LONDON — The United Kingdom government published its new strategy on safeguarding against sexual exploitation, abuse, and harassment in the aid sector on Thursday — but parts of it were criticized for being a “regurgitation of what has already been known and done in the sector for years.”
The strategy is designed to support the U.K. government’s ultimate goal of an “aid sector free from sexual exploitation and abuse and sexual harassment” and the shorter-term ambition to achieve effective safeguarding worldwide across the government and organizations it works with.
But it was dismissed by safeguarding expert Asmita Naik for being light on reporting mechanisms and recycling old ideas.
The strategy was agreed on by all departments that spend official development assistance, including the new Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, 12 other government departments, and the U.K. Statistics Authority.
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“Sexual exploitation and abuse and sexual harassment in any organisation is completely unacceptable, particularly in a sector which aims to help some of the most vulnerable people in the world,” wrote Philip Barton, permanent under-secretary at FCDO, in the foreword to the strategy document.
Barton continued: “ODA must be delivered in a way that does no harm. Sexual exploitation and abuse and sexual harassment undermines the aid sector as a whole and limits our ability to deliver positive change.”
Sexual misconduct has been a key concern in the humanitarian and development sector since scandals in 2018 rocked major NGOs including Save the Children and Oxfam, leading to promises from governments and NGOs to improve safeguarding for aid workers and recipients, survivors and whistleblowers. But specialists say tangible progress has been slow and sexual misconduct still frequently goes unreported.
“There are lots of warm words about giving survivors, whistleblowers, etc. a voice ... but the heavy investment is in bureaucratic schemes that don't go to the heart of the problem.”— Asmita Naik, development and human rights consultant
Naik, a consultant on development and human rights who played a key role in first bringing safeguarding issues in the sector to light with a 2002 report on sexual exploitation of refugee children in West Africa, was skeptical about how effective the new strategy would be.
“There are lots of warm words about giving survivors, whistleblowers, etc. a voice ... but the heavy investment is in bureaucratic schemes that don't go to the heart of the problem,” Naik told Devex.
The strategy cites examples of government initiatives such as the Aid Worker Registration Scheme, which Naik has previously criticized over privacy, fairness, and efficacy concerns.
Other measures described in the strategy are a "duplication and regurgitation of what has been written about and known for years" she said. "We need serious financial investment in enabling people to raise concerns and to have their complaints investigated, not more guidelines."
The government strategy is based on three strands: Delivering sector-wide change; delivering organizational change within U.K. aid-spending departments; and delivering programmatic change across U.K. aid programs.
It aims to deliver sector-wide change by providing global leadership on safeguarding, raising the issue on the world stage and encouraging action at the United Nations, according to the document.
Outside of diplomacy, it said the U.K. will work to initiate information-sharing projects endorsing minimum safeguarding standards, promote the professionalization of safeguarding, and strengthen grassroots organizations “to give voice to activists, victims, survivors and whistle-blowers and provide them with access to the support services that they need.”
To deliver organizational change in aid-spending departments, the government will implement “clear leadership” and messaging highlighting the importance of safeguarding, while building a “diverse and inclusive” workforce and ensuring vetting and referencing procedures are fit for purpose.
To deliver programmatic change across its aid programs, the government will apply a due diligence assessment — made up of six components — to organizations it works with, according to the strategy. Criteria for partners includes having safeguarding and whistleblowing policies in place and that HR and risk management should prioritize sexual exploitation, abuse, and harassment.
The strategy also said the government would assist its partners in building their safeguarding capacity and help with funding “on a case by case basis.”
FCDO has been approached for comment.