Follow-up: sexual exploitation and abuse in the aid sector Contents


The final report of Oxfam’s Independent Commission on Sexual Misconduct, Accountability and Culture Change, published in June 2019, provided a stark reminder of how little has really changed for those who suffer sexual exploitation and abuse (SEA) by aid workers. Whilst we recognise that there have been efforts across the aid sector to improve safeguarding since early 2018, we are disappointed in the progress made to date in several key areas.

The measures developed by DFID and Bond aimed at providing better reporting and complaints mechanisms for victims and survivors seem to place significant weight on developing the theory and substantially less on ensuring changes in practice. We now want to see greater emphasis on ensuring that changes to policy at the organisational level are felt by those living in humanitarian and development contexts. Resourcing for safeguarding must be built into every programme that DFID funds where there are safeguarding risks, and this should include, where required, provision for safeguarding staff and focal points operating at the programme level. DFID should hold organisations accountable for how resources are being used, including by actively monitoring the implementation of best practice guidance.

We have not yet seen sufficient attention being given to improving the effectiveness of whistle-blowing policies and we are concerned that the importance of protecting whistle-blowers has so far been downplayed. The systematic audit of whistle-blowing practices that was agreed upon at the March 2018 Safeguarding Summit has seemingly been shelved. Either DFID should publish the findings and recommendations on whistle-blowing from its enhanced due diligence and central assurance assessments, or it should work with Bond to conduct and publish the systematic audit of whistle-blowing practices across the sector, previously agreed in March 2018.

The gap between safeguarding policy and practice extends to the United Nations. The UK Government is well placed to press UN agencies towards implementation of best practice, and this should involve ensuring that inter-agency, community-based complaint mechanisms are widely and effectively established.

Whilst we were initially disappointed at the slow pace of collective action on safeguarding by DFID’s private suppliers, this seems more due to a lack of coordination than an absence of will. Going forward, DFID should help to break down silos and promote coordination by ensuring that both its private supplier and NGO partners are participating in cross-sectoral safeguarding forums, particularly inter-agency networks on preventing sexual exploitation and abuse and inter-agency complaints mechanisms.

Voluntary self-regulation of safeguarding standards allows failures on sexual exploitation and abuse to slip through the cracks: in our view the case for an independent ombudsman remains strong. We welcome the development of the ombudsman proposal by the Dutch Government and we urge the UK Government, together with Dutch Government counterparts, to display international leadership in making the ombudsman a reality.

At the height of the safeguarding scandal in 2018, aid organisations appeared to recognise that transparency on sexual exploitation and abuse is essential for breaking down the culture of silence and stigma that has so long inhibited victims from coming forward. However, some organisations still seem reluctant to publish information about the number of allegations they have received and the outcome. As a membership organisation of UK NGOs, Bond is well placed to promote transparency by setting an expectation that Bond members will publish annually information about the numbers of SEA allegations received and the outcome. DFID should similarly set this expectation for private sector suppliers, non-UK NGOs and multilateral agencies, who should be equally pressed to improve transparency on sexual exploitation and abuse.

Published: 17 October 2019