Aid sector still slow to address legacy of sexual abuse and exploitation

17 October 2019

Slow progress in developing effective mechanisms to combat sexual exploitation and abuse is leaving victims and survivors without recourse to appeal, a report by the International Development Committee has found.

Key findings

Following revelations of serious sexual misconduct in the aid sector in 2018, moves to change the culture in aid organisations have not been matched by the implementing of robust and transparent complaints mechanisms or protections for whistle-blowers. The report calls for renewed action from the Government to make safeguarding a central component of all funded aid programmes, and restates the importance of establishing an independent ombudsman to hold the sector to account.

The report follows up on the International Development Committee’s report into Sexual Exploitation and Abuse in the Aid sector, published in July 2018. Further information on its findings is available here.

The Department for International Development is expected to publish reports by its Cross-Sector Safeguarding Steering Group, Safeguarding Technical Working Group and on work done to meet the London Donor Commitments. The International Development Committee will examine these publications in detail for signs of progress against its recommendations.

Chair's comments

Stephen Twigg MP, Chair of the Committee, said:

“When we published our report into sexual exploitation and abuse in the aid sector in October 2018, the International Development Committee urged the aid community to do all it could to ensure that they moved quickly to develop robust protections that placed victims and survivors at the centre. In the year since, this work has sadly not progressed to the point it needs to be.

“The success of reforms can only be judged by how they support victims and survivors in humanitarian situations across the globe. It is clear that in this respect much more work needs to be done. There should be sufficient resourcing in place to provide access to safeguarding staff on the ground, and improvement in how whistle-blowers are supported and protected.

“The era of self-regulation must also come to an end. No matter how confident aid organisations can be in their safeguarding performance, there can still be failures, victims could still fall through the gaps. That is why it is vital that an independent aid ombudsman is established, not only to provide an alternative avenue to justice for victims and survivors, but to monitor the safeguarding performance of the aid sector as a whole.”

Committee conclusions

Embedding safeguarding in all aid work

Since 2018, measures developed by DFID and Bond have focused too heavily on the theory and substantially less on ensuring changes in practice. It is not enough to create change at an organisational level, if it does not produce material changes to outcomes for those who have suffered abuse. Resourcing for safeguarding must be central to every aid programme funded by DFID, including the provision of safeguarding staff. If programmes are supported by public money they should be held accountable for how this money is spent, including a clear indication of how they perform against best practice guidance.

Supporting and protecting whistle-blowers

Progress in improving the effectiveness of whistle-blowing policies, and improving protections for those who do come forward, has seemingly stalled. The promised systematic audit of whistle-blowing practices, agreed at the March 2018 Safeguarding Summit, has yet to materialise. DFID should either publish the findings and recommendations on whistle-blowing from its enhanced due diligence and assurance assessments, or it should work with Bond to carry out the systematic audit agreed in 2018.

Ending voluntary self-regulation

Voluntary self-regulation of safeguarding standards has failed to adequately prevent sexual exploitation and abuse from taking place, or provide adequate support to victims. The case for an independent aid ombudsman remains strong. It would have the potential, not only to hold aid providers to account, but to provide an alternative avenue for victims and survivors if established reporting channels fail. The ability to appeal to an independent body is fundamental to any fair system of justice and the aid sector has not done enough to recognise this. The UK Government should support the Dutch Government’s efforts in progressing the ombudsman proposal, and display international leadership in making the ombudsman a reality.

Clear and transparent

Some organisations still seem reluctant to publish information about the number of allegations of sexual exploitation and abuse and the outcome of investigations. Bond is well placed to promote transparency by setting an expectation that member NGOs will publish such information on an annual basis. Equally, DFID should set this expectation for private sector suppliers, non-UK NGOs and multilateral agencies.

Further information

Image: PA

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