Localization key to tackling sexual abuse by aid workers, IDC says

Sarah Champion, chair of the International Development Committee. Photo by: Sarah Champion

If aid agencies hope to combat sexual exploitation and abuse in the field, improved localization efforts are critical, according to a report from politicians in the United Kingdom.

Despite considerable work on prevention, sexual abuse, and exploitation by aid staffers still pose an ongoing problem. The issue has remained a blight on the sector since the 2018 revelations of sexual abuse and exploitation by Oxfam employees in Haiti, which drew significant political and public criticism.

“I have huge admiration for the aid sector, but it needs to wake up to what is going on and embed safeguarding within all of its programs.”

— Sarah Champion, chair, IDC

The International Development Committee, a cross-party group of members of Parliament who scrutinize U.K. aid policy, led the wide-ranging report and survey on “Progress on Tackling the Sexual Exploitation and Abuse of Aid Beneficiaries.”

“Aid beneficiaries, by their very nature, are the most vulnerable people on the planet. I have huge admiration for the aid sector, but it needs to wake up to what is going on and embed safeguarding within all of its programs,” said Sarah Champion, chair of the committee.

IDC carried out an extensive inquiry that highlighted the localization agenda as a key solution to preventing and dealing with the aftermath of sexual abuse and exploitation.

“It may feel for many that there is no hope when it comes to stamping out sexual exploitation and abuse. But actually, there is a very simple solution that would make a huge difference – speak, listen and engage with local people to see what works for them,” Champion said.

She continued: “We must stop this patronizing attitude of aid giants imposing aid programs on beneficiaries and local groups without including them in the design. It only builds distrust and gives an ‘us and them’ picture to the people that the aid sector is meant to support and also the abusers looking to exploit.”

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The report recommended that “aid organizations should try to design programs in cooperation with the local populations where the programs will be delivered” and that the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office should “prioritize organizations that demonstrate active engagement with local populations when it is tendering for aid delivery contracts.”

The report also suggested that local engagement should also be used to “mitigate power imbalances” that IDC said were “extreme” and “typical” when aid agencies were operating in the field.

These power dynamics come alongside an “enabling culture,” according to the report, limiting the effectiveness of steps taken by NGOs to raise awareness and tackle sexual abuse. The report stressed the importance of recruiting more women and ethnic minority staff members for leadership positions “to challenge and overcome discriminatory attitudes and cultures that permit sexual exploitation and abuse to perpetuate.”

Among the myriad recommendations were for FCDO to accept the inclusion costs of supporting survivors in program planning and for NGOs to report all sexual abuse cases to FCDO and other donors.

Champion, who has also campaigned extensively on child sexual abuse issues within the U.K., urged the government and NGOs to heed the report’s many recommendations and “build a more inclusive, empowering aid sector for beneficiaries with zero tolerance for any form of abuse or sexual exploitation.”

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.