Sexual exploitation and abuse in the aid sector Contents

6Employment practices

Registering aid workers

102.The globalised and often chaotic nature of aid work presents challenges to robust employment screening. Emergencies often lead to very short recruitment time-frames, where, according to CARE International UK, “the push to get lifesaving assistance… into the field quickly often comes at the expense of good protection analysis and steps that would reduce the risks of unintended harm - including SEA - are skipped or deferred”.184 Organisations are also required to work across multiple jurisdictions “where vetting frameworks differ in scale and effectiveness”.185

103.At the start of this inquiry, we put forward one possible solution to this problem, in the form of a draft Bill, in which we proposed that humanitarian and development aid work should become a regulated profession, which would mean that staff are be subject to a DBS background check in order to work in the sector.186 We have received a number of submissions that express support for such a proposal, but submissions have also highlighted the proposal’s limitations, primarily that it would only apply to British staff.187 In a globalised profession, this is not a holistic solution. We certainly took this feedback on board and the draft Bill provides Ministers with powers to amend or repeal any UK arrangements once satisfied that a viable multi-jurisdictional scheme is in place. In the interim, we do believe that the UK should blaze a trail and the draft Bill was designed to point the way.

104.Save the Children have proposed that a globalised system of criminal records background checks, facilitated by INTERPOL would be helpful and, importantly, feasible.188 Alongside this, they argued for a “unified database and indexing system tied to individualised ‘humanitarian passports’. This system would only allow pre-approved individuals to work in humanitarian and development settings”.189 We know that a group of INGOs is currently looking into how both of these proposals could be actioned190 and that DFID is also providing support for these proposals to be further explored in the working groups set up after the Safeguarding Summit.191

105.We are cognisant of the many reasons why both these systems would be difficult to establish. As always, there is also the issue of cost. At the moment, the onus is on organisations themselves to fund safeguarding checks, but this could put smaller organisations at a disadvantage. Plan International UK warned that it would be important for background checks to be “financially, and practically, accessible to smaller as well as larger organisations”.192

106.In addition to the resource question, we have also heard that as aid workers from different countries may not all be able to provide required documentation, the existence of global checks or a global register could lead to an “uneven kind of global marketplace” where “some aid workers are very highly regulated and checked and others are not”.193 We were also told of the need for any global register to be independent to ensure fairness and equivalent standards across the board.194

107.There are also risks of creating false assurances. Purposeful perpetrators can be opportunists and would not necessarily be filtered out by a passporting system or background checks.195 This arguably only works once we have a more “mature global safeguarding system” where more allegations of SEA are being brought forward, investigated and substantiated.196 Another gap is that the majority of aid workers on the ground are locally engaged staff whom the scheme may not touch. We believe that our first priority is to ‘do no harm’ and to minimise risks of adding to the misery and vulnerability of the beneficiary population by importing potential abusers in humanitarian guise.

108.Kevin Watkins, CEO of Save the Children, has disagreed with some of these objections. In response to the point that the sector currently lacks the global framework for a global register, he said: “My short answer to that problem is to create one”.197

109.A global register of aid workers would act as one barrier to sexual predators seeking to enter the international aid profession. Logistical, practical and financial difficulties, whilst they present challenges, should not deter efforts to make this a reality. We are encouraged by the DFID Permanent Secretary’s pronouncement that “nothing is in the ‘too difficult’ box” and we are confident that solutions can be found. We accept that such a register is not a perfect solution, and, undoubtedly, people will slip through the cracks and it may not cover locally-engaged aid workers. We see this as a reason to implement this solution in conjunction with other measures, such as investment into effective, victim-centred reporting mechanisms.

110.The international aid sector, led by DFID, should create an international register of aid workers, collectively resourced and independently managed. DFID should secure commitment to this at the International Safeguarding Conference in October, with an agreed action plan for taking it forward. This plan should include consideration for how the register will be funded and managed, the level of checks required, and which types of aid workers it will be applied to.

Communicating misconduct

111.The media coverage around the Oxfam Haiti scandal last February revealed that Roland van Hauwermeiren, Oxfam GB’s Country Director in Haiti, was able to move to another senior position within the sector after having admitted to Oxfam’s investigation team in 2011 to i) the use of prostitutes in Oxfam GB premises and ii) negligence and failure to safeguard employees - in particular, female employees.198 Action Against Hunger, who then employed Mr van Hauwermeiren from 2012 to 2014, said that they “received no information regarding any inappropriate or unethical behaviour by Roland van Hauwermeiren while he was with Oxfam in Haiti, or any warning on the risks of employing him”.199 The fact that a senior staff member who had admitted to sexual misconduct, had been the subject of other allegations and had failed to uphold safeguarding responsibilities was able to remain in the sector undetected underscores the urgent need for rapid improvements in the way that the international aid sector communicates misconduct.

112.Organisations are now grappling with how to share information about staff who pose a potential risk to beneficiaries. Legal issues around data protection create a challenge for organisations that do want to warn other employers about potentially dangerous individuals who have been accused of SEA.200 This challenge is exacerbated by the known practice of individuals who are under investigation resigning and moving to another organisation before the investigation is complete.201 NGOs have called for guidance and clarity on what can and cannot be shared within the legal framework.202

113.At the UN, we heard about the introduction of a new SEA screening database to prevent staff who are dismissed on account of SEA allegations from being hired by another UN agency. We were told that the database is currently in development, but will soon be opened up to NGOs. Those who have been disciplined will be flagged in the database.203 DFID have cautioned that the problem of under-reporting and the difficulties involved in substantiating claims mean that such a database will “record only a fraction of cases”.204

114.One proposed method for navigating restrictions on data sharing, put forward by the British Red Cross, is to use a privacy waiver, “whereby candidates agree that their previous employers disclose certain information to the prospective employer”.205 At a recent Inter-Agency Standing Committee Principals meeting in May, attendees committed to taking forward such proposals within their organisations.206

115.We have received evidence, however, indicating that in addition to exploring new mechanisms for enabling data sharing, there is also a need to strengthen basic HR good practice within the aid sector. We heard anecdotal evidence in our meetings in New York, that even within legal boundaries, organisations are not always disclosing information that is relevant and important for other organisations to be aware of. Prospective employers, in turn, do not always seek references from the referees provided by a candidate or follow-up on references that may imply a cause for concern.207 We note that whilst Oxfam did not disclose any details about Mr van Hauwermeiren’s misconduct to Action Against Hunger, they did say that, “We cannot complete the form that you asked us to complete… For legal reasons, we cannot say more”.208 Oxfam have acknowledged that they should have been more proactive in flagging up a cause for concern.209 This case suggests that prospective employers could also be more proactive in following up incomplete references.

116.Clearly, the known practice of individuals resigning mid-investigation, presents a challenge to employers. Caroline Nursey, Chair of the Board of Bond, explained:

If a staff member is accused of inappropriate behaviour, whether it is towards a colleague or a beneficiary, processes need to be done to find out whether it is true. If the staff member leaves during that period, they are not bonded labourers, we cannot stop them physically leaving and we do not necessarily have the evidence to say this person should not be working elsewhere, because the process has not been completed. On the surface, it looks totally unacceptable that people are playing the system like that, but, if you are going to work within the law even in this country, you have to allow processes to be completed properly. How we square that is a real challenge.210

117.But we have also been told that this is not insurmountable. Sarah Maguire, Director of Technical Services, Governance, Development Alternatives Incorporated (DAI), said:

In the situation where somebody left during the course of a live investigation, I have just checked with my head of human resources, and there is no reason why we could not take up exactly your suggestion, Mr Russell-Moyle, to say, if asked, “This person left while there was an investigation alive”.211

CARE International UK told us that in accordance with their new referencing guidelines, “References will refer to any pending investigation of allegations”.212

118.References that are provided by individuals and not by an organisation’s HR department can also allow substantiated misconduct, even gross misconduct, to be concealed. This was the case with one of the individuals who was subject to investigation by Oxfam in Haiti in 2011.

One gave as his referee one of the other staff in the Haiti office who was his senior, who then got sent a form by another agency to fill in and filled it in as from Oxfam. It had no official Oxfam stamp, but it was as from Oxfam.213

Oxfam have said that “from now on, references will only be issued by an accredited referee”.214

119.We note that all organisations at the Safeguarding Summit in March agreed “the importance of an urgent review of referencing in the sector”.215

120.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. We welcome efforts to overcome barriers to data sharing and create joint systems that allow for rapid communication between organisations about individuals who present a safeguarding risk. However, the primary concern should be an improvement of existing referencing procedures, so that all organisations are, at the very least, displaying basic HR good practice.

121.The International Safeguarding Conference in October provides an excellent opportunity to secure commitment on a series of best practice standards with regards to referencing. These should be based on a clear statement of what information can and cannot be shared between organisations, according to data protection law, and should include the following principles: organisations should always, without exception, seek references for prospective employees and follow-up on any incomplete references; organisations should ensure that all references given to other employers have been signed off by HR or an accredited referee; and if an individual resigns mid-way through an investigation, references should highlight that this was the case.

184 CARE International UK (SEA0017)

185 International Rescue Committee UK (SEA0030)

187 See for example, Save the Children (SEA0009); Plan International UK (SEA0024); Oxfam GB (SEA0028)

188 Save the Children (SEA0009), Qq105, 107

189 Save the Children (SEA0009)

190 Oxfam GB (SEA0028)

191 Department for International Development (SEA0012)

192 Plan International UK (SEA0024)

193 Q162 [Asmita Naik]

194 Ibid

196 Q164 [Helen Evans]

198 Oxfam, ‘Haiti Investigation Report’, accessed 25 July 2018

199 Action Against Hunger, ‘Statement following the Oxfam investigation in The Times’, 9 February 2018

200 International Rescue Committee UK (SEA0030)

201 Ms Caroline Hunt-Matthes (SEA0034)

202 CARE International UK (SEA0017); Christian Aid (SEA0031)

203 See Annex 1

204 Department for International Development (SEA0012)

205 British Red Cross (SEA0020)

206 Inter-Agency Standing Committee, Principals Meeting Summary Record and Action Points, 31 May 2018

207 See Annex 1

212 CARE International UK (SEA0017)

213 Q67 [Mark Goldring]

214 Oxfam GB (SEA0028)

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

Published: 31 July 2018