Meet Sarah Champion, the woman tasked with scrutinizing UK aid

Sarah Champion, U.K. member of Parliament and chair of the International Development Committee. Photo by: U.K. Parliament

LONDON — While much of the U.K. government is in crisis mode dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic, Sarah Champion is preparing for another mammoth task.

“[DFID is] a bit too modest to me, and I'd like them to blow their own trumpet a bit more.”

— Sarah Champion, U.K. member of Parliament

The Labour Party member of Parliament for Rotherham, Champion was recently elected chair of the International Development Committee, making her the first woman to hold the role. The cross-party group is responsible for scrutinizing the work of the Department for International Development, the government body largely responsible for U.K. aid.

And Champion is wasting no time: IDC last week announced it would be conducting a wide-ranging inquiry into the effectiveness of U.K. aid, to be published in June.

“It's reactive, as opposed to proactive,” Champion told Devex. The reaction is to the government’s integrated review of security, defense, development, and foreign policy, which was announced in February. Touted as the biggest examination of the U.K.’s international policies since the end of the Cold War, it could have significant implications for DFID, one of the departments being inspected. There are concerns among development experts that the review could finally see DFID merged with the Foreign & Commonwealth Office — something Prime Minister Boris Johnson has previously spoken in favor of.

“I have no fundamental issue with what the government is trying to do in its integrated review. What concerns me is how fast they're doing it,” Champion said. “And it seems very much an internal review rather than bringing in the external stakeholders who … are probably going to be the most objective about what works internationally, what works on the ground.”

It was only after the parliamentary committees responsible for the departments being scrutinized jointly wrote to the prime minister that they were told they could contribute to the integrated review.

Champion said that it was “vital” for IDC to have a voice in the process and that it enabled other organizations — both large and small — to speak out, too. “The time scale is so short that, unless we proactively do this — and I don't think we're going to be able to get our voices heard properly,” she added.

Elected to Parliament in 2012, Champion’s previous career involved charity work — for a time she was chief executive of a children’s hospice in Rotherham — but it was not development-focused.

Instead, Champion said her passion for the issue came from listening to her constituents, including Tamil and Yemeni refugees. “I really think that we have a sort of a moral duty, as well as a very practical one, to support everybody in the world,” she said.

Sarah Champion elected International Development Select Committee chair

The Labour MP beat three other candidates for the influential role, including former Shadow Secretary of State for International Development Kate Osamor.

She is clear that she intends to lead a “feminist committee,” which will examine the gendered nature of violence, sexual violence, and inequality. Like DFID Secretary of State Anne-Marie Trevelyan — whom Champion said she already has a good relationship with — she is keen to use the committee to support women and girls.

That includes safeguarding. Champion previously campaigned with children’s charity Barnardo's to strengthen laws against child grooming and set up Dare2Care, a resource hub to prevent abuse, exploitation, and relationship violence. But her profile grew most after she campaigned on behalf of the victims of her constituency’s most notorious event: the Rotherham sexual abuse scandal, which saw hundreds of girls abused over many years.

What lesson can Champion bring from that experience to safeguarding women and girls in the development world?

A very simple one, she said. “Always start by seeing whistleblowers as the canary [in the coal mine] and take them very, very seriously. … I've learned that in [apparent] conspiracy theories … there's usually a grain of truth — it's just that people have tried to get their heads around something that appears impossible. And if you don't listen to whistleblowers, you very quickly start running into some bad places.”

Another key lesson is to start by listening to people “on the ground,” she said, adding: “They're the people that we’re meant to be serving, and they're the people that can genuinely tell you whether either the service or the investment is being well delivered. So if you listen to them, if you ask them, and if you listen to whistleblowers, I don't think you go far wrong.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Champion believes safeguarding practices in the development sector need to go further. She was scathing of Save the Children — which was the subject of a recent Charity Commission report that found the charity mismanaged sexual misconduct allegations — but said it could also be viewed as a “sacrificial lamb.”

“I definitely don't think they are the only big organization that would have issues around bullying, sexual harassment, exploitation, coercive control, all of those sorts of things,” Champion said. “I think that they have gone an awful long way to address those issues. I am always more concerned with the organizations that are very, very quiet … because whenever there is [a] power imbalance, there's always the potential for exploitation and abuse.”

How can IDC help? Along with highlighting good practice — not just naming and shaming — Champion stressed that the committee’s duty is scrutinizing DFID. “We want to make sure that DFID is putting the safeguards in place when it comes to who they're giving their funding to,” she said. Currently, the department has a “slightly too relaxed approach” to ensuring safeguarding mechanisms are in place at the organizations it works with, she said.

Champion said that she “didn't really buy their view that it was too difficult or not appropriate to have an independent ombudsman,” an idea that had been floated at the peak of the safeguarding scandal but later dropped. “I do think, for example, we could look at the existing victims’ commissioner” — an independent expert appointed by the U.K. government to represent the interests of victims of crimes — “and the forthcoming legislation around victims’ law to see if there's ways that we could embed some sort of independent safeguarding mechanism for people,” she added.

Champion also said that, despite the shortcomings she sees in DFID’s work in this area, she is “100%” supportive of keeping it an independent department to avoid it becoming a “secondary player.” DFID’s seat in the Cabinet — the most senior level of the U.K. government — increases its influence over strategic spending and leveraging other departments for development work, she added.

Like many others, she said she is concerned about how best to communicate with the taxpaying public about aid and development — and wonders if a more boastful approach to U.K. aid is needed.

“It is remarkable what we do … [and] the benefits to the U.K. standing internationally,” she said. “[DFID is] a bit too modest to me, and I'd like them to blow their own trumpet a bit more.”

Will DFID exist at the end of the year? Register for our Pro conference call: The future of UK aid with Deputy News Editor Jessica Abrahams and CGD Senior Fellow Ian Mitchell on March 26, 9 a.m. ET (2 p.m. CET).

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.