British banknotes. Photo by: cosmix / CC0

LONDON — NGO umbrella groups Bond for International Development and the Core Humanitarian Standard Alliance will ask their members — more than 500 organizations working on international development and humanitarian response — to report their spending on safeguarding against sexual exploitation and abuse at the request of the United Kingdom’s International Development Committee.

The agreement was made during an evidence session before the parliamentary committee on Tuesday. Representatives from both voluntary membership organizations cautioned that it might be difficult to get an accurate picture of spending on safeguarding against sexual exploitation and abuse since it is often rolled in with other issues and job functions.

“There’s not [always] a line in the budget around safeguarding; it’s a part of many people’s jobs and work, but we could have a go, we can ask the question,” Caroline Nursey, chair of the board for Bond, told the IDC.

“We’re planning to ask members to fill in a survey about safeguarding, so we could ask a question with those lines,” she said. The survey is due to be completed over the next two months.

Judith Greenwood, executive director of CHS Alliance, which facilitates accountability and quality in the sector, agreed that the nature of accounting for safeguarding spending will make it difficult.

“For many of our members, the questions we focus on are if they have the codes of conduct in place, the types of issues they’re facing, so we can certainly ask the question, but I think Bond might be better placed in coming back with a concrete answer,” Greenwood said.

The exchange comes as the U.K. aid sector faces a series of safeguarding scandals. Oxfam GB and Save the Children UK have both withdrawn from bidding on government contracts in recent months as the charity regulator investigates their handling of incidents dating between 2011 and 2015. International development secretary Penny Mordaunt has repeatedly demanded tougher action.

As with many sectors, the aid sector’s approach to safeguarding against sexual exploitation and abuse is largely self-regulated. Organizations establish their own codes of conduct and reporting mechanisms, although they can opt into voluntary standards. Funding constraints mean the issue is not always prioritized, and many organizations opt out of having a dedicated safeguarding function.

“I think it’s absolutely imperative that aid agencies as a minimum should have a safeguarding function and head of safeguarding and a resource behind that, which not all of them do at the moment,” Helen Evans, former head of safeguarding at Oxfam, told the IDC during an evidence session on the issue last month.

Evans added that because safeguarding challenges will vary depending on the type of organization, budgets alone would not provide an accurate picture.

“Something I encouraged Oxfam to do is to take a risk-based approach, because it can depend on whether your charity is delivering aid directly. Is it working through partner organizations? Is it in humanitarian scale-ups where the context is more risky?” she said.

“I think for every organization you can’t equate it in terms of income. I think it’s really important to look at the individual risks.”

Speaking on Tuesday, Nursey said there has been a tendency in recent months to conflate workplace sexual harassment with the exploitation of aid beneficiaries, again complicating the issue of resources.

Though she stressed that neither is acceptable, “they are actually two related but different sets of issues.”

“I think the two have been conflated, particularly in the press coverage over the last few months. If you look at organizational culture, both can be addressed through that, but in terms of actually what happens and what gets reported, they’re different,” she said.

The issues in the spotlight at Save the Children have related largely to harassment of female staff at its UK headquarters, whereas the issues at Oxfam have been focused on beneficiaries.

Evans pointed out that because whistleblowing and reporting mechanisms tend to be stronger in the “global north,” where many international development organizations are headquartered, resources may be skewed toward those contexts, even though a larger number of exploitation cases may be going unreported in country offices or in the field.

IDC member Richard Burden explained that the budgetary information the committee has requested will be only one piece of the puzzle in understanding the efforts to tackle the issue.

“It’s not just wanting to know about the money for money’s sake; it’s about establishing that if there are codes of conduct in place, if there are standards and frameworks in place, what action is following those words on paper, to put [them] into practice,” Burden said.

“Working out if any money is being spent on it is one of the indicators to find that out.”

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.