U.K. Secretary of State for International Development Penny Mordaunt at the safeguarding summit. Photo by: Jo Harrison / DFID

LONDON — Aid bosses who gathered in London on Monday have agreed a “shortlist” of practical steps that aim to make the sector safer and more accountable following a series of sexual abuse scandals.

The United Kingdom’s aid boss, Penny Mordaunt, also revealed that the Department for International Development’s review of 179 delivery partners has uncovered 80 previously unreported incidents of issues “broadly related to safeguarding” at 26 organizations.

DFID has ordered those organizations to now report the incidents to the Charity Commission, the U.K. charity regulator, with Mordaunt warning delegates at Monday’s “safeguarding summit” that grantees will be cut off from funding unless they can live up to “tough and exacting” new standards.

Twenty-seven mostly U.K.-based charities, as well as a number of safeguarding experts, came together for the summit, organized by Mordaunt and the Charity Commission in response to recent revelations of misconduct by some Oxfam aid workers posted to Haiti in 2011, alongside concerns that the incidents had not been fully disclosed to the charity regulator. The Oxfam scandal was followed by allegations of misconduct at other prominent NGOs, including Save the Children, which has launched an internal inquiry.

The summit, which was not open to the press, resulted in agreement on a “shortlist of actions,” including the creation of an independent body to promote external scrutiny; 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 able to find employment at other aid organizations; ensuring that whistleblowers and survivors of exploitation have access to counseling and support; changing organizational cultures; and “ensuring concerns are heard and acted upon.”

Opening the session, Mordaunt, secretary of state for international development, described it as “a critical moment to learn lessons and drive up standards across the entire aid sector. Now is the time for action and for the British aid sector to take a lead … [to] set standards … and an example for the rest of the world to follow.” She promised that the “solutions” put forward “will be put into action.”

“Our standards will be world-leading [and] they will be tough and exacting,” she said.

Tamsyn Barton, chief executive officer of Bond for International Development, said that “many agencies have been able to report the number of incidents which have occurred because they do have policies and procedures in place. The issue here is about making sure the sector is able to prevent exploitation from happening in the first place and ensuring perpetrators are held to account.”

The outcomes of the summit are to be fed into a broader global safeguarding conference to be held later in the year, aimed at tackling sexual exploitation and abuse across the international aid sector.

The parliamentary International Development Committee also announced more details about its inquiry into sexual abuse in the aid sector, which it said would cover allegations of sexual exploitation by any institution that receives bilateral or multilateral U.K. aid, either against recipients or other staff. It called for written evidence on the issue to be submitted online by April 6.

Tough new standards

Mordaunt revealed that all 179 U.K. charities have now responded to DFID’s request for information about their safeguarding policies and historic sexual abuse or harassment cases. On Friday, Devex reported that 18 charities had missed the Feb. 28 deadline for submitting that information.

Mordaunt said that while the information received revealed “important examples of good practice,” it also demonstrated a lack of “robust risk management, comprehensive reporting, responsibility being taken at the highest level for safeguarding, and of beneficiaries always being put first.” The department is “following up with 37 organizations to gain further clarity on their assurance, or reporting,” she said, and DFID will issue a summary of its findings.  

Going forward, the secretary of state said she would be initiating “new, enhanced, and specific safeguarding standards” for the organizations it funds, which will “set the bar at a level of the very best.”

“These standards will include an assessment of codes of conduct, how organizations identify and respond to incidents, and how their risk management places safeguarding and beneficiaries at the very core,” she said.

The new standards will be applied to future grants and also to organizations the department is already funding, Mordaunt said.

Many heads of the organizations attending the summit — including Save the Children, Oxfam, CAFOD, the British Red Cross, and others — had signed a letter published on Feb. 23, which set out a list of “urgent actions” all signatories would take in the wake of the Oxfam scandal. These include increasing resources for safeguarding; reviewing referencing systems; and working more closely with authorities, regulatory bodies and government to overcome “legal and institutional barriers to rigorous background checks in the U.K.”

Mordaunt also addressed DFID’s own record, after a review into historic allegations of sexual abuse and exploitation revealed that at least four of its staff had been formally reported in 2017.

“I think it was vital that we went back through every record we have, since they began, to check action has been taken. And if any new information comes to light through our continued efforts we will ensure appropriate action is taken on this,” Mordaunt said.

She called on other organizations to do the same and to “pay particular attention to the issue of reviewing and reporting historic cases.”

“Only by reporting can we identify and bring to justice predatory individuals,” she said.

‘Time is up’ for perpetrators

Mordaunt had tough words for those “predatory individuals,” vowing police action would be taken against them.

“My message to those who have sought to exploit this sector and the human tragedy in which it operates is this — we will all share information we have with law enforcement. We will find you. We will bring you to justice. Your time is up,” she said.

Summit attendee Andrew MacLeod, a former chief of operations for the U.N.'s Emergency Coordination Centre and now part of Hear Their Cries, an advocacy group dedicated to eradicating child rape and sexual abuse by U.N. personnel, welcomed Mordaunt’s focus on prosecuting perpetrators. While the broader and underlying issues of power inequalities should be recognized, he said, we should not delay the practical steps that can be taken immediately, which includes prosecuting perpetrators of child sex abuse under Britain’s extraterritorial “sex tourism” law.

MacLeod suggested there could be prosecutions of CEOs and chairs of charities "who have turned a willful blind eye … for the last 30 years and have failed to prevent these activities from taking place.”

Key takeaways

Mordaunt also called for better cooperation and sharing of ideas within the sector in order to drive progress on safeguarding measures, and emphasized the need to ensure that smaller NGOs are not left behind.

Many commentators said enhancing whistleblowing procedures will be a key part of ensuring that smaller organizations, subcontractors and subgrantees, and local staff aren’t left behind. The summit agreed to plan for “a systematic audit of whistleblowing practices across the sector to ensure individuals feel able to report offenses,” according to a DFID statement. Delegates also agreed on the importance of developing and implementing mandatory standards which would make organizations accountable to beneficiaries.

Assessing the range of reforms proposed at the summit, Bond’s Barton pointed out that smaller NGOs could face challenges “in terms of resources and capacity building, and we are only going to see the level of success we need to see if we work together and ensure this is an interagency effort,” she said in a statement.

Laurie Lee, head of CARE International UK, said the major takeaways from the summit included the need for government and NGOs to work together in order to address legal restrictions around information sharing, which make it possible for perpetrators to move on to other jobs where they have access to vulnerable people, but he added that “policies alone are not enough.”

“Gender inequality is the root cause of these problems and ... organizational cultures need to prevent sexism of all kinds,” he said.

To tackle organizational culture, delegates agreed to make annual reports more transparent, with specific information published on safeguarding including the number of cases, alongside mandatory inductions on safeguarding for all staff.

Philip Goodwin, CEO of Voluntary Services Overseas, who attended the summit, told Devex it was a “really useful and welcome opportunity,” following a cascade of revelations that “have damaged trust.”

“There was no doubting the commitment of aid and development charities to work closely with DFID and the regulators to come up with practical solutions to the safeguarding challenge,” he said.

Commenting on the summit, Oxfam GB’s Chief Executive Mark Goldring said “there was a constructive dialogue with leaders across the sector on a range of initiatives to strengthen our safeguarding processes. All of us bear both an individual duty and collective responsibility to root out abuse whenever and wherever it occurs.”

About the authors

  • 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.
  • 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.