Rory Stewart: DFID should not play 'international policeman' on safeguarding

Rory Stewart, new head of the U.K. Department for International Development. Photo by: REUTERS / Henry Nicholls

LONDON — The new head of the U.K. Department for International Development has said it is not DFID’s job to be an “international policeman” when it comes to safeguarding, and that rolling out preemployment background checks on all British aid workers will be “tough.”

A safeguarding scandal that broke out in the aid sector a year ago led to calls for tighter regulation. But Rory Stewart, who was announced as the new international development secretary of state last week, told members of the parliamentary International Development Committee that their expectations of DFID’s safeguarding role may be too high.

“The role we are trying to play here, it is not to be an international policeman or pretend that DFID can micromanage and control what other people are doing,” he said while giving evidence to the committee, which is tasked with scrutinizing aid spending, on Tuesday afternoon. Instead, he sees DFID playing a role in “influencing [and] shaping” the policies of other actors and donors, he said.

However, Stewart was clear that DFID would hold its contractors to strict safeguarding standards and cease funding to any organization that broke the rules.

His comments come in the wake of increased pressure on the aid community to tackle sexual exploitation, abuse, and harassment after revelations of abuse by some Oxfam GB staff while working in post-hurricane Haiti. The scandals triggered a wave of allegations against other aid organizations.

DFID has sought to position itself as a leader on safeguarding, creating a dedicated unit and hosting an international safeguarding summit in October.

However, NGOs have said they want the aid agency to do more to regulate the sector, including preemployment background checks on aid workers. This includes rolling out a form of the U.K.’s Disclosure and Barring Service, or DBS — which screens people working with children and vulnerable adults — for British aid staff. To date, the Home Office, the government department that manages the DBS system, has resisted the move.

Aid groups were disappointed to hear the new DFID chief downplay the idea on Tuesday, saying the practicalities were difficult due to the large numbers of potential aid workers and time involved.

In answer to a question about DFID’s progress on the idea, Stewart said: “Trying to really work your way through these sorts of checks which are pretty … significant things … is going to be tough … but I’m very happy to look at it.”

Bond, the network of U.K. development NGOs, which has a working group dedicated to improving safeguarding practices across its members, acknowledged the challenges but called on DFID to push for DBS checking.

“We need DFID and other government agencies to broaden the definition of regulated activity for U.K. employees working in key humanitarian and development roles in order to improve background checking through the Disclosure and Barring Service. This is an important step towards keeping the wrong individuals out of the sector,” Frances Longley, head of Amref Health Africa U.K. and co-chair of Bond’s safeguarding working group, told Devex in an email.

DFID has already launched a “Disclosure of Misconduct Scheme,” a reference-checking system intended to prevent perpetrators of abuse from moving around the system, which organizations can sign up to voluntarily. At the safeguarding summit last year, it also announced it would part-fund a pilot for a register of aid workers, in partnership with Interpol.

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.