Save the Children suspends DFID bidding amid sexual misconduct scandal

The Save the Children shop on Darley Street. Photo by: Betty Longbottom / CC BY-SA

LONDON — Save the Children UK is to withdraw from bidding on United Kingdom government contracts as it falls deeper into a sexual misconduct scandal.

Secretary of State for International Development Penny Mordaunt said in a statement released Thursday that the charity has “decided to withdraw from bidding for new U.K. government funding until the Department for International Development is satisfied that they can meet the high standards we expect of all our partners.” The move comes after the U.K. charity regulator opened a statutory inquiry into the organization.

Save the Children said the move to suspend bidding was voluntary, and that it fully recognizes its responsibility to meet the high standards set by the secretary of state.

Following a series of sexual misconduct scandals in the UK aid sector in recent months, Mordaunt added: “I am committed to driving up standards across the aid sector and I expect every organization that we work with to have rigorous reporting and complaints mechanisms in place to protect beneficiaries and employees alike.”

The children’s charity has been mired in controversy since it emerged that two senior members of staff, including its former chief executive, left the organization in 2015 following allegations of sexual harassment against female staff. One of the men went on to take a senior role at UNICEF, but resigned in February after news stories concerning the allegations, which had been partially reported by the media at the time, re-emerged.

The charity’s international chairman, Sir Alan Parker, who had been chair of the U.K. branch at the time of the incidents, stepped down last week, shortly after the Charity Commission launched a statutory inquiry into its handling of events. The Commission said in a statement it had engaged with Save the Children over allegations against a senior staff member in 2015, but had concerns about whether the charity had “adequately reported the full extent and nature” of the claims, and how they had been handled.

In response to strong media attention over the issue in recent weeks, Save the Children said it had introduced significant reforms since 2015, including a whistleblowing hotline. Last month, it commissioned an independent review of its workplace culture.

Questioned by members of parliament, Chief Executive Officer Kevin Watkins said the charity’s international branch had dealt with 35 sexual harassment cases against its staff in 2016, resulting in 19 dismissals.

The charity received 159 million British pound ($ 219.39 million) from DFID that year, according to its latest annual report, and claims to have reached 7 million children directly through programs funded by U.K. aid last year.

In a statement publish Thursday, it said it had “volunteered to withdraw temporarily from bids for new funding from DFID.”

In a letter to Mordaunt, Watkins wrote: “While I greatly regret both the circumstances that have brought us to this juncture and the consequences for children, I fully recognize our responsibility to meet the high standards that you rightly expect.”

“I want to underscore how seriously we take the sexual harassment cases reported at our headquarters in 2012 and 2015. We are cooperating fully with the Charity Commission’s inquiry to ensure that a complete and truthful account of these cases emerges. I speak for everyone at Save the Children when I say that we are absolutely committed to building back trust in our organization — from the children and communities that we serve, to our donors and supporters, and U.K. taxpayers.”

It is the second charity to withdraw from DFID bidding in recent months. Oxfam GB also agreed to refrain from bidding on new contracts in February, following the scandal that erupted around allegations of sexual exploitation and abuse among some of its staff in Haiti. The withdrawals do not affect existing contracts.

The Charity Commission is currently accepting evidence as part of its inquiry into the handling of harassment allegations at Save the Children.

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  • Jessica Abrahams

    Jessica Abrahams is Editor of Devex Pro. Based in London, she helps to oversee news, features, data analysis, events, and newsletters for Devex subscribers. She previously served as Deputy News Editor and as an Associate Editor, with a particular focus on Europe. Before joining Devex, she worked as a writer, researcher, and editor for Prospect magazine, The Telegraph, and Bloomberg News, among other outlets. She holds graduate degrees in journalism from City University London and in international relations from Institut Barcelona d’Estudis Internacionals.