U.K. Secretary of State for International Development Penny Mordaunt at the End Violence Summit. Image from YouTube

LONDON — The Oxfam scandal must be a “wake-up call” for the aid sector, the United Kingdom’s aid chief Penny Mordaunt has said, calling on the community to work together to protect beneficiaries and staff from sexual exploitation and ensure the “morally repugnant” actions of a small group of aid workers do not “tarnish” the sector.

Mordaunt’s comments, made Wednesday morning during the End Violence Solutions Summit in Stockholm, are part of a strong response by the U.K. Department for International Development to newspaper reports of sexual exploitation among a small group of Oxfam staff in Haiti in 2011. It is alleged that the men — four of whom were sacked, and three more who were allowed to resign, according to The Times newspaper — engaged in sexual exploitation and bullying, including paying vulnerable women for sex in the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake. An internal report at the time said: “It cannot be ruled out that any of the prostitutes were under-aged.”

DFID has been swift to condemn the charity and set out a list of demands on Tuesday it says it will implement in order to crack down on sexual abuse and exploitation within the aid sector. Oxfam has since introduced tougher safeguarding measures, but admitted it failed to respond adequately to the 2011 incident, leading one senior official to resign this week.

“We cannot end violence against children unless zero tolerance means something.”

— U.K. aid chief Penny Mordaunt

Mordaunt appeared to go off script at Wednesday’s conference in Sweden, which brought together ministers and aid agency representatives from more than 20 countries. Telling the audience she had been briefed to discuss DFID’s work on protecting children, as well as to announce 5 million British pounds ($7.03 million) in new funding, she continued instead: “I think my time here is better spent delivering another message.”

The minister launched into a speech denouncing Oxfam’s behavior, but also framed the issue of sexual exploitation and abuse as a sector-wide problem, calling for united action to tackle it.

“The sexual exploitation of vulnerable children is never acceptable, but when it is perpetrated by people in positions of power … [It] should compel us to take action,” she said, adding that “the recent revelations about Oxfam and the way [it] responded to events should be a wake-up call to the sector.”

The secretary of state described a “lack of moral leadership” within the sector and said the “culture that allowed this to happen needs to change and it needs to change now.”

“We cannot end violence against children unless zero tolerance means something,” she added.

However, Mordaunt was also clear that abuses in the sector were the “actions of a minority of individuals.” She does not want this “to tarnish the good work we do,” she said.

On whether DFID will cut funding to Oxfam, Mordaunt said this would depend on the outcome of the Charity Commission’s pending investigation, and also on how Oxfam responds and reforms in light of the revelations. The charity has announced an initial package of reforms in recent days and says it is committed to improving.

But Mordaunt was clear that her department will not hesitate to withdraw support if its “standards are not met,” including effective safeguarding measures for beneficiaries, staff, and volunteers; protection for whistleblowers; and reporting of all allegations of misconduct, “no matter how damaging to [an organization’s] reputation.”

“We will not wait for the U.N. and other organizations to step up; the British government will take action now.”

While the speech singled out Oxfam for criticism many times, the minister also said the issue of sexual abuse and exploitation affects the entire development sector, including the United Nations, and noted that 300 cases of sexual abuse including against children were carried out by U.N. peacekeepers and civilian staff in 2016.

“Sexual abuse and exploitation is an issue the entire development sector needs to confront,” she said, adding that “we will not wait for the U.N. and other organizations to step up; the British government will take action now.”

She reiterated that DFID would “step up existing work” with the U.N. and said she welcomed an announcement made via Twitter on Tuesday night that U.N. employees would have “no immunity” when it comes to crimes of rape and sexual abuse. “We cannot let the U.N. flag provide cover for such despicable acts,” she said.

The minister also offered more detail on some of the DFID reforms announced on Tuesday, which she said would include bringing criminals to justice, holding organizations to account, and demanding procedures are changed to stop abuse. That includes setting up a new unit within the department to “review safeguarding across all parts of the aid sector,” including looking at how to prevent perpetrators moving from one aid organization to another.

DFID and the Charity Commission are also set to host a safeguarding summit with top aid officials later this month to discuss issues including “new ways of vetting and recruiting staff to ensure protecting vulnerable people is at the forefront of our minds,” she said. The End Violence Solutions Summit was held to drive progress toward the Sustainable Development Goals to eliminate “epidemic levels of violence against children.”

DFID will contribute 5 million pounds to the Global Partnership to End Violence Against Children — a network of governments, aid agencies, foundations, and researchers working to stamp out child abuse across the globe.

“This money will help tackle physical and sexual abuse against children. It will enable us to work smarter and better, sharing data and pooling resources over the next three years,” Mordaunt said in a press release.

Read more about sexual harassment in the aid sector

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.