Sexual exploitation and abuse in the aid sector Contents

Conclusions and recommendations

The nature and scale of the problem

1.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. (Paragraph 37)

The historical response to SEA

2.The international aid sector’s response to tackling SEA since 2002 has been reactive, patchy and sluggish. The UN has failed to display sustained leadership. DFID’s historical response to reports of SEA has been disappointing. NGOs have created new policies and procedures but have not successfully implemented them, and where worthwhile initiatives have been developed, these have been continually underfunded. Whilst there are clearly actors within the aid community who are dedicated to tackling SEA, the overall impression is one of complacency, verging on complicity. (Paragraph 58)

3.The sector’s considerable movement on PSEA in the past few months is certainly welcome, but it is also long overdue. The Oxfam story did not reveal to aid organisations that SEA was a problem, but it did highlight the impact of a media exposé. The sector has been aware of the problem of SEA for years, but as our evidence, and even the UN Secretary-General, have indicated, action only seems to come when there is a crisis. A reactive, cyclical approach, driven by concern for reputational management, will not bring about transformational change. (Paragraph 59)

4.The work that DFID has done since February 2018 is encouraging, but we are yet to be reassured that the momentum will be sustained, and that progress will not begin to stagnate as it has done following previous reports and scandals. We commend the leadership that DFID has been showing on this issue, but the real test now is what happens next. (Paragraph 60)

5.Following the International Safeguarding Conference in October 2018, DFID must display a high-level of sustained leadership and engagement on sexual exploitation and abuse. This means both driving forward change on the international stage, and ensuring that in-country offices are similarly displaying leadership at the national level. The Government should recognise the pivotal role that the DFID’s Safeguarding Unit can play in ensuring coherence across ODA-spending departments, and should instruct the Unit to take responsibility for coordination. To display long-term commitment, and ensure sustained progress, DFID should report annually on its safeguarding activities. This report should have a particular focus on the Safeguarding Unit, tracking achievements against clear objectives. (Paragraph 61)

6.The Committee will play its part in ensuring that momentum on SEA is maintained. We will start with an examination of the Government’s response to this report, and following that, we will scrutinise the annual reports on safeguarding that we hope the Department will agree to publish. We will also consider safeguarding risks as part of future inquiries, so that we can monitor how well DFID is ensuring that safeguarding is integrated across its programmes. (Paragraph 62)

A victim-centred approach?

7.A failure to listen to and consider the needs of victims and survivors of SEA, will engender a response that is not only ineffective, but potentially harmful. Victims and survivors should demonstrably be front and centre of all efforts to tackle SEA and this means the inclusion of victim and survivor voices in policy-making processes on an ongoing basis. The UN Secretary-General’s commitment to a victim-centred approach, and the Secretary of State’s emphasis on including victim and survivor voices in the October Safeguarding Conference are both important steps. In order to be meaningful, however, the victim-centred approach needs to be fully integrated across all aspects of the sector’s SEA response. (Paragraph 70)

Improving reporting

8.Improving reporting of SEA is vital to understanding the problem, responding to it, and ultimately, to preventing it. Aid organisations and donors must consider this an absolute priority. It is galling to hear that the main obstacle to progress in this area has been a lack of funding. This cannot continue. (Paragraph 87)

9.Donors, and in particular DFID, must provide funds to support the implementation of reporting mechanisms as well as a broader programme of initiatives to increase understanding of rights and tackle sexual and gender-based violence more widely. There must also be provision of support services for those who do come forward and report abuse. Alongside this, donors must acknowledge and communicate their understanding of the fact that an increase in the number of reports of SEA will be considered an indicator of improved reporting mechanisms. (Paragraph 88)

10.We welcome the fact that one of the four working groups established after the Safeguarding Summit is focused on reporting. In all efforts to improve reporting of SEA, there needs to be an understanding of the extreme vulnerability of the people who are being asked to report. (Paragraph 89)

11.The working group must ensure that [victims’ extreme vulnerability] is at the heart of any recommendations they make on improving reporting mechanisms. Recommendations should also recognise the value of a proactive approach to gathering reports, involving outreach and the creation of spaces where victims and survivors feel they can talk about abuse. (Paragraph 90)

12.We welcome the fact that there will be a systematic audit of whistleblowing practices across the sector. (Paragraph 91)

13.Accessibility of whistleblowing systems and protections for the people who use them should be key aspects of this. The remit of the audit should go beyond an examination of what exists at the policy level, and should test the extent to which systems and protections are working effectively. (Paragraph 92)

14.The lack of clear, best practice guidelines for how to handle reports of SEA 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. We welcome DFID’s commitment to provide clearer best practice guidelines on referring potential crimes to relevant authorities, based on the findings of the working group focused on improving reporting. (Paragraph 95)

15.DFID’s Safeguarding Unit can play a role in communicating [revised guideines on referring allegations of potential crimes to relevant national authorities] widely. The Safeguarding Unit should also set and communicate best practice standards for robust, victim-centred investigations, led by specialist investigators. (Paragraph 96)

Resources for safeguarding

16.Donors cannot expect aid organisations to integrate safeguarding into their programmes without the resource to do so. (Paragraph 100)

17.DFID should take responsibility for ensuring that safeguarding is a line in every budget for programmes where there are safeguarding risks, and should ensure that grants and contracts awarded to such programmes allow for these costs. (Paragraph 101)

Employment practices

18.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. (Paragraph 109)

19.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. (Paragraph 110)

20.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. (Paragraph 120)

21.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. (Paragraph 121)

Organisational culture

22.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. (Paragraph 129)

23.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. (Paragraph 130)

24.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. (Paragraph 131)

25.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. (Paragraph 140)

26.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. (Paragraph 141)

27.Aid organisations should report the full number of SEA allegations each year, as well as the number of allegations upheld. At the International Safeguarding Summit in October, DFID should secure commitment from all participating aid organisations that this information will be published annually. (Paragraph 142)

28.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. (Paragraph 144)

29.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. (Paragraph 145)

Safeguarding at the multilateral level

30.With only a limited pot of resources for PSEA initiatives, it is imperative that the UN agencies pool their efforts to maximise their impact. We recognise that there are now a number of joint initiatives but the sheer number of task forces and working groups that have sprung up indicates that there is still duplication, or at least a lack of integration, of efforts to tackle SEA. If there is work being done to systematically measure, monitor and evaluate the outcomes of these various measures, and share learning, we have not seen evidence of it. Member States have a key role to play in promoting closer working between the various limbs of the UN system and, importantly, in ensuring that outcomes are being monitored, evaluated and shared. We welcome DFID’s push for more collaborative working and we encourage the UK to leverage the donor working group and the position that Member States hold on UN agency executive boards to ensure that this comes to fruition. (Paragraph 154)

31.The UN’s approach to investigating SEA allegations lacks consistency and coherence. The system is not laid out clearly enough for us to judge where high standards are being met, and where they are deficient. Investigative functions seem to operate in siloes, and there is little evidence of best practice sharing. 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 essentially forgotten. We heard that standardisation on sanctions is important, but the structure of the current system seems to completely undermine this. We appreciate that there may be advantages to decentralisation, but this does not preclude coordination and consistency. (Paragraph 162)

32.We welcome the introduction of a standardised reporting form, and believe that this consistency should be evident in all aspects of UN investigations. (Paragraph 163)

33.The UK should urge the UN Special Coordinator on SEA to create, in consultation with both the OIOS and the individual investigative functions of the UN agencies, funds and programmes, best practice standards for investigations, which all agencies responsible for conducting investigations must follow. These standards should reflect the importance of ensuring that investigations reach a timely conclusion as well as the necessity of having investigators with specialist expertise in sexual exploitation and abuse. The Victims’’ Rights Advocate should work with the Special Coordinator on SEA to ensure that these standards reflect a victim-centred approach to investigations. The UK should hold agencies to account for the adoption of these best practice standards, and should encourage other States in the donor working group to do the same. (Paragraph 164)

34.Impunity for sexual exploitation and abuse is utterly unacceptable. The lack of accountability entirely 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. The UN, and its Member States, cannot underestimate the importance of ensuring that allegations of SEA reach a proper conclusion. We can see that there is no buy-in amongst Member States for an independent accountability mechanism overseeing the UN investigation processes, and we also recognise that such mechanisms risk replicating the existing political dynamics within the UN. Member States, however, still have an important role to play regarding accountability. (Paragraph 174)

35.It is imperative that all [SEA] cases referred to Member states are thoroughly investigated and brought to trial where there is a case, and that the outcome of this judicial process is communicated back to the initial complainant. The UK must lead the way and use its influence within the donor working group to ensure that other Member States do the same. (Paragraph 175)

36.We welcome the UN Secretary-General’s commitment to waive immunity in cases of SEA, and his recognition that this is a significant problem with civilian, as well as military, personnel. (Paragraph 176)

37.The UK should ensure that the theoretical waiver of [UN] immunity also applies in practice, and should press the Secretary-General to deliver on his commitment in all cases where it applies. (Paragraph 177)

Sector regulation and oversight

38.The Charity Commission, as the charity sector regulator, plays a crucial role in monitoring and upholding standards on safeguarding. It should be resourced accordingly. (Paragraph 182)

39.The Government must ensure that the Charity Commission is provided with sufficient resources to enable it to meet the demand created by the increase in safeguarding related incident reports. (Paragraph 183)

40.The shortcomings that we have observed within the aid sector during the course of this inquiry demonstrate to us that self-regulation has failed. Currently, when organisations fail to hold abusers to account, the victims and survivors have no other recourse to justice. An ombudsman is not a regulator. It would not be a ‘global Charity Commission’. It would provide a right of appeal, an avenue through which those who have suffered can seek justice by other means. Whilst other measures that we support, such as the global register for aid workers, are focused on the perpetrator, this is one measure which exists for the victim. We accept that reaching victims and survivors will be a challenge, and that this will cost money, but we adopt the view of DFID’s Permanent Secretary: just because something is difficult, it does not mean it should go in the “too difficult box”. (Paragraph 193)

41.The aid sector must recognise the vital importance of establishing an independent aid ombudsman and take tangible steps towards making this a reality. DFID should play its part by ensuring that there is a sector-wide commitment on this at the International Safeguarding Conference in October and by facilitating the development of an action plan with agreed next steps for taking this forward. (Paragraph 194)

Reporting sexual harassment and abuse

42.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 complainant. Any organisation needs 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 them at risk by allowing perpetrators to remain in post. In the case of aid sector organisations, the failure to be able to create trusted, safe, reliable reporting mechanisms within the workplace has dire implications for the way these organisations might encourage, facilitate and handle cases reported by aid beneficiaries who have been the victims of sexual exploitation and abuse. (Paragraph 216)

Organisational culture

43.We need to see a transformation of the cultures within aid organisations that currently provide an environment in which sexual harassment and abuse of staff can thrive. This is imperative for the safety and wellbeing of aid staff who are subject to both the risks and reality of harassment and abuse in the workplace. It is also essential if we are to see any change in the way that organisations approach and respond to the sexual exploitation and abuse of beneficiaries. (Paragraph 225)

44.The working group looking at organisational culture must take into account the experiences of aid workers who have suffered harassment and abuse in the workplace in order to fully understand the pervasiveness of these cultures. The agreed indicators for a positive organisational culture should include the way that organisations handle the sexual harassment and abuse of staff, and this should be subject to review in the same regular assessments of organisational culture which we have advocated. (Paragraph 226)

45.We concluded in Part I that the leadership of an organisation has a key role to play in setting an ethical culture from the top down. If individuals who are known to have displayed sexually inappropriate behaviour towards staff are able to obtain senior leadership positions in aid organisations, then cultural change will be impossible. (Paragraph 227)

46.As we recommended in Part I, DFID should use the International Safeguarding Conference in October as an opportunity to secure commitment from aid organisations on achieving gender parity, with agreed targets and timeframes. Alongside this, organisations must commit to recruiting and promoting into leadership positions only those who can display a clear commitment to the rights of women and minorities. (Paragraph 228)

Published: 31 July 2018