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

5Moving beyond self-regulation

33.Our July 2018 report concluded that, in the international aid sector, as in so many others—including parliament—self-regulation has failed.63 The weaknesses of self-regulation mechanisms within the aid sector are perhaps illustrated by the fact that in 2018, Oxfam was audited and certified by the aid sector’s self-regulation process, run by the Humanitarian Quality Assurance Initiative (HQAI).64 Then in June 2019, the final report of the Independent Commission on Sexual Misconduct, Accountability and Culture Change (IC) revealed that Oxfam operations had suffered from “a lack of robust, confederation-wide safeguarding and related policies and procedures” including “ineffective reporting mechanisms, safeguarding process failures, and accountability gaps”.65 Oxfam International later confirmed that research conducted for the Independent Commission had “raised potential safeguarding issues of direct concern to Oxfam.66 We draw attention to this, not to highlight these weaknesses in Oxfam specifically, but to underline the fact that the aid sector’s existing self-regulation mechanisms seems to be fallible and insufficient for ensuring that safeguarding standards are being upheld.

34.Self-regulation is also undertaken voluntarily, and so the reach of the current audit mechanisms is limited to those who submit themselves to review. In an evidence session on 2 July with representatives from private sector suppliers, Jo Elms, Managing Director of Options Consulting Services told the Committee that he thought an external assessment of safeguarding systems was a good idea, having completed a Keeping Children Safe audit report.67 However, the other suppliers represented in the evidence session did not seem to have undergone similar external assessment of their systems, suggesting that the reach of such regulatory mechanisms is patchy at best.

35.Our report in July 2018 recommended the establishment of an international aid ombudsman to act as an effective independent mechanism for responding to breaches of safeguarding standards. When organisations fail to hold abusers to account, an independent aid ombudsman could provide the victims and survivors with their only recourse to justice.68 It was deeply disappointing, therefore, to hear from the former Secretary of State that “there does not seem to be support [for an international aid ombudsman] among donors or other institutions who would need to endorse it”.69 The former Secretary of State expressed his own concerns to us during oral evidence on 7 May, sharing his worry that it would “become an onerous and perhaps potentially slightly toothless type of ombudsman”.70 Whilst we appreciate that donors and international actors will be reluctant to establish an unwieldy, bureaucratic mechanism, we also note that the model that was proposed by the ombudsman scoping study, commissioned by the Dutch Government in 2018, was a lightweight model of ombudsman, which would derive its authority from donor funding. Under this model, DFID’s funding to organisations and agencies could be withdrawn or restricted if the ombudsman finds that they repeatedly fail to meet safeguarding standards, and this is action that DFID could take unilaterally.71

36.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. Without one, there is a risk that victims and survivors and their advocates will have no avenue through which they can appeal if the established reporting channels fail them and we see this as a huge, ongoing accountability gap. The ability to appeal to an independent body is a fundamental part of any fair system of justice and, to date, there appears little recognition of this within the sector. 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.

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

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

66 Oxfam International, “Update to Oxfam statement on the Independent Commission report”, 28 June 2019

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

69 Department for International Development Annex C (SAS0009)

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

Published: 17 October 2019