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Sexual exploitation and abuse in the aid sector – the International Development Select Committee

September 5, 2018

DFITHE aid sector showed “complacency verging on complicity” in responding to sexual exploitation and abuse,

The report says that the problem of sexual abuse is “endemic” in the aid sector, and that there has been an “abject failure” in tackling it.

The report is the conclusion of the inquiry launched by the committee after the Oxfam scandal emerged earlier this year.

Reports in The Times that Oxfam workers engaged prostitutes while working in the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake in Haiti spread rapidly to cover other disaster zones and other agencies.

The committee says: “It [sexual exploitation and abuse] is endemic, and it has been for a long time. Outrage is appropriate, but surprise is not. The sector needs a complete change of mindset, whereby those who fund and deliver aid are actively working together to seek out and root out the problem.”

Recommendations from the report include a global register of aid workers; the establishment of an independent aid ombudsman to support survivors; and that charities should review their culture as an organisation.

It says: “A global register of aid workers would act as one barrier to sexual predators seeking to enter the international aid profession. Logistical, practical and financial difficulties, whilst they present challenges, should not deter efforts to make this a reality.”

The report also criticises the United Nations, saying that its approach to tackling sexual exploitation and abuse in the aid sector “lacks coherence”. It also says that the Department for International Development [DfID]’s historical response to reports of sexual abuse was “disappointing”.

“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.”

The CEOs of the Christian charities Tearfund and Christian Aid were among 22 who signed an open letter in February saying that they were “truly sorry” for failings in safeguarding.

Both aid agencies welcomed the findings of the report. A spokeswoman for Christian Aid said: “The Committee . . . makes some important points about the need for culture change across the whole aid sector, and we believe this is at the heart of the issue.

“We will be reviewing all the recommendations carefully to ensure that we continue to do all we can in this critical area. We have taken significant steps already this year to improve our safeguarding policies and practice.

“We will play a proactive role in working with others to ensure that any change is meaningful and systemic. Our partners overseas, our supporters, and our staff require nothing less.”

A spokewoman for Tearfund said: “We remain deeply saddened and distressed by the recent devastating news of safeguarding and misconduct cases in the international development sector.

“Our solemn commitment is to investigate and appropriately deal with all such incidents reported to Tearfund. Since the beginning of the year we have carried out a ten-year review to ensure this has happened.

“At the same time, we are increasing our investment into safeguarding and training to better protect all those we and our partners work with, including our staff and volunteers.”

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 Report 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.”


Boys were sometimes victims of sexual exploitation by male and female aid workers, but more often exploited in other ways, for instance, forced to carry out personal chores in exchange for aid supplies. One adolescent boy said, “I have no father and no mother and there are jobs that I am being made to do like washing underpants in exchange for food which I do because I have no parents. I wish I had my parents because I do not have any support and I am exposed to so much abuse”

As far as we can tell from the statistics available and the research available to us, this is abuse that is largely perpetrated by men. Although we should not discount the possibility that some women engage in sexually harmful behaviour, it is behaviour that is largely manifested by men.

“powerful men as gatekeepers to food, shelter and security”

exploiting and abusing “women and girls because they are powerless, they are vulnerable and they are voiceless”.

After all Oxfam was OXFAM and the belief was that that sort of thing was unlikely to happen in such a moral, professional organisation. There was an institutional blindness to the fact that Oxfam, rather than being unlikely to have safeguarding issues, was exactly the sort of organisation in which they will fester.

in Yemen, a survivor of SEA might be accused of adultery or engaging in the crime of prostitution and be arrested as a consequence. In less extreme cases, survivors of SEA might still prefer not reporting a case to the police or other local authorities for fear of being blamed for the violence.

the local government went to her parents and went to the community and said, “Do not take any action because we are worried the humanitarian assistance will go”. Their very strong advice was “Do not speak out. Do not take this forward through any official capacity”.

The fact that Oxfam voluntarily made press statements and wrote to donors aboutthe events at the time they happened, despite having no obligation to do so, highlights the charity’s commitment to addressing the issues head on.

In all years since the UN has made data available, civilian personnel of the UN have committed more sexual exploitation and abuse per capita… Over 60% of allegations reported to the UN in 2017 were against civilians.

The regulatory “gap” we would suggest is not in relation to UK authorities, it is more in relation to the interplay between different country jurisdictions, so a predatory individual’s ability to shop jurisdictions or move around aid agency to agency, perhaps because their conduct was not investigated criminally in a particular country or because someone’s conduct falls short of criminality in that country, and was not handled robustly in disciplinary proceedings, for example the person was “managed out” of one agency.

87% noted that they knew a colleague who had experienced sexual violence in the course of their humanitarian work. 41% reported having witnessed a sexual violence incident against a colleague, and 72% of those reporting were survivors of sexual violence.

if a woman of privilege, working on gender-related issues is unable to report abuse occurring–then what chance does an adolescent girl in a humanitarian affected community have?

[w]e have to acknowledge the extent of patriarchal cultures within our organisations and in our sector, which enable harassment between staff to go unchallenged, or that have ignored and/or made light of harassment on the grounds of organisational or wider culture.

Actively recruit, hire and promote to positions of power and decision-making women and men whose past work performance demonstrate a clear commitment to the rights of women, LGBT persons, and other minorities.

It’s online here.



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