Photo by: Dean Shareski / CC BY-NC

Dorothea Hilhorst, a professor of Humanitarian Aid and Reconstruction at Erasmus University, has argued for an independent ombudsperson system to police aid agencies in light of the revelations of sexual exploitation and abuse by several international organizations. I agree that change is needed, but I believe we need a much stronger way to address the problem and one that brings in a key element of the sector: donors.

In principle, the proposed ombudsperson system — where complaints can be lodged and then investigated — is an excellent idea. However, I see two major weaknesses. First, the ombudspersons would not be connected directly to program funding decisions. Second, ombudspersons ultimately would not have the ability to enforce findings and recommendations. They would be limited to publicly naming and shaming offenders. This will not be enough to stop the sexual abuse perpetrated against aid recipients and staff of aid organizations. It is an insidious problem that needs to addressed by a strong donor-funded solution.

While serving as the head of mission for USAID in Pakistan from 2013-2015, I oversaw billions of dollars in programs. We had a nationwide telephone hotline that received hundreds of calls on issues with our development and relief programs, ranging from failed deliveries of items, poor quality work, corruption, and abusive personnel practices. I believe that the hotline was effective because Pakistan has an incredibly high rate of cell phone usage, which made it easy for people to call and report, the hotline promised confidentiality, and it was widely advertised across the country.  

An independent contractor ran the system and the USAID Office of the Inspector General investigated the complaints. Having the IG involved brought real teeth to enforcement based on USAID’s legal requirements, under which USAID personnel and partners operated. The hotline even received calls about other donor’s programs, which were then passed on to appropriate channels. Across a wide array of programs, our development and relief partners corrected problems, paid back money wrongfully spent, or fired individuals who committed abuse or malfeasance.  

There is real potential for the issue of sexual exploitation and abuse to undermine the credibility of aid agencies and reduce donor budgets if legislative oversight bodies lose confidence. At a time when the need for humanitarian response is growing, we need a comprehensive system of oversight that jointly tackles the issues that allow abuse of local people and aid workers and threaten the humanitarian system.

I propose a system based on the Pakistan hotline experience. To be effective this hotline would have the following main features:

1. Jointly funded and staffed by major donors. By banding together, donors would send a common message of intolerance for sexual exploitation, harassment, and abuse of beneficiaries and aid workers themselves. This system would help better oversee NGO and U.N. partners that receive multi-donor funding. A single system in countries with significant humanitarian operations that refer cases to in-country personnel for initial investigation would bring more immediate response to issues that arise.

2. Connected to a powerful investigative authority. There is a need for something like an Inspector General that can bring administrative and even criminal cases through each donor’s legal regime. The system would include protocols for structures similar to those aid agencies developed to respond to quick onset emergencies. This would ensure systems are quickly in place and abuses are quickly acted on in a clear and transparent way across the sector. In-country investigative personnel would notify the concerned donor of the accusations requiring investigation and recommended solutions. Investigations will be conducted in-country and, if necessary, with support from headquarters personnel. Donors would then be able to enforce recommendations based on investigations by tying continued funding to appropriate resolution of the issue.

3. Transparent. It would provide a joint data base on abusers that can be shared across donors and operational agencies to stop abusers before they go to another organization.

4. Gender equity and justice intersection. In a Tufts University report, a key finding is that many victims of sexual abuse will not use a hotline. To address this problem, the donor hotline would need to prove its credibility through specific outreach campaigns and by partnering, based on increased donor funding, with women’s groups that provide services for abused women. Increased trust will broaden usage of the hotline, but based on successful actions that address reported abuses.

This system addresses the main weaknesses of the proposed ombudsperson system. First, this would be a donor system tied to performance, one the aid agencies cannot opt out of.  Second, while public shaming has its place, the hotline system puts organizations’ bottom lines at risk and therefore provides a major incentive for each organization to prevent abuses before they happen. Yes, Oxfam and other organizations are feeling the pinch now. But a systematic approach jointly organized to monitor and address issues is a far stronger way to fight sexual abuse and other failures over the long run.

Humanitarian and development organizations would, of course, still need their own systems for prevention and investigation. Dyan Mazurana of Tufts noted in her recent blog that Oxfam has perhaps the best system of any NGO for dealing with cases of sexual abuse. Such systems need to be part of how every implementing partner does business. Donors can require such systems as part of their funding, just as they require systems around staff security. A joint oversight system will more strongly enforce these prevention mechanisms.

Donors agreeing and then figuring out how to form offices to jointly investigate corruption and sexual exploitation will be a challenge, given the multiple systems that would have to be synchronized, including harmonizing standards of behavior under which NGOs operate. But there are collaborative donor efforts that have shown their effectiveness. The UNDAC concept of earthquake response is an excellent model of bringing well-trained expertise together to deal with a singular problem.  

Working together, donors and their partners can incentivize reporting of abuses through more professional investigative techniques that protect those who come forth while providing an objective investigative tool. Sexual exploitation, harassment, and abuse against beneficiaries and aid workers is intolerable and illegal. This system will be a major step toward ending the problem of sexual violence in the aid sector.  

The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the author

  • Gregory Gottlieb

    Gregory Gottlieb is responsible for the overall direction of the Feinstein International Center at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University. Throughout his career, he has worked to improve food security, humanitarian, and transition programs and he brings this focus, dedication and determination to Tufts.