Progress on tackling the sexual exploitation and abuse of aid beneficiaries Contents


Previous IDC work

1.This is the third report that the International Development Committee (IDC) has published on sexual exploitation and abuse in the aid sector since 2018. It is the first report by the current committee on this topic and we owe our thanks to our predecessor IDC for the important work it undertook and the impact this had to galvanise efforts to combat sexual exploitation and abuse across the sector.

2.Our predecessor committee adopted this issue in February 2018 when Sean O’Neill, writing in The Times newspaper, revealed that Oxfam GB staff, including the Country Director, had been paying local young women for sex in Haiti whilst working on the humanitarian response to the 2010 earthquake.2 The charity had mishandled its response to the sexual exploitation and abuse and sought to keep the case quiet. When the Committee inquired into the subject it discovered that a cycle had formed whereby scandals break in the press revealing sexual exploitation and abuse in a particular context, for example involving aid workers and peacekeepers in West Africa in 2002 or during the UN peacekeeping mission in the Central African Republic in 2014, which stimulates a flurry of action but little sustained progress to combat the issue is undertaken. We have undertaken a further inquiry because we want to help the aid sector to break out of this cycle and enact deep-rooted, sector-wide change to prevent sexual exploitation and abuse from continuing with impunity.

3.Our predecessor committee published its first report on this topic: Sexual exploitation and abuse in the aid sector, in July 2018. In October 2019 the Committee published its follow-up report to help track progress. We want to use this report to ensure that the new Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office prioritises this issue as it takes over stewardship of the UK aid budget.

Previous DFID work

4.Following the Haiti scandal in early 2018, the UK Department for International Development (DFID) showed leadership on tackling sexual exploitation and abuse by hosting two safeguarding summits to help the international community to work together to tackle the scourge of sexual exploitation and abuse. During the International Safeguarding Summit in October 2018 donors representing 90% of global aid signed up to a set of donor commitments for tackling sexual exploitation and abuse and other aid actors signed up to commitments relevant to them. Since then, DFID has introduced measures to increase safeguarding standards at entities in receipt of UK official development assistance (ODA), including enhanced due diligence assessments for its implementing partners.

Progress update

5.The Haiti scandal in 2018 appears to have marked a significant moment for the aid sector and put the spotlight back onto this issue. Since then numerous aid organisations have taken steps to strengthen their safeguarding work, but it is difficult to assess what tangible impact this has had for victims and survivors of sexual exploitation and abuse. It is also difficult to estimate how widespread the problem is because there is a lack of robust data on its prevalence, but 73% of individuals who responded to our survey think that the sexual exploitation and abuse of aid beneficiaries is still a problem3 and recent research published by the Global Women’s Institute that looked into the situation in refugee camps in Lebanon and Uganda showed widespread misconduct persisting.4 In addition, The New Humanitarian and Thomson Reuters Foundation reported in September 2020 that “sex for jobs” practices were taking place with impunity during the 2018–20 Ebola response in the Democratic Republic of The Congo involving personnel from the World Health Organization and other UK funded organisations.5

Our inquiry

6.The focus of this inquiry is the sexual exploitation and abuse that aid beneficiaries suffer at the hands of aid workers. We acknowledge that the sexual harassment and abuse of aid workers is a serious, related topic which must be urgently addressed, but it falls outside of the terms of reference for this inquiry. We are keen to put the victims and survivors of sexual exploitation and abuse at the heart of this report and promote approaches that empower local communities to be involved in aid programmes. Unfortunately, due to the covid-19 pandemic we were unable to undertake any visits to see for ourselves how programmes are delivered in the field.

7.We acknowledge that the overwhelming majority of aid workers undertake remarkable work in challenging circumstances. Most individuals enter the sector due to a desire to help others and we are very proud of the legacy of what UK Aid has achieved. However, sexual exploitation and abuse continues to be a scourge on the sector. This problem should not be seen as a reason to cut aid programmes; however, we will continue to challenge aid delivery organisations to improve their policies and practices to ensure they are doing everything they can to prevent sexual exploitation and abuse from occurring. In some instances, this will require a root and branch transformation of the culture at the organisation.

8.We would like to thank everyone who has contributed to this inquiry, including those who have provided oral and written evidence. We are particularly grateful to those who shared their own personal experience with us. Their testimonies have helped us to better understand the nature of sexual exploitation and abuse in the aid sector. We thank everyone who took our survey, this helped us to prioritise our work and the key results are annexed to this report. Lastly, we would like to thank our special advisers, Dr Miranda Brown, Professor Rosa Freedman and Asmita Naik, who have brought invaluable expertise to this inquiry.

9.*Most of our written evidence was received before the Department for International Development merged with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, therefore this report continues to refer to the Department for International Development where it is appropriate to our evidence.

This report

10.Chapters 2, 3, 4, 5 and 7 of this report refer to non-governmental organisations, private sector contractors and FCDO partner organisations. The United Nations is covered separately in Chapter 6, including a section on the Review of Sexual exploitation and abuse by international peacekeepers undertaken by the Independent Commission for Aid Impact. Many of the conclusions and recommendations in this report are aimed at the aid delivery organisations themselves, but, as a donor the FCDO and other official development assistance (ODA) spending departments should hold all their partners to these standards.

Definitions of sexual exploitation and abuse

11.Sexual exploitation, abuse and harassment covers a wide range of behaviours. We have adopted the definitions used by the UN and the FCDO:

Sexual Exploitation: Any actual or attempted abuse of a position of vulnerability, differential power, or trust for sexual purposes. Includes profiting momentarily, socially, or politically from sexual exploitation of another. Under UN regulations it includes transactional sex, solicitation of transactional sex and exploitative relationship.

Sexual Abuse: The actual or threatened physical intrusion of a sexual nature, whether by force or under unequal or coercive conditions. It should cover sexual assault (attempted rape, kissing / touching, forcing someone to perform oral sex / touching) as well as rape. Under UN regulations, all sexual activity with someone under the age of 18 is considered to be sexual abuse.

Sexual Harassment: A continuum of unacceptable and unwelcome behaviours and practices of a sexual nature that may include, but are not limited to, sexual suggestions or demands, requests for sexual favours and sexual, verbal or physical conduct or gestures, that are or might reasonably be perceived as offensive or humiliating.6

2 The Times, “Minister orders Oxfam to hand over files on Haiti prostitute scandal”, accessed 14 December 2020

3 See Annex to this report, page 54

4 The Global Women’s Institute, “Empowered Aid”, Accessed 14 December 2020

5 The New Humanitarian, “EXCLUSIVE: More than 50 women accuse aid workers of sex abuse in Congo Ebola crisis”, accessed 14 December 2020

Published: 14 January 2021 Site information    Accessibility statement