The International Development Committee has roundly criticised the aid sector for its failure to address sexual exploitation and abuse in its report, published today (31 July).
The report, Sexual Exploitation & Abuse in the Aid Sector, found that sexual exploitation and abuse is endemic across organisations, countries and institutions and that for many years there has been a collective failure of leadership and engagement from the top levels down to address it.
In the report, the IDC sets out how the delivery of aid to people and communities in crisis has been subverted by sexual predators exploiting weakened systems of governance, which, it says, has been an open secret.
It also found an apparent inability to deal well with allegations, complaints and cases involving the abuse of power to extend to the organisations’ own governance and employment practices in the UK and at international levels in the UN.
The sector’s ability to drive transformational change also comes under fire, with the report stating that action only seems to come when there is a crisis, and even then has been superficial, with the international aid sector still failing to effectively tackle the issue. This type of reactive, cyclical approach has not, and will not, it says, bring about meaningful change.
It makes a number of recommendations for the future, with the Committee setting 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.
Stephen Twigg MP, Chair of the Committee, said:
“Six months after The Times’ expose of abuse in Haiti, many things have changed 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.”
Among other measures, Twigg also called for a sustained focus, engagement and leadership on sexual exploitation and abuse both in DFID and beyond, in international arenas, for the Government to ensure that the Charity Commission is sufficiently prepared to deliver its responsibilities, with an independent aid ombudsman to provide a right to appeal. DFID is also called upon 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.
The Charity Commission welcomed the report, with Michelle Russell, Director of Investigations, Monitoring and Enforcement at the Charity Commission saying:
“We are clear that sexual exploitation and abuse, and any other behaviours that put beneficiaries, staff, volunteers and members of the public at risk, have absolutely no place in charity. We are pleased that the report makes a number of helpful suggestions to the sector as to how these can be stamped out.
“The charity sector must go further than simply box-ticking against their legal duties or improving processes and policies. We are particularly pleased to see the Committee’s focus on the responsibility of charity leaders to set an organisational culture that demonstrates zero tolerance for abuse.
“Charities should be judged not just by what they do or achieve, but how they go about it. Our research shows that the public expect charities to demonstrate the highest standards are met through everything they do. It is time for charities and their leadership to fully confront these issues with a real commitment to lasting and demonstrable change.”
Responding to the report, the Institute of Fundraising‘s Head of Policy & External Affairs, Daniel Fluskey said:
“Today’s report highlights hugely important issues for the international aid sector, as well as the need for all charities to ensure they have proper safeguarding policies and procedures in place. Everyone who works with, for, or comes into contact with a charity must be treated with respect and have their rights protected.
“Supporters and the public rightly have high expectations of how charities work and hold them to high standards. They care about causes, and while we never take public donations for granted, we believe that people will continue to support charities and continue to give. Charities need to show real and meaningful change, be transparent, and fully accountable. By being upfront, honest, and clear with supporters charities can keep support and continue to work to make the world a better place.”
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