Sexual exploitation and abuse in the aid sector Contents

Part I: Sexual exploitation and abuse of the intended beneficiaries of aid

1The nature and scale of the problem

16.Through our inquiry, we sought to gauge the nature and scale of sexual exploitation and abuse (SEA) of the intended beneficiaries of aid. It quickly became apparent that, due to the paucity of data available, this would be challenging. We have considered the testimonies of victims and survivors,21 the views of safeguarding experts, and the findings of those who have conducted research on this area. We are, however, acutely aware that what we have gleaned is unlikely to provide a full picture of the problem due to historical under-reporting by victims and survivors as well as failures to disclose by agencies and authorities.

The nature of the exploitation and abuse

17.The term ‘sexual exploitation and abuse’ could apply to a wide range of acts. According to the UN, sexual exploitation means “any actual or attempted abuse of a position of vulnerability, differential power, or trust, for sexual purposes, including, but not limited to, profiting monetarily, socially or politically from the sexual exploitation of another” and sexual abuse refers to “the actual or threatened physical intrusion of a sexual nature, whether by force or under unequal or coercive conditions”.22

18.In the UN Secretary-General’s 2017 report, ‘Special measures for protection from sexual exploitation and abuse: a new approach’, the different kinds of sexual exploitation and abuse against adults are listed as: rape, sexual assault, other forms of sexual violence, transactional sex, solicitation of transactional sex, exploitative relationship, trafficking for sexual exploitation and abuse and ‘other’. The different kinds of sexual exploitation and abuse against children are listed as: child rape, sexual assault, solicitation of child prostitution, trafficking for sexual exploitation and abuse, other forms of sexual violence against children and ‘other’.23

19.UNA-UK highlight that within the broad definition of SEA, there could be victims who “do not regard themselves as being exploited” and give the example of a “potentially exploitative but consensual relationships between local inhabitants and Peacekeepers”.24

20.The revelations about Oxfam staff using prostitutes in Haiti, the trigger for this inquiry, highlighted that the exploitation of beneficiaries25 could extend beyond those who are directly receiving aid. Mark Goldring, the now outgoing Chief Executive Officer of Oxfam GB, told us:

Oxfam used “beneficiary” to mean those in direct receipt of Oxfam assistance. In fact, the whole population of Port-au-Prince and surrounding areas, and indeed much of Haiti, were beneficiaries in the wider sense, of which they were affected by the earthquake or were living in poverty whether or not they were affected by the earthquake.26

Winnie Byanyima, Executive Director of Oxfam International affirmed that, in her view, “the use of prostitutes in conditions of poverty, helplessness and conflict is exploitation and abuse”.27

21.Not everyone who works in the sector agrees that the use of prostitutes constitutes sexual exploitation and abuse, although this does appear to be the growing consensus. We noted the Secretary of State’s evidence on a recent policy decision by the World Bank:

If I can give you the example of the World Bank … whether its staff should be allowed to use prostitutes in countries where that is legal. It has decided that if you work for the World Bank you cannot do that. It does not have to have a complex policy to nuance that. You cannot do it. Yes, the chief executive said there was backlash against that and her reply is a good one, which was that you had the same effect when they banned smoking in the executive offices.28

We note that whilst Oxfam’s Code of Conduct from 2017 does explicitly ban the use of prostitutes,29 this was not the case in a Code of Conduct from 2012.30

The victims and survivors

22.We heard that SEA is predominantly perpetrated against women and girls, although this is not exclusively the case. Steve Reeves, the Director of Child Safeguarding at Save the Children UK told us:

globally, it is pretty clear that girls and young women are most frequently the victims of sexual violence. We do see evidence of boys and young men being exploited sexually in the same way31

Asmita Naik, co-author of the 2002 UNHCR and Save the Children report that revealed SEA by UN and aid agency staff in West Africa, shared the findings of her research from refugee camps in Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone in 2001.

Victims were mainly girls aged 13 and 18 years, who reported far-reaching consequences of the abuse on their lives: pregnancies, abortions, teenage motherhood, exposure to sexually transmitted diseases and HIV/AIDS, lost educational, skills-training and employment opportunities and social exclusion. A refugee child said, “An [Aid] worker made me pregnant but now he left me and is loving to another young girl”.32

She added that:

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”33

The perpetrators

23.The exploitation and abuse is mainly perpetrated by men. Steve Reeves said:

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.34

This was corroborated by Helen Evans, the former Global Head of Safeguarding at Oxfam GB.35 The abuse that Asmita Naik documented in 2001 was also perpetrated by men:

Exploiters were men in the community with power, money and influence and included mainly local humanitarian workers extorting sex in exchange for desperately needed aid supplies (biscuits, soap, medicines, plastic sheeting etc).36

24.Corinna Csáky, author of Save the Children’s 2008 report, ‘No One to Turn To: the under-reporting of child sexual exploitation and abuse by aid workers and peacekeepers’, told us that: “It is also very important that you note that the abusers are both foreign and national staff. Some come from overseas, but many more are local people employed by international humanitarian organisations. With the exception of peacekeeping forces, local people make up the majority of humanitarian staff. It is no surprise therefore that they make up the highest proportion of abusers. From the perspective of victims and survivors, there is no difference between the two.”37

25.A recurring theme across the written and oral evidence is that SEA is, at its core, an abuse of power.38 The already imbalanced provider-beneficiary relationship can be magnified in the context of a humanitarian emergency. The British Red Cross wrote that:

The opportunity for abuses of power in humanitarian contexts is high and there is often an imbalance of power in times of crises. During humanitarian emergencies, social protection systems can be significantly weakened and disrupted.39

26.Corinna Csáky, shared with us testimony from those she had interviewed as part of her research in 2007, to illustrate how the children who were abused had already been highly vulnerable:

There is a girl who sleeps in the street, and there were a group of people who decided to make money off of her. They took her to a man who works for an NGO. He gave her one American dollar and the little girl was happy to see the money. It was two in the morning. The man took her and raped her. In the morning the little girl could not walk. (Young Boy, Haiti)40

27.Overall, the picture that has developed over the course of our inquiry is one of exploitation and abuse rooted in a power imbalance that is predominantly, although not exclusively, gendered, with “powerful men as gatekeepers to food, shelter and security”41 exploiting and abusing “women and girls because they are powerless, they are vulnerable and they are voiceless”.42

The scale of the problem

28.Evidence we have received suggests that sexual exploitation and abuse is endemic across the international aid sector, predominantly humanitarian provision, and a wide range of organisations have been implicated. The 67 allegations documented by the 2002 West Africa assessment report listed 40 aid agencies and 9 peacekeeping battalions across three countries in West Africa.43 The research conducted for Save the Children’s 2008 report revealed that in emergency contexts in South Sudan, Côte d’Ivoire and Haiti, a wide range of organisations were implicated in abuse:

Our fieldwork revealed cases of abuse associated with a sum total of 23 humanitarian, peacekeeping and security organisations. These include civil humanitarian agencies such as those delivering food and nutritional assistance, care, education and health services, reconstruction, shelter, training, and livelihood support, as well as military actors providing peace and security services.44

It also showed that:

A broad spectrum of different types of aid workers and peacekeepers were implicated in the abuse. For example, staff at every level, from guards and drivers to senior managers, were identified as having been involved. Participants also implicated a mix of local, national and international personnel, including staff described as ‘black,’ ‘white,’ ‘foreign’ and ‘local’ people.45

29.No corner of the aid sector appears to be immune: the problem is a collective one. Kevin Watkins, Chief Executive Officer of Save the Children UK said:

this is not the occasional bad apple that we are dealing with here; it is a structural and systemic problem that we have to deal with through proper integration.46

30.Although the problem appears pervasive, the exact scale of SEA in the aid sector is currently impossible to define. We heard repeatedly that there is under-reporting, based both on research47 and anecdotal evidence.48 The UN Secretary General (UNSG) acknowledged in his 2017 Special Measures report on SEA, “we feel certain that not all cases are reported”.49 Practitioners suspect that those cases which have come to light are only the “tip of the iceberg”.50

31.In terms of the impact of SEA, we were told by Rape Crisis and Equality Now that in addition to the “degrading, harmful and traumatic experience in itself”, SEA contributes to a context that is conducive to the objectification and exploitation of women and girls, where sexual violence is condoned and excused. SEA also forms:

part of the framing of sex-based inequality, reducing women’s and girls’ rights in multiple contexts and contributing to and reinforcing the environment for further abuse and discrimination against them.51

There is little understanding of how SEA impacts the effectiveness of aid programmes, and the ability of aid organisations to deliver support to beneficiary communities. A senior and experienced specialist in the aid sector told us in confidence that:

The way the communities we serve view us as a sector does matter. It is everything… we fail at almost all levels above our programmes to quantify the impact this has on the quality of our programmes, or our ability to actually deliver them to their intended audiences.52

32.This suggests that it is important for aid agencies to take a proactive approach to tackling SEA, even in the absence of more complete data. Plan International UK told us:

from what is known about abuse and the behaviour of abusers, it is important to base our organisational approaches on an assumption that it happens, whether or not there is specific evidence of it within our organisations.53

Steve Reeves supported this:

The message to organisations should be that we should behave as though this abuse is happening, even if we see no evidence of it, because we know that it almost certainly is.54

Changing Aid, a group of aid workers, former aid workers and safeguarding experts, said that such an approach, where the sector accepts “that SEA has been happening and will happen again” would be a “foundational attitudinal shift”.55

33.We are conscious that the recent heightened awareness of sexual exploitation and abuse in the aid sector, has not taken place in a vacuum. As Helen Evans points out, the MeToo movement has brought to light the fact that sexual harassment and abuse affects any section of society in which there is an imbalance of power.56 The Women and Equalities Committee has recently conducted a cross-sectoral inquiry into this issue.57

34.We also recognise, as DFID referenced in its written submission, that sexual exploitation and abuse of the intended beneficiaries of aid occurs within a wider context of gender-based violence.58 Save the Children’s 2008 report emphasised that sexual exploitation and abuse of children by aid workers “often goes hand in hand with abuse committed by individuals within the community, such as businessmen, teachers and the police, as well as abuse committed within children’s own families”.59 Corinna Csáky, who authored the report in 2008, explained through testimony why it was important to understand SEA within a wider context of sexual violence.

The humanitarian staff committing the abuse are often from the local community. Therefore, you cannot consider abuse by humanitarian workers and abuse by other people separately. You need to think of them both together and deal with them both together. (Mother, South Sudan)60

35.Dr Orly Stern, a senior fellow at the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative, described in a recent article for IRIN the challenges for a PSEA practitioner who is only able to respond to cases of sexual abuse perpetrated by members of the aid sector, in a community where there is sexual abuse being perpetrated more widely.61

36.The impact of the sexual abuse and exploitation of intended beneficiaries of aid—relief aid in particular—obviously and clearly falls directly upon the victims and survivors of that abuse. In the vast majority of cases, such people will be desperate, already traumatised by disaster, conflict, loss and separation from family and community, and suffering from deprivation of the basic physical necessities. In many forced displacement scenarios, it seems criminal exploiters swiftly target new refugee encampments.62 The arrival of international aid—goods and services and people to help—should be, literally, a “relief”. Clearly this has not always been the case:

Collective ineffectiveness in combating sexual exploitation and abuse by aid workers inevitably damages and constrains the aid sector as a whole. We are sure the vast majority of aid sector workers are innocent of such conduct. However, everyone is tainted by such scandals and the inability, as yet, to have confidence in the systems to deal with, let alone prevent, such behaviours.

37.In recent months, the MeToo movement has helped bring to light the extent to which sexual abuse pervades workplaces and society at large. The international aid sector is not exempt, and we should not expect it to be. But the distressingly familiar pattern of senior male executives sexually harassing junior female employees - while present in aid organisations - is not the whole story in that sector. Sexual exploitation and abuse is ultimately an abuse of power and the aid sector is one of extreme power imbalance: those receiving aid in humanitarian crisis situations are some of the most vulnerable and disempowered people in the world. The sector as a whole needs to confront the fact that, although the exact scale remains unknown, sexual exploitation and abuse is happening and it is happening across organisations, countries and institutions. It 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.

21 The United Nations refers to those who have experienced sexual exploitation and abuse as ‘victims’. Some of the evidence we have received has also used the term ‘survivors’. We are conscious that these two terms have different connotations and those who have experienced sexual exploitation and abuse may consider themselves to be one or both. To reflect this, we have used both terms in the report.

24 UNA-UK (SEA0047)

25 We are conscious of wider debate within the aid sector about the term “beneficiary” and its possible connotations of passivity. For the purposes of this report, we will use the term “beneficiary”, reflecting its continued common usage within in the aid sector, but we are cognisant that other terms may be more widely used in future.

29 Oxfam, ‘Oxfam’s Joint Code of Conduct’, (October 2017)

32 Ms Asmita Naik (SEA0042)

33 Ibid

36 Ms Asmita Naik (SEA0042)

38 See for example, Q65, Q99, Q153, Changing Aid (SEA0025), Rape Crisis England and Wales and Equality Now (SEA0058)

39 British Red Cross (SEA0020)

43 Ms Asmita Naik (SEA0042)

48 See for example, ActionAid UK (SEA0023)

50 Helen Evans (SEA0021)

51 Rape Crisis England and Wales and Equality Now (SEA0058)

52 Anonymous (unpublished)

53 Plan International UK (SEA0024)

55 Changing Aid (SEA0025)

56 Helen Evans (SEA0021)

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

58 Department for International Development (SEA0012)

Published: 31 July 2018