Time to Stop Waiting for the Aid Sector to Fix its Sex Abuse Problem?

Published August 6th, 2018 - 01:22 GMT
Are vulnerable children safe from aid agencies funded to protect them? (AFP)
Are vulnerable children safe from aid agencies funded to protect them? (AFP)

The international aid sector has been relying on self-regulation. The shortcomings that we have observed throughout this inquiry demonstrate to us that self-regulation has failed.” These are the words of a damning new report on sexual abuse in the aid sector from the UK’s International Development Committee. 

The committee is a Parliamentary watchdog that monitors the work of the British Department for International Development (DFID). Last week, it published the results of its investigation into the scandal of sexual exploitation and abuse that has dogged the aid sector throughout 2018. Shocking stories of abuse in international aid are myriad. They go back much further than this year’s revelations.

Cases of UN peacekeepers engaging in rape, exploitation and even trafficking have gone from being a shocking story to a depressingly predictable news cycle. Denial, some limited internal investigations, a response that is mostly focused on reputational damage, and little or no accountability for the perpetrators of sexual abuse is the usual fare. The increasingly-tired sounding statement that the organization has a “zero-tolerance” policy for sexual abuse is repeated. And then another story surfaces. 


But 2018 went to show that the UN was far from alone. In February, The Times published a devastating expose, revealing that Oxfam GB’s staff in Haiti, including the Country Director and other senior members, had used prostitutes whilst working on the 2010 earthquake relief operation.  

The revelations were a disaster for Oxfam, but they also prompted a fresh, industry-wide layer of scrutiny on how sexual abuse and harassment was prevalent across the international aid industry. Whilst such behaviors are unacceptable wherever they are found, it is particularly troubling in the context of aid, where NGO staff find themselves in a position of significant power relative to the people they are meant to be helping.

And as more stories unfolded, it became increasingly clear that the international aid sector has critical, and in some cases astonishing blind spots that would be unthinkable in any other sector where contact with vulnerable people was commonplace. The new International Development Committee report is striking in its cynicism of aid agencies’ ability to fix these problems themselves. “The Committee is roundly critical of the sector’s ability to drive transformational change”, the authors write. Indeed, they point to a number of steps that one might be very surprised to learn were not standard practice. 

Background Checks

One thing that the report brings home is that there is no requirement for aid workers to undergo background checks. A Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS) check is mandatory for anyone in the UK who wishes to work with children or potentially vulnerable people. A sector that mandates this background check is known as a “regulated profession”.

Whilst it is encouraging to see a call for the aid industry to become “regulated” too, it is quite astonishing to think that this wasn’t standard practice to begin with. It is true that international aid is inevitably a chaotic field, and rapid responses to emergencies often means that hiring needs to be done fast. But it is hard to accept that as an excuse for a lack of basic safeguarding, especially when there is evidence that pedophiles seek out jobs in the aid sector because the work offers them access to vulnerable children. 

Criminal record checks do not have to be costly procedures for hiring departments. A DBS check in the UK has to be obtained by the person applying for a job, not the organization considering them as a candidate. Thus asking for these would hardly be a significant burden for British NGOs. 

This is not to say background checks are a fix-all solution. Whilst the report pushed for the Department for International Development to demand DBS checks for the UK staff of the organizations it funds, it acknowledged that this can only extend to British workers. Professor Andrew MacLeod, a former UN official and the founder of the NGO “Hear Their Cries”, which campaigns against sexual abuse in the UN, told Al Bawaba:

“Background checks (DBS or Equivalent), will be a minor help, but not a big one. Many aid workers have spent years working in the developing world where DBS checks are not available. Many offenders only offend in the developing world too, so home DBS checks will not show much.”

French Peacekeepers in Central African Republic (AFP/ File Photo)

The good news is that other NGOs seem to be waking up to the risks of unchecked hiring, and are suggesting policies that could work internationally. Save the Children are arguing for a global system of criminal background checks, which they believe could be feasibly set up by INTERPOL. The bad news is that not all countries have the kinds of databases that a truly “global” system of background checks would need. There is also an associated risk that this would further bias employment in the aid sector in favor of workers from richer countries. 

More stringent hiring practices will not end the problem in themselves. But they will at least eliminate the double standard, and send assurances that vulnerable people abroad will receive the same protections from potential predators that those in the aid workers’ home countries do.

But both the report’s authors and campaigners are demanding further external powers to help clamp down on abuse by NGO workers. The report has made clear that it has no confidence that the sector will go far enough on its own steam. Self-regulation, it said, has been proven to have failed. It has called instead for the “…establishment of an international aid ombudsman to provide a right to appeal, an avenue through which those who have suffered can seek justice by other means.”

Transparency and Donors

Women’s rights charities have also been vocal in demanding more protections, given that young women and girls make up the majority (although certainly not all) of the victims. And they are adding their voices to the call for change to be pushed on NGOs from outside, rather than waiting for organization’s internal responses to fix themselves. 



Jacqui Hunt, the European Director for the charity Equality Now told Al Bawaba:

This report reaffirms that sexual abuse and exploitation within the aid sector is endemic and rooted in a power imbalance that is predominantly, although not exclusively, gendered. We support the strong sense of condemnation expressed throughout the report at the inaction of the aid sector as well as the recognition that their complacency is verging on complicity.

The aid and development sector has already shown that self-monitoring and internal governance is woefully inadequate when it comes dealing with sexual exploitation and abuses of power against those who are vulnerable.A robust, independent body with the proper enforcement remit should be constituted.

One problem with demanding more transparency is that there is an industry-wide fear that any imperfections in an NGO’s record will lead to donors dropping their funding. It is entirely right to demand that NGO staff live up to the moral values that the organisation stands for, and to make funding decisions based on an organisation’s record. However, researchers have also argued that pressure for perfection makes NGOs fearful of being transparent when problems arise. Donors could instead, it has been argued, make clear that they will not punish NGOs so long as they deal with misconduct properly and transparently. 

But a push for transparency could go beyond just incentives. Andrew MacLeod added:

There will be no real and meaningful difference until people start going to jail. I don’t just mean the perpetrators, but also the CEOs and Trustees of charities, and senior UN officials who have been complacent nearly to the point of complicit. Australia has now made it a crime to fail to report child abuse in aid. Every other country should follow suit. The law should also be strengthened to create a crime of ‘failure to prevent’. If this sounds harsh, remember this has been going on for decades, has been known for decades, and we have the power to stop it now.”


Whichever measures end up being adopted, it is increasingly clear that patience is running out. While the majority of aid workers no doubt perform their duties admirably, aid organisations will not be able to claim the moral high ground they need if they cannot get their own houses in order. 

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