the issue, they also voiced objections over what they saw as the questionable ethics and likely ineffectiveness of the DNA project, with some saying it could undermine wider safeguarding efforts.

“This is just not humanitarian work; it's a deeply moralistic agenda coming out of the global north,” said Kristin Sandvik, a research professor at the Peace Research Institute Oslo who described the project as “extremely problematic.” “Should the humanitarians become the police?” she asked.

“Ensuring that something as sensitive as DNA material is not misused and vulnerable women are not sold a package that no one can deliver is not the same as supporting inaction against perpetrators.”

— Sarah Martin, lead associate, Gender Associations

Ethical minefield

Sandvik said the project raises “huge issues with respect to neutrality, impartiality, and ‘do no harm’” principles.

The move is tantamount to “compromising the digital body of the child,” according to Sandvik, who has researched humanitarian innovation and technology. “The moment you start uploading your data into databases, it’s no longer yours; it sits with some commercial company somewhere else.” Sandvik said that the project is aimed at “turning a child's body into evidence” and that it is “very unclear” what the project is ultimately for and in whose interest it is being done.

Jasmine Westendorf, an international relations lecturer at La Trobe University, also questioned the protection mechanisms in place for the women and children, “particularly when the project is asking people to relive their experiences of abuse and exploitation.”

MacLeod defended the project and told Devex that “full, prior and informed consent is always achieved” by “all participants” — who would be volunteers in the project — and that “local laws will need to be fully complied with.” He said “the phrase ‘do not re-traumatise the victim’” is “often” used as an excuse for inaction by the development sector.

MacLeod’s responses to ethical criticisms of the project indicate that “he's not very well versed in the survivor-centered approach which we recommend for working with any survivors of gender-based violence,” said Sarah Martin, who works with Gender Associations, a consultancy that researches and advises organizations on gender-based violence.

“Ensuring that something as sensitive as DNA material is not misused and vulnerable women are not sold a package that no one can deliver is not the same as supporting inaction against perpetrators in the aid world,” she said.

Martin, who previously authored a report on sexual abuse by U.N. peacekeepers, said the project is “troubling” because it “promotes the privatisation and commercialisation of documentation of DNA and data management by powerful international organisations, and further undermines and weakens civil society and State actors.”

MacLeod’s use of evidence for his claims has also previously faced criticism. He told journalists that the U.K. National Crime Agency had said “predatory paedophiles” joined aid agencies to target children overseas. But an agency spokesperson told Devex that “the NCA has not made any assessment of the scale of [child or adult] sexual abuse in the international aid sector and does not recognize the statement made by Mr. MacLeod.”

Practical difficulties

After sampling, the fragile DNA would be transported by courier to the U.K. and anonymously compared with — but not shared with — commercial DNA databases in the hope of finding the father, according to MacLeod. He said if a father “of western European ethnic descent” is identified, mothers and offspring who are at least 18 years old will be “consulted on what they would like to do.” If the mother or child wants to contact the father, legal instructions would be given through lawyers.

But how this process happens in places with scant resources is another question. In most places humanitarians work, “you are barely able to do any form of forensic evidence collection for any type of crime,” Martin said, adding that West and Central African countries can be “places where it's very difficult to have ... pens … let alone to maintain a supply chain to collect DNA evidence.”

Martin also highlighted the existing difficulty of getting those who have experienced sexual abuse or exploitation to report it, asking what would incentivize volunteers in the project. “Having talked to survivors [of rape, gender-based violence, and sexual exploitation] I know that usually what they want is to be able to live their life and take care of their child and forget what happend to them. … I haven’t seen anything in his [MacLeod’s] plan that even echoes the voices of the women I’ve spoken to,” she said.

After men have been identified, “the next steps and options are very different depending on the nationality and domicile of the fathers,” MacLeod wrote, highlighting international differences in inherited citizenship laws. “Identities are protected through legal confidentiality and the fathers only come to know the identity of the mothers/children if the mothers/children desire this to be so,” he added.

MacLeod acknowledged that he is still trying to figure out how the project works in practice and, on a larger scale, in international jurisdictions while preserving ethical standards, and he invited critics to help resolve the problem.

Potential deterrent

There are some who think the initiative could be a deterrent. Dr. Susan Bartels, a clinician scientist at Queen’s University in Canada, has conducted extensive research on children born to peacekeeper fathers in Haiti. She is advising the project and hopes it will “move things beyond the current conundrum with regards to a lack of accountability.”

Bartels wrote to Devex: “Right now the burden of proof is on the affected woman [or] girl which is nearly impossible in most cases. It would be great if this pilot could start some momentum towards DNA databases for deploying humanitarians.” She elaborated that such databases could be used to help children find their fathers or even help identify the perpetrators of sexual assaults.

The existence of a database “would hopefully act as a deterrent to potential perpetrators,” Bartels added. But Martin flagged ethical and privacy concerns over collecting DNA from aid workers prior to deployment.

Westendorf also doubted that “holding a small number of perpetrators accountable” would put off potential offenders in future. What is needed for deterrence, Westendorf said, is “more coherent and integrated prevention” training, organizational dynamics and culture changes, and reporting, investigation, accountability, and reparations mechanisms.

“This project will do little to improve our understanding of the nature and scale of sexual misconduct by aid workers,” Westendorf concluded. These factors are “critical” to improve responses and investigations into sexual misconduct in the development sector and to help remedy reporting and accountability challenges, she said.

Martin agreed that resources could be better used in different ways. “[Use of DNA evidence] is time consuming, costly. … I think an investment of money like that into survivors [and their children] would go a lot further,” she said.

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.