More regulations and safeguards needed for aid sector, UK groups tell watchdog

Oxfam International Executive Director Winnie Byanyima (left), Oxfam CEO Mark Goldring (center), and Oxfam Chair of Trustees Caroline Thomson (right) during the International Development Committee's emergency evidence session on the issue of sexual exploitation in the aid sector. Photo from

LONDON — Humanitarian aid workers should be subject to the same regulations, including background checks, as other sectors that work with children and vulnerable adults, aid bosses told members of Parliament during a special Parliamentary hearing called in the wake of the Oxfam sexual exploitation scandal.

The proposal came amid a flood of other planned regulations and recommendations as Britain’s Parliamentary aid watchdog, the International Development Committee, hosted an emergency evidence session on Tuesday on the issue of sexual exploitation in the aid sector. The committee also announced it will launch a full inquiry in due course following recent revelations that some Oxfam aid workers used prostitutes while on mission in Haiti in 2011.

Speaking during the session, Oxfam GB Chief Executive Officer Mark Goldring apologized for the “damage Oxfam has done both to the people of Haiti but also to wider efforts for aid and development” by undermining public trust in the sector. He also revealed an additional 26 reports of sexual misconduct had been raised within the organization since the news of the Haiti abuse broke. Sixteen of the complaints related to staff in international programs and included recent allegations and historic cases.

Furthermore, the charity has lost 7,000 of its regular donors since the scandal broke, Goldring said.

Amid the apologies, much of the three-hour session was dedicated to proposed reforms aimed at strengthening safeguarding efforts by NGOs, including requests from Goldring, and also Save the Children UK boss Kevin Watkins, for lawmakers to consider taking the necessary legislative and other steps to make background checking of candidates easier.

Specifically, Goldring called on MPs to back plans for “humanitarian passports” — a concept Oxfam said it has been working with other agencies to push forward, he said and as Devex previously reported.

“We’ve been working on this system of humanitarian passports, which would be an endorsement of quality and also to explore whether we should be asking Parliament to consider adding humanitarian or development work to that list to which it is appropriate to keep those kinds of register,” the Oxfam boss said.

Watkins agreed, saying the sector needs a form of the U.K.’s Disclosure and Barring Service, or DBS, which screens people who work with children or vulnerable adults. But he emphasized that the suggestion was not meant to deflect attention from NGOs, saying “all of us as individual agencies have to get our houses in order.”

“I strongly believe as a sector we would benefit from legislation that established humanitarian aid work as a regulated sector but we can’t just apply that in the U.K. We need globalization of the DBS system,” Watkins said.

However, Steve Reeves, director of child safeguarding at Save the Children, said that the organization spends up to $100,000 a year on background checks. Labour MP Lloyd Russell-Moyle asked whether the U.K. government could potentially financially support a global system of background checks, potentially managed by Interpol.

Culture reform at Oxfam

Winnie Byanyima, the charity’s international executive director also appeared before MPs and apologized for Oxfam’s failings. She spoke of there being a “big cultural issue” within Oxfam, which allowed “some hideous people” to come into the organization, abuse vulnerable people, and then leave with recommendations from the institution.

“We’re going to work on the culture, but working on the culture costs money and we’re going to put money into that,” she said.

Caroline Thomson, Oxfam’s chair of trustees, also gave evidence and outlined plans to create a new subcommittee dedicated to safeguarding, which she will chair and assured the committee that people who report abuse will be protected.

A lot of time was spent discussing the issue of staff references. Goldring admitted that Roland van Hauwermeiren, who was Oxfam’s Haiti country director and is at the center of the scandal, should not have been allowed to resign. He also admitted Oxfam failed to warn Van Hauwermeiren’s subsequent employers, including Action Against Hunger in Bangladesh, about his track record.

The organization “should have been more proactive” about raising its concerns when asked for reference for the disgraced former country director, but said staff had believed they could not legally say more.

“I’m deeply concerned by the idea that people can move on … we’re working as hard as we can and as fast we can with other agencies on that,” he said, adding that this includes looking into “how can we avoid the issues of legality, data protection, libel and actually be much clearer … and actually say we cannot give any reference for this person, he was dismissed for gross misconduct.”

Furthermore, Byanyima said that as part of a slew of reforms announced by Oxfam last week, the charity has since launched a “global database of accredited referees” designed to prevent forged, dishonest or unreliable references being provided by past or current staff — something the charity had been working on before the scandal came to light, she said.

The Department for International Development was also grilled during the evidence session, notably by Tory MP Pauline Latham who said she had written to the agency in previous years calling for a “global register for aid workers” to be established, only to be told by DFID staff that it would be “too difficult” to set up. Matthew Rycroft, DFID’s permanent secretary responded saying that “nothing is in the too difficult box any more, even if it ever was.”  

About the author

  • Sophie Edwards

    Sophie Edwards is a Reporter for Devex based in London covering global development news including global education, water and sanitation, innovative financing, the environment along with other topics. She has previously worked for NGOs, the World Bank and spent a number of years as a journalist for a regional newspaper in the U.K. She has an MA from the Institute of Development Studies and a BA from Cambridge University.

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