Horror of sexual exploitation in the aid sector must be confronted

31 July 2018

Empowerment, reporting, accountability, screening: MPs urge a full response with victims at centre.

Key points

  • Sexual exploitation and abuse is endemic across organisations, countries and institutions
  • Collective failure of leadership and engagement from top levels down over many years
  • Self-delusion of aid sector in dealing with and tackling problems
  • Failing to put victims at the heart of solutions could be harmful; certainly renders reforms ineffective

Aid sector

The aid sector has been aware of sexual exploitation and abuse by its own personnel for years, but it has collectively failed to fully confront or address the problem. The reactive, patchy and sluggish response of the sector has created an impression of ‘complacency verging on complicity’ and more concern for reputations than victims says a report from the International Development Committee, published today.

The Committee’s Report, Sexual Exploitation and Abuse in the Aid Sector, sets out how the delivery of aid to people and communities in crisis has been subverted by sexual predators who exploit weakened systems of governance. So much more could have been done to tackle this open secret, says the Report: ‘outrage is appropriate but surprise is not.’

The apparent inability to deal well with allegations, complaints and cases involving the abuse of power extends to the organisations’ own governance and employment practices in the UK and at international levels in the UN. As a result, Part I of the Committee’s report considers sexual exploitation and abuse of the intended beneficiaries of aid. In Part II, the Committee deals with the significant factor of the sexual harassment and abuse of aid workers.

The Committee is roundly critical of the sector’s ability to drive transformational change. Action only seems to come when there is a crisis, says the Report, and even then, it has been superficial. A reactive, cyclical approach, driven by concern for reputation management in the face of media reports has not, and will not, bring about meaningful change.

Chair's comments

Stephen Twigg MP, Chair of the Committee, said:

“Six months after The Times’ expose of abuse in Haiti, the Committee publishes a first look at the troubling issue of sexual exploitation and abuse in the aid sector. Many things have changed in that time with the aid sector, Charity Commission and DFID taking steps to respond to the crisis. One thing has not: the abject failure of the international aid sector to get to grips with this issue, leaving victims at the mercy of those who seek to use power to abuse others. This must be tackled.

Victims and whistleblowers must not end up feeling penalised for speaking out. Humanitarian organisations and the UN cannot continue a ‘culture of denial’ when confronted with allegations of SEA. The Committee is deeply concerned that previous attempts have amounted to limited action in order to quell media clamour with no lasting impact or redress. 

We acknowledge that today’s Report – though damning - is a small, first step, but take note: we are putting all the relevant authorities on notice. The International Development Committee will continue to give this high priority and we will be tracking progress with a view to ensuring real improvement is made. No matter how insurmountable this looks, solutions must be found. This horror must be confronted.”

Recommendations for the future

The Committee sets out how a full response to sexual exploitation and abuse depends on four inter-related areas:

  • Empowerment: the beneficiaries of humanitarian aid should have knowledge and confidence in their rights and how to find help if those rights are threatened or violated.
  • Reporting: reports of sexual exploitation and abuse should be proactively sought and responded to robustly with feedback to victims and survivors. It is incumbent on DFID and other donors to provide the resources for improved victim-centred reporting mechanisms. 
  • Accountability: a zero-tolerance culture on sexual exploitation and abuse is the least which victims (either in crisis situations or in the workplace) should expect. 
    - Reports of sexual exploitation must be followed by investigation; confirmation must be met with accountability. 
    - Aid organisations must demonstrate transparency over reputation. - Donors and the Charity Commission must insist on this with the assistance of an independent aid ombudsman to provide an avenue for victims and survivors if the established channels fail. 
  • Screening: it is imperative that known perpetrators of sexual exploitation and abuse, identified through improved reporting and accountability, are prevented from moving into new positions. The Committee calls for:
    - a rapid improvement of methods to screen staff
    - an immediate strengthening of referencing practices in and between organisations
    - a global register of aid workers who will operate according to expected standards. This will act as one barrier to sexual predators seeking to enter the international development profession.

Pauline Latham MP's comments

The IDC member charged with leading the follow-up on DFID’s eventual reply to this report, said:

“I have been keen to tackle this subject since the Humanitarian Summit in 2016 when it first became clear to me that this abuse was an ‘open secret’. I believe deep cultural change is required across all aid organisations, starting with their – all too often male – senior leadership. Sexual abuse of aid beneficiaries, and of women aid workers, which I believe is linked, must be stamped out.”

Stephen Twigg added:

“For there to be real progress, we must expect a sustained focus, engagement and leadership on sexual exploitation and abuse – in DFID and beyond, in international arenas. The forthcoming International Safeguarding Conference presents an opportunity for DFID to secure commitments from across the aid sector. It is the start of a process, not a stopgap.

Government must ensure that the Charity Commission is sufficiently prepared to deliver its responsibilities. There should be an independent aid ombudsman to provide a right to appeal. And we call for measures to improve the flawed mechanisms of the UN.

We call on DFID to report annually on the safeguarding performance of the sector, including the number and distribution of cases, the resources committee and the Department’s own actions and contributions to improvement. Transparency will not be penalised but DFID must send a clear signal that improper handling of cases will be. Crucially, the voices of victims and survivors must be heard.”

Further information

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