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

1From paper to practice

5.At the International Safeguarding Summit hosted by the Department for International Development (DFID) in October 2018, the UK facilitated the presentation of commitments from actors across the aid sector, organised around four ‘strategic shifts.’ The first of these shifts was to “Ensure support for survivors, victims and whistle-blowers; enhance accountability and transparency; strengthen reporting; and tackle impunity”.4 We were pleased to see DFID and the other summit participants place this level of importance on supporting those affected by sexual exploitation and abuse (SEA) and on strengthening reporting mechanisms to ensure accountability and remove impunity. In our original July 2018 report, we advocated strongly for a victim and survivor-centred approach to tackling SEA and argued that removing barriers to reporting through improved complaints mechanisms is “vital to understanding the problem, responding to it, and ultimately, to preventing it”.5 In particular, we emphasised the need for donors to provide sufficient resources for bringing about effective victim-centred complaint mechanisms, having found it “galling to hear that the main obstacle to progress in this area has been a lack of funding”.6

6.The need for effective complaints mechanisms has been reinforced by recent research. For example, the Core Humanitarian Standards (CHS) Alliance aggregates and publishes data on how member agencies participating in its verification system perform against key commitments. This consistently shows that agencies perform worst when it comes to receiving and handling complaints. CHS’s specific commitment in this area is: “communities and people affected by crisis have access to safe and responsive mechanisms to handle complaints”.7 A report commissioned by CHS Alliance in response to this low score found that “organisations often have policies in place related to complaints and feedback, but putting those policies into practice often proves challenging”.8 The scoping study for an “International Ombuds for Humanitarian and Development Aid”, commissioned by the Dutch Government in 2018, provides an overview of existing complaints mechanisms in the sector, ultimately concluding that “much remains to be done in terms of ensuring organisations have functioning complaints mechanisms in place”.9 The study also found that concerns about SEA “are most likely to come forward through face-to-face contact and through the appointment of focal points at ground level”.10 Worryingly, the research team for the Independent Commission on Sexual Misconduct, Accountability and Culture Change found that in one of the three refugee sites they visited, “the ratio was one sexual exploitation and abuse focal point per 10,000 people”.11

7.On 7 May 2019, we took evidence on SEA from representatives of NGOs and private sector suppliers, as well as from the then Secretary of State for International Development, Rt Hon Rory Stewart OBE MP. This follow-up session was aimed at assessing progress against commitments for tackling sexual exploitation and abuse, six months after these were presented at the October 2018 Safeguarding Summit. Following this evidence, we wrote to the Secretary of State expressing concern that the funding allocations for safeguarding outlined by the Department:

do not seem to put significant weight on frontline measures for tackling sexual exploitation and abuse such as supporting the implementation of complaint mechanisms, on ensuring that allegations are followed by robust investigations, or on the provision of support for those who do come forward to report abuse.12

8.DFID and Bond (the UK membership body for development NGOs), have both set out for us the measures they are taking to ensure the provision of effective frontline measures for responding to sexual exploitation and abuse. In DFID’s case, these included: “the development of a statement of victims’ rights” and a Resource and Support Hub which will “strengthen capacity and capability of local organisations, including offering support with investigations”.13 Bond told us that one of the NGO working groups, which they coordinate, has prioritised the development of a reporting and complaints toolkit.14 We note that this toolkit, which was supported by DFID funding, has now been published.15

9.Whilst we recognise the value of developing best practice guidance and ensuring that it is widely available, we learned from our initial SEA inquiry that the existence of good guidance is only valuable to the extent that it is followed in practice. Our 2018 report concluded that “policies, codes of conduct and response measures” had been developed within the sector since 2002, but a lack of proper implementation meant that they had remained ineffective.16 We are yet to be reassured that these new measures described by DFID and Bond will ultimately lead to the establishment and operation of effective complaints mechanisms, investigations, and responses to SEA allegations. For example, DFID told us that the Department is providing up to £10million for the establishment of the ‘Resource and Support Hub’.17 In response to a question on how this ‘Hub’ will ultimately benefit victims and survivors, the then Secretary of State, Rory Stewart MP, implied that it would work by affecting culture change in NGOs and how they respond to reports of SEA.18 Whilst culture change is an important part of solutions to SEA, it is not the same as having access to practical resources for receiving and responding to complaints, such as safeguarding staff, focal points and investigators. We note that DFID’s Resource and Support Hub does have the potential to provide this practical support: Peter Taylor, the Head of DFID’s Safeguarding Unit, told us that the Hub will be designed to ensure that NGOs “have access to quality-assured services”, such as investigative capacity.19 As part of its reply to this report, we ask that DFID set out clearly how exactly the Hub will be “offering support with investigations”, distinguishing between describing and signposting, on the one hand, and actual access to, and provision of, services, on the other.

10.With regards to the Government’s support of £45,000 towards a consultation on a UN Statement of Victims’ Rights,20 we asked DFID via correspondence in June 2019 how a statement alone will empower victims and survivors to report in practice, enable investigations into allegations, or provide the necessary support to victims and survivors going through this process.21 The then Secretary of State’s response did not provide a clear answer.22 We ask DFID to provide, as part of its reply to this report, a description of the planned steps—and associated resources—which will embed, promulgate and enable aid recipients to enjoy the rights contained in such a statement once developed.

11.The Bond toolkit on reporting has the potential to be useful if it is used effectively, but it is unclear to us how the use of the toolkit, and the consequential impact for victims and survivors of SEA, will be ensured. We note that Bond’s CEO, Stephanie Draper, emphasised in a letter to our Chair on 20 May 2019 that the activities so far undertaken by the four NGO safeguarding working groups “are just the first steps towards improved practice”.23

12.We have received some mixed messages from DFID on its willingness to provide additional resource for safeguarding through grants and contracts. Our July 2018 report concluded that “donors cannot expect aid organisations to integrate safeguarding into their programmes without the resource to do so”. We recommended that DFID provide resource for safeguarding through grants and contracts, by “ensuring that safeguarding is a line in every budget for programmes where there are safeguarding risks”.24 The Government partially agreed with our recommendation, arguing that safeguarding costs should come initially from organisations’ core funding, but agreeing to consider providing additional costs for specific safeguarding measures at programme level, on a case by case basis.25 In his July 2019 letter to our Chair, the then Secretary of State, Rory Stewart MP, emphasised that “partners for any planned or existing DFID-funded programme can request additional funding for safeguarding, including related to creating and using reporting mechanisms or following up on reports made”.26 This was later corroborated by some of DFID’s private suppliers, who told us in oral evidence that DFID has allowed budget lines on safeguarding “to be built into budgets in tenders”.27 In oral evidence to the Committee, however, Mr Stewart suggested that DFID would be inclined to provide additional funding for safeguarding if the bid was made by “a very small NGO” with limited safeguarding capacity rather than by “other very large organisations that we would expect to have that anyway”.28 As part of its reply to this report, we would be assisted by DFID setting out how many requests, and for how much additional funding, the Department has received and granted in relation to safeguarding since 2018.

13.At the International Safeguarding Summit in October 2018, we were pleased to see the emphasis that DFID placed on supporting the victims and survivors of sexual exploitation and abuse (SEA) and on strengthening reporting. The measures that DFID and Bond have presented to us which are aimed at providing better complaints mechanisms and improving responses to victims and survivors have the potential to be the first steps towards making this a reality. However, these measures place significant weight on developing the theory and substantially less on ensuring changes in practice. The final report of the Independent Commission on Sexual Misconduct, Accountability and Culture Change provided a stark reminder of how little has really changed for those who are exploited and abused by aid workers. DFID and the wider aid sector now need to place greater emphasis on ensuring that the changes to policy at organisational level are felt in practice by those living in humanitarian and development contexts who have experienced, or who are at risk of experiencing, sexual exploitation and abuse. DFID’s provision of resources through budget lines is a positive step, but the Department’s messaging on this needs to be clearer.

14.DFID should commit unequivocally to ensuring that any programme it funds where there are safeguarding risks has sufficient resources for safeguarding built into the programme. This should include, where required, provision for safeguarding staff and focal points operating at the programme level.

15.As well as providing the resource, DFID should hold organisations accountable for how this funding is used. For example, DFID has supported Bond to develop a complaints and reporting toolkit and has committed up to £10 million towards the establishment of a Resource and Support Hub. The Department should now set out how they will monitor the implementation of the best practice guidance that is set out in the toolkit and which will be available through the Hub, to ensure that it has practical impact.


4 Department for International Development, Safeguarding Summit 2018: Host’s Outcome Summary, October 2018. The other three shifts were: (2) incentivise cultural change through strong leadership, organisational accountability and better human resource processes; (3) adopt global standards and ensure they are met or exceeded; and (4) strengthen organisational capacity and capability across the international aid sector to meet these standards

5 International Development Committee, Eighth Report of Session 2017–2019, “Sexual exploitation and abuse in the aid sector”, HC840.

6 Ibid.

7 Core Humanitarian Standards Alliance, “Our Data”, Accessed 2 October 2019.

9 Dorothea Hilhost, Asmita Naik, Andrew Cunningham, “International Ombuds for Humanitarian and Development Aid Scoping Study”, September 2018

10 Ibid.

11 Independent Commission on Sexual Misconduct, Accountability and Culture Change, “Committing to Change, Protecting People: Toward a more accountable Oxfam”, (June 2019)

13 Department for International Development Annex C (SAS0009)

14 Q1; Bond Annex A (SAS0008)

16 International Development Committee, Eighth Report of Session 2017–2019, “Sexual exploitation and abuse in the aid sector”, HC840.

17 Department for International Development Annex A (SAS0004)

20 Department for International Development Annex A (SAS0004)

22 Department for International Development Annex C (SAS0009)

23 Bond (SAS0003)

24 International Development Committee, Eighth Report of Session 2017–2019, “Sexual exploitation and abuse in the aid sector”, HC840.

25 International Development Committee, Tenth Special Report of Session 2017–2019, “Sexual exploitation and abuse in the aid sector: Government response to the Committee’s Eighth Report”, HC1764

26 Department for International Development Annex C (SAS0009)




Published: 17 October 2019