Sexual exploitation and abuse in the aid sector Contents


Revelations: Oxfam in Haiti

1.In February 2018, Sean O’Neill, writing in The Times newspaper, revealed that Oxfam GB staff, including the Country Director, had been paying local young women for sex in Haiti whilst working on the humanitarian response to the 2010 earthquake. It appeared that three Oxfam staff, including the Country Director, were allowed to resign without further penalty, and four were dismissed for gross misconduct. Equally serious have been the accusations that Oxfam failed to report the matter to the Charity Commission, DFID, or any other authority in clear terms, for fear of reputational damage. In doing so, the organisation exacerbated the risk of allowing the perpetrators to be re-employed within the sector and prevented the issue from being aired and tackled effectively.2 The outrage provoked by this episode was very shortly magnified by further allegations in the media of similar cases in other international and multilateral aid organisations. There was also commentary and views from current and former aid workers that these stories reflected a culture of ‘abuse and impunity’ in the challenging environments in which humanitarian assistance was provided.3

Wider and related issues

Not a new problem

2.To compound the perception of a sector in crisis, two other strands of evidence quickly emerged. The first was the stark fact that the sexual exploitation and abuse of aid recipients by aid providers and peacekeepers is by no means a new issue. As we set out below, the problem has a documented history stretching back nearly 20 years and reaching across many geographical and organisational boundaries. It was raised at the World Humanitarian Summit in 2016, which we attended, leading to regular questions, in particular from Pauline Latham MP:

Oral evidence on DFID’s Priorities, October 2017

Mrs Latham: …I wrote to your predecessor about this, because when I went to the humanitarian summit in Istanbul, more than a year ago now, I was shocked and horrified to find that it was common knowledge, not just among the UN institutions, but among NGOs. They all know that this is happening with people we give money to, and trust to look after vulnerable people: [aid workers] are raping and they are abusing children. How can we as a country lead by example to stop this … ?

Secretary of State for International Development (Priti Patel): …It is a stain on the international community that more has not been done in this whole area. It is just disgraceful and appalling, hence I have not been shy in my language. I am not prepared to sign up to the language the UN uses, which is ‘sexual exploitation and abuse’: it is child rape and sexual abuse that is taking place. In terms of what we can do, we will lead this issue of reform within the United Nations, and I have been very clear about this with the Secretary-General, the Deputy Secretary-General and across to the heads of the UN agencies.4

3.In 2002 -- by all accounts the first systematic exposé of sexual exploitation and abuse by aid workers -- there was an explicit subsequent reluctance to pursue the perpetrators with no attempt evident by any multilateral or national authority to inspect or interrogate the evidence base on which the report was founded. In another episode -- child abuse by peacekeepers in the Central African Republic in 2014 -- the independent review of the UN’s response concluded that it was “seriously flawed” with the initial disclosure deliberately and successfully “obscured” within other reporting.5

Examples of reporting of sexual exploitation and abuse (SEA) by aid workers and peacekeepers since 20026

2002 – Sexual violence and exploitation: the experience of refugee children in Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone (UNHCR & Save the Children UK)7

In 2002, an assessment by UNHCR and Save the Children of the effects of sexual violence in conflict on children produced an unexpected strand of evidence. Asmita Naik, co-author, told us that the research was carried out “without anticipation or knowledge of sexual exploitation by aid workers”. Sixty-seven allegations of SEA against refugee children were documented and personnel from 40 aid agencies and 9 peacekeeping battalions were implicated (based on 80 separate sources). The scandal was widely reported in the global media in February 2002.

The behaviours and conduct of aid workers and peacekeeping personnel uncovered by the 2002 West Africa report have been confirmed as far from isolated occurrences by other reports, studies and media investigations over the last two decades.

2004 & 2006 Sex and the UN: when peacemakers become predators (The Independent)8

In 2004, reporting by journalist Kate Holt documented SEA by both UN peacekeepers and UN civilian personnel in the ‘MONUC’ mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The consequent action taken by the UN was analysed by Anna Shotton, of the UN’s Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DKPO). Her conclusions were published in 2006 and emphasised: the need for a comprehensive approach, continuous attention and pressure (including from Member States), substantial resources, new prevention measures but also quality investigation and accountability (in terms of both ‘severe’ dealing with culprits but also holding senior leadership to account) and ‘culture change’, in recognition of the fact that appropriate conduct is integral to mission success.9 It seems fair to note that implementation of this recipe -- with the addition of an over-riding focus on victims and survivors.-- is still required, 12 years later in 2018.

2007–2008 – “To complain or not to complain: still the question”: consultations with humanitarian aid beneficiaries on their perceptions of efforts to prevent and respond to sexual exploitation and abuse (Kenya, Namibia and Thailand)10

This study, by Kirsti Lattu, principal author, and Veronika Martin, Abdullahi Ali Ahmed and Margaret Nyambura, for the Humanitarian Partnership (supported by staff from a variety of organisations11), looked for evidence of change following “discoveries of pervasive misconduct” and “weak or nonexistent codes of conduct, poor awareness of rights and duties, nonexistent or confusing complaints mechanisms and few (if any) on-staff investigators.” Between August and November 2007, humanitarian aid beneficiaries in Kenya, Namibia and Thailand were consulted about their perceptions of protection from sexual exploitation and abuse.

The study found that, although beneficiaries knew sexual abuse and exploitation was going on around them and perceived the risks, the vast majority of the 295 consulted said they would not complain about misconduct. Beneficiaries felt: they had few channels through which to complain; there was a lack confidentiality (with risks to their security); they did not want to make problems for fellow refugees; the complainant could be seen as the troublemaker; and there was a risk of losing aid if they complained about humanitarian agencies’ staff’s actions. For their part, humanitarian staff (volunteer, incentive and salaried) were reluctant to report on fellow aid workers for fear of retaliation.

On a positive note, in both Kenya and Namibia, a third or more of consultation participants had been informed about standards of conduct for humanitarian aid workers prohibiting sexual exploitation and abuse; and the firing of humanitarian staff for misconduct was not unknown in any of the three countries.

2008 – “No-one to turn to”: Under-reporting of child sexual exploitation and abuse by aid workers and peacekeepers in Haiti, Côte d’Ivoire & South Sudan (Save the Children)

This study, conducted by Corinna Csáky (who gave powerful oral evidence to this inquiry), indicated that significant levels of abuse of boys and girls continue in emergencies, with much of it going unreported. The report pointed out that any measures to tackle SEA are dependent on the willingness and ability of victims and survivors, and their carers, to report the abuse experienced: “Breaking the silence surrounding this problem is an essential step towards its elimination.” The evidence suggested that children and their families were not speaking out because of: stigma, fear, ignorance, powerlessness and a perception that nothing happens when abuses are reported.

The study found three ‘gaps’: victim/survivor communities (especially children and young people) were not being supported and encouraged to speak out about the abuse against them; there was weak leadership on this issue in many parts of the international system, leading to poor implementation of effective practice; and there was an acute lack of investment in tackling the underlying causes of child sexual exploitation and abuse in communities – abuse not just by those working on behalf of the international community but by a whole range of local actors.12

2015 – “Taking action on sexual exploitation and abuse by peacekeepers’: report of an independent review of sexual exploitation and abuse by international peacekeeping forces in the Central African Republic

In similar vein to the 2006 review of the MONUC case in the DRC, this 2015 report was an independent review of the handling of allegations of sexual exploitation and abuse by members of a French peacekeepers in the Central African Republic in 2014. The findings were damning: the initial reporting up the management line was strongly suggested to have been obscured in the way it was presented; the response of the many UN agencies with potential responsibilities were fragmented, bureaucratic and seriously flawed; and the care, protection or informing of the victims was, at best, an “afterthought” if considered at all.

Voices from Syria, 2018 (Whole of Syria GBV Focal Point, UNFPA)

Within this annual report on gender-based violence (GBV) in Syria it was clear that sexual exploitation and abuse by aid workers, amongst others, is an entrenched feature of the life experience of women and girls in Syria in the eighth year of the conflict there. The report also sheds light on the wider context for such abuse, for example, in the introduction: “With men absent, injured, killed, or unable to find employment the burden of responsibility often falls heavier on the shoulders of women and girls to maintain households. However, these additional responsibilities do not necessarily lead to greater empowerment or freedom for women. Invariably, it leads to an increase in workload and sometimes to additional abuse as men resist a perceived threat to their dominance. From aid distribution to gaining documentation, to attending school, guarding against exploitation and abuse is a constant challenge.”

More specifically, the report states that: “sexual exploitation by humanitarian workers at distributions was commonly cited by participants as a risk faced by women and girls when trying to access aid”.13

Sexual harassment and abuse within aid agencies

4.The second strand of concerning evidence to emerge was around the incidence of sexual harassment and abuse within aid sector organisations and allegations of poor standards of process and governance in the way some of these cases have been dealt with. A case arising at Save the Children UK -- an organisation, at the heart of overt efforts to tackle SEA of aid beneficiaries -- epitomised this issue. We explore these issues in Part II of this report.

Responses: DFID, Charity Commission and others

5.The Oxfam Haiti scandal has rocked the international development world, and the charity aid sector in particular with a substantial and understandable fall in donations to Oxfam (not to mention cessation of DFID funding).

Our inquiry

6.Our immediate response was to call the senior leadership of Oxfam and Save the Children, and DFID’s Permanent Secretary and other officials, to answer questions in public session. At the outset of the evidence session, the Chair announced that the Committee would be conducting a full inquiry into sexual exploitation in the aid sector.

7.In summary, the scope of inquiry and terms of reference were agreed to enable exploration of these issues while remaining within our remit of holding DFID to account. We looked to scrutinise:

8.During the initial evidence session in February, we heard evidence of gaps in the UK legal framework in relation to attempts to respond effectively to these problems.15 We drew up a draft Bil – provisionally entitled the International Development (Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups) Bill – to provoke debate and invited witnesses to comment on its provisions. The draft Bill and explanatory notes, amended following this consultation, are annexed to this report. The Chair of the Committee presented the Bill under the Ten Minute Rule on 4 July 2018 with the whole Committee’s endorsement and support from across the House.16 Sponsors included the Chair of the Women and Equalities Committee, Maria Miller MP, and that Committee’s inquiry into sexual harassment in the workplace has dealt with similar issues to those we have come across.17

Developments in the course of the inquiry

9.During our evidence-gathering, both DFID and the Charity Commission took steps to respond to the crisis. On 12 February, the Secretary of State announced:

10.On 12 February 2018, the Charity Commission announced that it had formally opened a statutory inquiry into Oxfam GB, stating its concerns that Oxfam may not have fully and frankly disclosed material details about the allegations at the time in 2011, the charity’s handling of the incidents since, and the impact that these have both had on public trust and confidence.

11.On 5 March 2018, following the Safeguarding Summit, the Secretary of State announced a number of measures, which those attending the safeguarding summit had agreed. These comprised:

12.With respect to plans announced in February, DFID reported that:

13.On 20 March, the Secretary of State reported on the results of the safeguarding review commenced on 12 February. All organisations had achieved compliance with DFID’s stipulations. DFID had rolled out the exercise to other partners; the private sector (i.e. the top 30 suppliers–accounting for 80% of DFID’s contractual spend) and the multilaterals. The purpose of this exercise was a process audit, to gain partners’ statements of assurance on safeguarding and assess the clarity of such statements.

14.On 11 April, the Charity Commission opened a statutory inquiry into Save the Children UK’s handling, reporting and response to serious allegations of misconduct and harassment against senior staff members in 2012 and 2015.

15.On 17 May, the Secretary of State again updated the House on further progress, announcing:

4 Q43 (DFID’s Priorities, Tuesday 24 October 2017, HC485)

5 Taking Action on Sexual Exploitation and Abuse by Peacekeepers: Report of an Independent Review on Sexual Exploitation and Abuse by International Peacekeeping Forces in the Central African Republic, 2015, piv

6 The incidence of SEA by aid workers and peacekeeping personnel has been periodically brought to the attention of the international aid sector in a number of reports since 2002, and some of the evidence the Committee has received has pointed to allegations being made as early as the mid-1990s. Most of these reports and episodes are discussed elsewhere in this report.

7 Only a summary of the findings has ever been formally published until now. However, the full report, containing the names of the agencies and battalions, was submitted to UNHCR in 2002.

8 Op. cit., The Independent, 2004 In 2010, the MONUC mission was refocused and renamed the “UN Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo” (MONUSCO)

9 A Strategy to Address Sexual Exploitation and Abuse by United Nations Peacekeeping Personnel Perspective, Anna Shotton, UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations, Cornell International Law Journal, 2006, Vol 39, p97

11 Including UNHCR, Jesuit Refugee Services, African Humanitarian Action, FilmAid International, Windle Trust, Lutheran World Federation, CARE International, Karen Women’s Organisation, Karen Refugee Committee, International Rescue Committee, Thai Burma Border Consortium and the US Embassy in Bangkok.

13 Voices from Syria, 2018 (Whole of Syria GBV Focal Point, UNFPA)

14 During the course of our work this became the subject of a Charity Commission statutory inquiry.

16 See Annex 3 to this Report

17 See Women & Equalities Committee on sexual harassment in the workplace

19 Department for International Development, ‘Actions to tackle exploitation and abuse agreed with UK charities’, 5 March 2018

20 HC Deb, 17 May 2018, col 694WS

Published: 31 July 2018