U.K. Secretary of State for International Development Penny Mordaunt at the Global Disability Summit. Photo by: DFID

LONDON — “Predatory individuals” are fleeing the humanitarian sector as it is no longer a “safe space for them to operate in,” United Kingdom Secretary of State for International Development Penny Mordaunt claimed Tuesday, on the sidelines of the Global Disability Summit in London.

Mordaunt told reporters that new safeguarding measures put in place by the Department for International Development to protect beneficiaries have “already had an effect.”

“We know from law enforcement, that there’s some evidence that predatory individuals have left the sector, because they don’t consider it a safe space for them to operate in,” she said in response to a question from a Thomson Reuters Foundation reporter.

Her comments come five months after revelations that Oxfam staff exploited aid beneficiaries after an earthquake in Haiti in 2011, sparking a wave of sexual abuse and harassment allegations from the aid sector, most recently from Médecins Sans Frontières and Save the Children.

The U.K. government hosted a Safeguarding Summit in March, where NGOs and civil society met with aid officials and donors to set a higher standard for safeguarding and outline priorities for improving hiring practices within the sector. As a result, Mordaunt said DFID and its partners are “getting more reporting, which is good,” adding that “there’s still more to do, but where we were in January, it’s completely transformed. And I’m very proud of the team who have delivered on that in the U.K..”

Asked how DFID plans to check in and measure progress toward establishing better safeguarding guidelines throughout the sector, she said: “We’re working toward a meeting at UNGA [the United Nations General Assembly in September], but then following that, in October, a very big conference that will look at all of the results of those workstreams, all of the commitments the donors have made, and then map out how we are going to deliver that.”

Earlier this month, DFID officials committed to establishing “clearer guidelines” for its delivery partners when it comes to safeguarding. The summit in March resulted in agreement on a “shortlist of actions,” including the possibility of creating an independent body to promote external scrutiny of aid organizations; new standards for vetting and referencing across the sector — an issue that has been at the forefront of discussions since it emerged that some of those involved in the Oxfam scandal were later able to find employment at other aid organizations; ensuring that whistleblowers and survivors of exploitation have access to counseling and support; and changing organizational cultures.

It is not the first time a U.K. aid official has claimed that new safeguarding measures are already being felt. Giving evidence in the House of Commons earlier this month, Peter Taylor, head of DFID’s new Safeguarding Unit, said: “We have to be careful about claiming credit on things, but we have been told of one direct example where one of our officers — who will remain nameless — engaged with the host government and got them to start thinking about this in much more detail as a result of the commission from the secretary of state.”

Taylor said the host government “started to look at their internal practices and processes and what was going on” and “identified at least one predatory individual who has now been removed from government service there.”

“We have seen one or two things, which perhaps are unrelated. There is a high-profile case at the moment in Nepal with an arrest of a former U.N. official, who has been working in the charity sector there. That was completely led, as I understand it, by the national government there,” he said.

The nationally led nature of these instances means “there is consciousness that it is happening and people are collectively trying to get a grip of it,” Taylor added.

About the author

  • Molly Anders

    Molly Anders is a former U.K. correspondent for Devex. Based in London, she reports on development finance trends with a focus on British and European institutions. She is especially interested in evidence-based development and women’s economic empowerment, as well as innovative financing for the protection of migrants and refugees. Molly is a former Fulbright Scholar and studied Arabic in Syria, Jordan, Egypt and Morocco.