Sexual exploitation and abuse in the aid sector Contents


Sexual exploitation and abuse by aid workers and peacekeepers is happening in the aid sector and it has been happening for a long time. Sexual violence, exploitation and abuse against women and girls is endemic in many developing countries, especially where there is conflict and forced displacement, as we have found in previous work.1 Forms of systematic criminal sexual exploitation, for example in the form of human trafficking into prostitution, is also a common feature of such environments. Many aid and relief agencies, DFID included, have policies and programmes aimed at tackling all these challenges. Therefore, it is particularly horrifying to find evidence of personnel from the aid and security sectors perpetrating these abuses rather than combating them. Reports have regularly shown this kind of sexual exploitation and abuse being perpetrated across different countries, organisations and institutions, principally in humanitarian crises. At its core, sexual exploitation and abuse is an abuse of power and the power imbalance is predominantly, although not exclusively, men abusing women and girls. Due to confirmed under-reporting, the exact scale is currently impossible to define, but practitioners suspect that those cases which have come to light are only the ‘tip of the iceberg’. The lack of information must not be a cause for inaction. In addition to the abuse of aid beneficiaries, there is also evidence of significant numbers of cases of sexual harassment and abuse within aid organisations, including where the resulting proceedings have been conducted very poorly. There seems to be a common thread in this apparent inability of the aid sector to deal well with allegations, complaints and cases involving sexual abuse. There seems to be a strong tendency for victims and whistleblowers, rather than perpetrators, to end up feeling penalised.

The aid sector, collectively, has been aware of sexual exploitation and abuse by its own personnel for years, but the attention that it has given to the problem has not matched the challenge. Repeatedly, reports of sexual exploitation and abuse by aid workers and/or peacekeepers have emerged, the sector has reacted, but then the focus has faded. This episodic response has led to the existence of safeguarding policies and procedures that have never been effectively implemented. This has meant that where worthwhile safeguarding measures have been developed, they have never been adequately funded. A reactive, cyclical approach, driven by concern for reputational management has not, and will never, bring about meaningful change.

The sector’s movement on preventing sexual exploitation and abuse in the past few months is welcome but it is also long overdue. We are yet to be reassured that the momentum will be maintained. From DFID, we expect to see a high level of sustained engagement in looking after victims and survivors, equipping aid beneficiaries with more knowledge and confidence about their rights, pursuing perpetrators and preventing sexual exploitation and abuse, following the International Safeguarding Conference in October. To display this commitment and ensure progress, DFID should report annually on the safeguarding performance of the sector, including the number and distribution of cases, the resources committed, and DFID’s own actions and contributions to improvement. Such a report should include space for the voices of victims and survivors to be heard.

Victims and survivors should demonstrably be front and centre of all efforts to tackle sexual exploitation and abuse and this means the inclusion of victim and survivor voices in policy-making processes on an ongoing basis. A failure to listen to and consider the needs of victims and survivors of sexual exploitation and abuse will engender a response that is not only ineffective, but potentially harmful.

Improving reporting of sexual exploitation and abuse is vital to understanding the problem, responding to it, and ultimately, to preventing it. Aid organisations and donors must consider this an absolute priority. The vulnerability of the victims and survivors of sexual abuse, and the power of the abuser, create multiple interlocking barriers to reporting. Practitioners within the aid sector have developed recommendations for how these can be overcome with victim-centred reporting mechanisms, but these have not been backed up with the resources required for implementation. It is galling to hear that the main obstacle to progress in this area has been a lack of funding. Donors, and in particular DFID, must provide funds to support the implementation of reporting mechanisms that have, at their core, an understanding of the extreme vulnerability of many of the people who are being asked to report. These should go hand-in-hand with a broader programme of initiatives to increase understanding of beneficiaries’ rights and to tackle wider sexual and gender-based violence.

It is important that whistleblowing systems exist for the instances when the established reporting mechanisms fail. To be effective, these systems must be accessible and contain robust protections for the people who use them. The audit of whistleblowing practices outlined by DFID should ensure that systems and protections are working in practice, and not just at the policy level. But fundamental culture change is required to channel organisational energy into taking care of victims and tackling perpetrators rather than taking care of reputations and tackling whistleblowers.

The lack of clear, best practice guidelines on how to handle reports of sexual exploitation and abuse once they have been received - both in terms of conducting an investigation, and referring potential crimes to relevant authorities - leaves organisations ill-equipped and victims and survivors at risk. The working group established by the Safeguarding Summit to focus on reporting and DFID’s new Safeguarding Unit should both play a role in rectifying this.

Across the board, resources for safeguarding are in deficit. We heard from aid organisations that this was due to the pressure to reduce overheads. Safeguarding is not dispensable: it should be treated as a fundamental element of programming. DFID should ensure that safeguarding is a line in every programme budget where there are safeguarding risks, and allow for these costs in grants and contracts.

The globalised and often chaotic nature of aid work presents challenges to robust employment screening. Indeed, this is likely to be a factor making relief aid, in particular, an attractive sector for people wishing to exploit others. A global register of aid workers would act as one barrier to sexual predators seeking to enter the international aid profession. The sector, led by DFID, should commit to making this a reality at the International Safeguarding Conference in October 2018. Logistical, practical and financial difficulties, whilst they present challenges, should not be treated as insurmountable obstacles.

In addition, the ease with which individuals known to be predatory and potentially dangerous have been able to move around the aid sector undetected is cause for deep concern and alarm. A primary concern for the sector should be the improvement of existing referencing procedures, so that all organisations are, at the very least, displaying basic HR good practice. The International Safeguarding Conference in October provides an excellent opportunity to secure commitment on a series of best practice standards with regards to referencing. DFID should consult other sectors and organisations with recognised safeguarding challenges—social work, education, the churches and scouting—to learn lessons and absorb best practice.

Zero tolerance on sexual exploitation and abuse must be more than just words. Safeguarding policies and procedures will be utterly meaningless without a root and branch transformation of organisational culture. Leaders cannot be complacent about the extent to which any part of the organisation is operating according to stated values, including the very top. DFID should use the opportunity of the International Safeguarding Conference to secure a commitment from all aid organisations to regular assessments of culture, based on agreed indicators.

A culture of zero tolerance must go hand in hand with a culture of transparency. It is vital that aid organisations are fully open about the number of sexual exploitation and abuse allegations they receive and how these allegations are dealt with. This is fundamental for developing a better understanding across the sector about when sexual exploitation and abuse is happening, and the most effective ways of responding to it. DFID needs to be clear that transparency about sexual exploitation and abuse will not be penalised, but improper handling of cases will, and this includes a failure to be fully open about what has occurred.

Additionally, we heard that whilst a structural gender imbalance persists within the sector, cultural change will be very difficult to achieve. Aid organisations should follow the example of the United Nations (UN) and aim to achieve gender parity on boards, at senior management level, and throughout the workforce. DFID should use the International Safeguarding Conference in October as an opportunity to secure commitment on gender parity, with agreed targets and timeframes.

As part of the inquiry, we visited the UN in New York where we heard about protection from sexual exploitation and abuse (PSEA) measures across the UN system. Whilst there are some examples of joined-up working, we also saw evidence of a lack of coordination, and an emphasis on processes and procedures, without much apparent focus on outcomes. With only a limited pot of resources for PSEA initiatives, it is imperative that the UN agencies pool their efforts to maximise their impact. The UK Government should continue to use its levers of influence to press for more collaborative working.

When it comes to investigating sexual exploitation and abuse allegations, the UN’s approach lacks coherence. There is no single body taking an overall interest in the outcomes of investigations or driving them towards resolution, and the victims appear to be too easily forgotten. We appreciate that there may be advantages to decentralisation, but this does not preclude coordination and consistency. We want to see the UN adopting best practice standards for investigations, which all agencies must follow.

We heard that the UN’s mechanisms for holding perpetrators to account are flawed. Impunity for sexual exploitation and abuse undermines the notion of zero tolerance and undercuts efforts to strengthen reporting mechanisms, by reinforcing the notion that there is no value in bringing forward allegations. It is imperative that criminal cases referred to Member States are given full consideration by the relevant prosecuting authorities for bringing to trial, and that the outcome of any judicial process is communicated back to the initial complainant.

The Charity Commission, as the charity sector regulator, plays a crucial role in monitoring and upholding standards on safeguarding in UK charities. The Government must ensure that the Charity Commission is provided with sufficient resources, including appropriately experienced staff, to enable it to meet the demand created by the likely increase in safeguarding related incident reports.

Beyond the UK, the international aid sector has been relying on self-regulation. The shortcomings that we have observed during the course of this inquiry demonstrate to us that self-regulation has failed. We call for the establishment of an independent aid ombudsman to provide a right to appeal, an avenue through which those who have suffered can seek justice by other means. DFID should play its part by ensuring that there is a sector-wide commitment on this at the International Safeguarding Conference in October.

When we launched our inquiry, the primary focus was the sexual exploitation and abuse of the intended beneficiaries of aid. Through the course of our evidence-taking we received submissions relating to the sexual harassment and abuse of aid workers. Within the aid sector, aid workers have reported sexual harassment and abuse ranging from unwanted sexual comments to rape. The victims and survivors are predominantly women, the perpetrators predominantly men. Most of the aid workers whose harassment and abuse cases have been brought to our attention are from donor countries: little is known about the experiences of locally-engaged aid workers in this context.

We are deeply troubled by the fact that aid workers have reported a lack of trust in their employers to handle allegations of sexual harassment and abuse. We are even more concerned by reports of negative consequences for the accuser. Aid organisations need to create an environment in which those who suffer harassment and abuse are safe to report without fear of retaliation and with the confidence that their allegations will be taken seriously. Failure to do so not only leaves staff without recourse to recompense and justice, it also puts staff at risk by allowing perpetrators to remain in post. We heard about ‘boys’ club’ cultures within aid organisations, in which sexual harassment and abuse of staff can thrive unchallenged. We need to see a transformation of these cultures backed up, again, by gender parity.

Published: 31 July 2018