Opinion: A look inside the first international legal standards to prevent sexual abuse

Photo by: Joshua Rawson-Harris on Unsplash

Last year, the Oxfam scandal that exposed sex abuse by aid workers in Haiti hit the front pages and shook the development community to its core. A year’s work by the OECD Development Assistance Committee led aid donors to agree to stamp out such abuse and hold each other accountable.

Public perception of international development changed overnight with the headlines of abuse. Some 7,000 Oxfam GB supporters stopped donating. Understandable pressure intensified on governments to make sure that not a penny of taxpayers’ money was spent on or by perpetrators of abuse. The British government held a pioneering International Safeguarding Summit to reassure the public and the international development community how seriously it took the crisis.

The global outrage prompted by the scandal was long overdue. For far too long, the international community has at best underestimated — or at worst ignored — abuse. Aid agency staff work alongside poor, desperate, and vulnerable people. There is a huge power imbalance between the providers of aid and the people they are trying to help. Sadly, for a sexual predator, this is an opportunity. Women and girls are particularly vulnerable.

The aid sector is not immune from the sexual exploitation that has been exposed in many of the so-called caring professions. From churches to children’s homes, from Hollywood to the House of Commons, individuals have used their positions to exploit people, and the institutions they work for have often covered it up. Hashtags such as #AidToo and #UNToo mirrored #MeToo and #TimesUp in calling for an end of this behavior.

The 30 major donors who make up the OECD’s DAC spend $150 billion of aid annually. This body has adopted the first international legal standard to prevent sexual abuse and exploitation in the development sector. The adoption of the recommendation shows how seriously the aid community is about protecting vulnerable people from this kind of abuse.

The DAC’s legal standard aims to attack the full chain of responsibility at three points:

1. Policymaking: Putting in place work plans, codes of conduct, and ethical standards that provide explicit regulations to prevent and respond to sexual exploitation, abuse, and harassment.

2. Prevention: Training for humanitarian and development workers, and human resource practices that prevent the hiring of perpetrators, for example, through enhanced background screening.

3. Better systems to support victims and survivors: This includes reporting and response protocols with clear guidelines; protection from retaliation for whistleblowers; integrated and safe response and protection for those who report abuses; and standards for assisting victims and survivors, including with financing support.

Implementation will be monitored and data will be published in both donor countries and where the aid is being delivered, through both the OECD DAC peer review program and through the Multilateral Organisation Performance Assessment Network. Oxfam, for its part, has accepted the U.K. Charity Commission’s independent findings and has published its own report recognizing the need to implement a zero tolerance approach.

Changing the abuse of power takes time and demands cultural and behavioral change. The OECD DAC will support organizations as they work to root out unacceptable practices. We hope others will follow the DAC’s lead and show that collective action and taking responsibility works.

Turning a blind eye to sexual predators and covering up their abuse must stop.

About the authors

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    Susanna Moorehead

    Susanna Moorehead is chair of the OECD DAC. She has previously served as British ambassador to Ethiopia, Djibouti, and the African Union, and as an executive director at the World Bank.
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    Jorge Moreira da Silva

    Jorge Moreira da Silva is director of the Development Co-operation Directorate at the OECD, overseeing the organization’s work measuring progress in development cooperation, analyzing global and regional trends, and helping to design development policies that meet recipient countries’ needs. His role also supports the work of the OECD’s Development Assistance Committee.