122.We heard, again and again, that progress cannot be made with regards to tackling SEA without root and branch transformation of organisational culture.216 Christian Aid summarised the point:
ultimately the heart of the solution must be creating and nurturing a culture in which harassment, abuse and exploitation are never acceptable, where reporting such acts is encouraged and facilitated, and where policies are fully and effectively implemented and monitored for effectiveness.217
123.Large aid organisations working across multiple different countries and contexts have found that instilling a comprehensive zero tolerance culture throughout the organisation can be challenging.218 DFID told us that this is due to:
different legal and/or cultural understandings of what constitutes sexual exploitation and abuse, the ‘age of consent’ and the definition of a child, as well as significant power differentials between men and women, or between the rich and the poor.219
Drawing on research on corruption prevention, ODI emphasised that organisations cannot rely only on the existence of policies and codes of conduct, but must ensure that these are embedded: “they must be explained clearly and understood by staff, and penalties for any violation of the policies must be enforced”.220
124.A further challenge is presented by the use of supplier chains, with local organisations often being contracted to deliver the front-line services provided by INGOs. According to the British Red Cross, this is “where much of the risk lies”.221 Changing Aid said that this is a problem at the UN, where contractors are paid by UN agencies but not covered by their SEA policies.222 UNFPA told us that the terms and conditions of their Implementing Partner Agreement now contains a section on PSEA, including a commitment by the partner to “assessment, monitoring and assurance activities”.223 IRC said that measures of this kind, “would go a long way towards raising awareness within the aid sector that we are serious about the problem of SEA”.224
125.However, spreading a culture of zero tolerance on SEA to country offices and partner organisations is only part of the issue. We have received evidence that points to a long-standing sector-wide culture in which SEA is an ‘open secret’ and those who speak out are silenced and ostracised.225 Women working in the aid sector have reported facing “hostile work environments” after reporting cases of SEA.226 Caroline Hunt-Matthes, an independent investigator who has worked for 8 UN organisations, described a “culture of brutal retaliation” against whistleblowers at the UN and a “culture of denial when the UN or a humanitarian organisation is confronted with SEA allegations”.227 This is not just about lack of clarity over what is acceptable, and points to something much deeper and darker, and altogether more difficult to address.
126.We heard that responsibility for setting an ethical, value-based organisational culture falls to the leaders at the top.228 Trustees have a particular role to play and we were told about the importance of making sure that trustees are properly recruited, inducted and trained.229 The Charity Commission is stepping-up its efforts to ensure that trustees have sufficient access to support and guidance on safeguarding, albeit with limited resource.230 We were also told that managers “at every level of the chain” should then be taking responsibility for enforcing a culture of zero tolerance.231 We heard that country directors are particularly influential in this regard, due to the “strong correlation between the tone set by the country director and what everybody else would think was permissible”.232
127.Cultural change has no quick-fix and requires consistent reinforcement and ongoing engagement. Changing Aid talked about the need for policies to be “consistently, proactively and regularly communicated, rather than only shared reactively in response to media coverage of violations of the policies”.233 We also heard about the importance of assessments of culture to ensure that the policies on paper are reflected in behaviour. Since the Haiti scandal broke in February, Oxfam have established an independent commission to review its culture in relation to safeguarding.234 In March, Save the Children UK also commissioned a broad independent review of organisational culture,235 but including specific reference to: staff confidence; complaints handling; reference taking and vetting; whistleblowing systems; when and how to report to the Trustees, the Charity Commission or make a referral to law enforcement; and best practice in handling workplace conflict. We were told that reviews of organisational culture should be regular occurrences.236
128.We are conscious that ‘culture’ is an amorphous concept and whilst we received evidence on who was responsible for changing culture, and where the failings were, we have not received a large base of evidence on exactly what mechanisms should be adopted in order to change and embed a better organisational culture, what exactly this will look like, and how it can be measured. DFID indicated in their evidence that the current evidence base on this is lacking.237 We note that one of the working groups that was formed after the Safeguarding Summit in March is dedicated to looking at organisational culture and will be tackling some of these issues.
129.We are horrified at reports of “a culture of denial” in UN and humanitarian organisations when confronted with allegations of SEA. Safeguarding policies and procedures will be utterly meaningless without a transformation of organisational culture. The leaders of aid organisations must ensure that what exists on paper is reflected in practice. This should not only be seen as a question of reiterating messages with local offices and implementing partners. Leaders cannot be complacent about the extent to which any part of the organisation is operating according to stated values, including the very top. Trustees and management should ensure they are actively displaying ethical leadership and demonstrating zero tolerance on sexual exploitation and abuse. The Charity Commission and DFID must penalise failures to do so.
130.In support of this, there is room for sector-wide clarity and agreement on how a positive safeguarding culture can be identified, and what the best tools are for ensuring that this is embedded. We welcome the establishment of the working group focused on organisational culture and look forward to seeing how it answers these questions. Reviews of organisational culture, such as those announced by Oxfam and Save the Children, are important for ensuring that policies and codes of conduct translate into behavioural change. Such reviews should be conducted as a matter of course, and not just when failings have been exposed.
131.DFID should use the opportunity of the International Safeguarding Conference in October to secure a commitment from all aid organisations to regular assessments of culture, based on agreed indicators.
132.The Times’ report on the payment of local young women for sexual purposes by Oxfam staff in Haiti, which brought to public attention the ongoing problem SEA, also shone a light on the sector’s failure to address this with transparency. Since the story hit the press Oxfam have acknowledged that they had not been transparent enough about the nature of the misconduct in Haiti in 2011. Caroline Thompson, the Chair of Trustees for Oxfam GB, told us:
In 2011, it should have been made clear that the allegations were about prostitution. That should have been clear in the report to the Charity Commission, the report to DFID and in the press release. It should essentially just have been more explicit.238
DFID confirmed that, in 2011, Oxfam did report to them the fact that the investigations were taking place and their outcome, but Oxfam did not make the severity clear or reveal that the allegations related to sexual misconduct.239 The Rt Hon Andrew Mitchell MP, who was Secretary of State for DFID at the time, told us that he felt Oxfam had abided “by the letter but not by the spirit” of their obligations.240
133.Dame Barbara Stocking, who was CEO of Oxfam at the time of the investigations, said in a letter to the Committee:
My understanding is that we also took the legal advice into account when formulating our communications to donors and relevant external bodies as there was a real concern that any details such as the names of the individuals or the reasons for any of the dismissals might get into the public domain which would again run the risk of exposing Oxfam to criticism or legal challenge.241
I do not accept, as suggested by Rt Hon Andrew Mitchell MP, that we were only acting to the letter and not in the spirit of our obligations. The fact that Oxfam voluntarily made press statements and wrote to donors about the events at the time they happened, despite having no obligation to do so, highlights the charity’s commitment to addressing the issues head on.242
By contrast, Mark Goldring, Oxfam’s current CEO, said:
It is completely fair to say that Oxfam did not tell the Department for International Development enough.243
Indeed, Dame Barbara Stocking’s assertion that the details of the allegations were not shared with DFID due to concerns about a possible defamation claim should the information be leaked seems a tenuous defence. It is unclear why Oxfam could not have shared information about the allegations with DFID without disclosing the names of the staff involved. We also note that the legal advice on which this decision was based was advice about what Oxfam was able to say in public, not what Oxfam should or should not disclose to donors.
134.The revelations of the Haiti scandal have had a significant impact on public trust in Oxfam. The organisation is reportedly having to make £16.2 million worth of cuts due to loss of funds since The Times reported the story.244 Mark Goldring said, “I can fully see why the public has a challenge to any confidence in what Oxfam said and did at the time. We now have to work very hard to earn back that trust from the public”.245
135.It seems that there is widespread reluctance amongst aid organisations to become more transparent about where there have been failings. Mr Goldring highlighted that while Oxfam has been publishing a list of SEA incidents in its annual report since before 2007, this is not something that is widely practiced.246 Specifically:
Oxfam publishes the number of allegations of sexual exploitation and abuse on our accountability report and accounts, whilst some organisations choose to only publish the number of upheld allegations, or not to make these numbers public at all.247
Christian Aid wrote that within the sector:
current trends which favour reporting only positive outcomes to donors rather than a more holistic approach impedes individual and organisations willingness to report, and contributes to a culture that discourages honest reporting.248
136.The Charity Commission told us about the reaction they have had from some charities when the Commission has tried to intervene on safeguarding matters:
Sometimes we experience charities where the management do not know what the right thing to do is. In other charities there is a range from lack of awareness, to partial or complete denial that anything is wrong, particularly if reported to the police, and they take no further action, or show a clear reluctance or resistance to disclose information that could lead to criticism or further questions, or an automatic “defensiveness” against questions or criticism.249
137.Our evidence indicates that a culture of transparency on sexual exploitation and abuse is vital for both building trust250 and for allowing the sharing of best practice across the sector.251 For many organisations, however, it seems that the value of transparency is outweighed by the concerns about the potential impact on funding if they publish data on incidents of SEA. ICSA told us that “[t]hose charities leading on transparency and accountability are likely to be the ones that attract more criticism, because of their openness”.252 Oxfam GB and CARE International UK called for a common approach to transparency on SEA to be agreed across the sector so that organisations could move forward together.253 We note that at the International Safeguarding Summit in March, participants agreed on the need to make annual reports “more transparent, with specific information published on safeguarding including the number of cases”.254
138.At the same time, our evidence suggests that there is much more that donors can be doing to play their part in reducing the disincentives for organisations to be open about incidents of SEA. The British Red Cross called on DFID to:
publicly recognise that organisations which work to actively address sexual harassment, misconduct, exploitation, and abuse within their organisations, may also have increases in reported incidents; this will support increased public understanding of these complex challenges.255
ICSA told us that the Charity Commission can also play a role in ensuring that increased transparency is not seen as something to be penalised:
The regulator is uniquely placed to ensure that such disclosures are received in an appropriate manner and to promote to the wider sector that ‘speaking up’ is an action that deserves respect and requires reflection and change as a consequence.256
The Charity Commission told us in evidence how they are now seeking to be more proactive:
we identified over 1,500 charities that said they worked with vulnerable beneficiaries but who had not reported a serious incident to us. In our view, if you are working with vulnerable beneficiaries there will be an incident of some kind at some point so not to have reported anything to us is simply not feasible.257
139.It appears that donors could also be doing more to demonstrate that they are alive to the risks of SEA, and that they expect to hear about incidents. Dame Barbara Stocking highlighted in her letter:
At that time in 2011 we were not routinely asked by any donors to report on whether we were experiencing conduct issues of a sexual nature and / or related to sexual exploitation or misconduct as this was not thought to be a significant risk within the sector at the time.258
Whilst this does not provide a justification for the fact that information about the nature of the allegations was not shared from DFID, it does illuminate the extent to which donors were concerned about safeguarding risks. DFID, in particular, showed a lack of interest in following up the notification from Oxfam:
The letters made it very clear to donors that we would provide further information if required, and in fact, we were contacted by some of the other donors following receipt of our letter, but not by DFID.259
140.We agree with the Rt Hon Andrew Mitchell MP that Oxfam abided “by the letter but not by the spirit” of their obligations in their reporting of the incidents in Haiti. It is vital that aid organisations are fully transparent about the number of SEA allegations they receive, and how these allegations are dealt with. This is fundamental for developing a better understanding across the sector about when SEA is happening, and the most effective ways of responding to it. DFID and the Charity Commission have a responsibility to follow-up on serious incident reports when notified in order to ensure that these have been handled properly. At the same time, DFID needs to be clear that transparency about SEA will not be penalised, but improper handling of cases will, and this includes a failure to be fully open about what has occurred. The sector needs to move together on becoming more open about SEA, so that the organisations which are transparent are not singled out for criticism.
141.We welcome the fact that the participants of the Safeguarding Summit in March have agreed that information on safeguarding cases should be published in annual reports.
142.Aid organisations should report the full number of SEA allegations each year, as well as the number of allegations upheld. At the International Safeguarding Conference in October, DFID should secure commitment from all participating aid organisations that this information will be published annually.
143.Whilst individual leaders can play a role in setting and shaping organisational culture, we also heard that culture is influenced by gender power structures. CARE International UK said:
The best policies and procedures will not prevent abuse unless wider cultural issues of power imbalances, gender inequality and patriarchy are addressed.
According to our evidence, one way to tackle this is to ensure that more women are in leadership roles within the sector, both within headquarters and in-country offices.260 The UN Secretary General told us that he viewed gender parity across the UN system as central to improving the UN’s approach to SEA.261 The UN has now achieved gender parity in the Senior Management Team and amongst UN Resident Coordinators262 and the Secretary-General aims to have gender parity across the UN workforce by 2028.263
144.Gender imbalance in the aid sector, as with many sectors, is an ongoing issue. We are conscious that our own Committee is no exception. Whilst a structural gender imbalance persists within the sector, cultural change will be very difficult to achieve.
145.Aid organisations should follow the example of the 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 this, with agreed targets and timeframes.
216 See, for example, Q8; Q162; British Red Cross (SEA0020); ActionAid UK (SEA0023); Christian Aid (SEA0031)
225 Anonymous (unpublished)
235 Save the Children UK, Terms of Reference of Independent Review of Workplace Culture, March 2018
244 “Oxfam to begin £16M cuts with ‘office and support functions’”, Devex, 18 June 2018
254 Department for International Development, ‘Actions to tackle exploitation and abuse agreed with UK charities’, 5 March 2018
261 See Annex 1
262 United Nations, Daily Press Briefing by the Office of the Spokesperson for the Secretary-General, 10 May 2018
263 UN Permanent Missions, Secretary-General launches UN system strategy on gender parity, 14 September 2017
Published: 31 July 2018