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

2Reporting mechanisms, investigations and whistleblowing

Reporting sexual exploitation and abuse

12.Perpetrators of sexual exploitation and abuse can only be punished and prevented from working in the aid sector if their behaviours are known about. It is estimated that sexual offences are underreported in most contexts and aid beneficiaries face significant barriers to reporting, including cultural traditions, gender roles, feelings of shame, weak justice systems and not being properly informed of how they can safely report their case. These factors will vary considerably depending on where they are but, in some locations, women might even fear being accused of adultery if they report sexual abuses committed against them.

13.Our predecessor committee found that the imbalances in power discussed in Chapter three of this report have a significant detrimental effect on the ability of victims and survivors to report their cases.7 Furthermore, it is intimidating for victims and survivors to report the abuses directly to the perpetrator’s employer organisation. Throughout this inquiry we heard about organisations that had introduced reporting mechanisms which were not used by the local population to report abuses, often because they had not been designed in concert with the aid beneficiaries who they were intended for. Independent consultant and PSEA adviser, Esther Dross explained that these organisations need to do more to build the trust of beneficiaries:

I work a lot with small and local organisations, all of which have some kind of reporting mechanism. That is nice, and you think it is a success, but they get no complaints, so there is the big question of how we build trust. They are obviously not adapted. When I ask people, “How did you create this? Did you ask the beneficiaries?” I find that they did not. They have a phone number and an email, and they are happy, but this is not how it works.

In order to encourage people, you need to go out and ask them how they would feel confident. They do not always have very complicated answers, and they often have very simple answers. Then you just need to do it, even if it does not look fancy in a big report. They can be very simple things, but we should be more attentive to the people we work for and who are at the centre of what we do. We need to ask them, for the sake of their own dignity, to decide themselves what the best way is.8

14.In its written evidence the Department for International Development (DFID) said its enhanced safeguarding due diligence introduced in 2018 includes a requirement for implementing partners to have a clear process for handling complaints9 however, our evidence suggests that having mechanisms in place isn’t sufficient to help aid beneficiaries to report abuses when they occur.

15.We undertook a survey of individuals with experience of the aid sector to try to understand whether they thought there had been significant progress on tackling sexual exploitation and abuse within their organisation and in the sector as a whole. The results of the survey and the evidence we received suggested that people working in the aid sector do believe there has been some improvement in reporting mechanisms and the number of cases of sexual exploitation and abuse that are reported seems to reflect this. DFID told us that the number of safeguarding cases reported to it increased from 73 in 2017–18 to 260 in 2018–19 and reached 452 in 2019–20, of which around 60% are related to sexual exploitation, abuse and harassment (a similar percentage to 2018/19).10 However, the consensus is that most of this progress has come from aid workers reporting rather than aid beneficiaries themselves.11

Sexual exploitation during the 2018–20 Ebola response in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC)

16.As early as February 2019, The Guardian reported that concerns about sexual exploitation and abuse taking place in the 2018–20 Ebola response in the Democratic Republic of the Congo were raised at a national taskforce meeting attended by international aid agency and Congolese Health Ministry staff.12 In September 2020 The New Humanitarian and Thomson Reuters Foundation reported that 51 women had accused men working on the Ebola response in the city of Beni of sexual exploitation and abuse. Most of the men identified worked for the UN World Health Organization (W.H.O), with further perpetrators linked to several non-governmental organisations, including World Vision and Oxfam.13 Many of the women said the men “had either propositioned them, forced them to have sex in exchange for a job, or terminated their contracts when they refused.”14 The New Humanitarian reported that it is likely the practice is widespread and that cases occurred as recently as March 2020.15

17.Some of the journalists who worked on the investigation in the DRC gave evidence to this inquiry on 13 October 2020. We were particularly shocked to hear that the practice of “sex for jobs” appeared to be an “open secret” among the aid community operating in Beni16 but workers were not speaking up about it. We were astounded by the level of impunity afforded to the perpetrators that investigative journalist Robert Flummerfelt described:

we conducted interviews with W.H.O drivers, who described being sent in marked W.H.O vehicles to pick up women and ferry them to hotels, where they were abused and exploited. Additionally, there was a case where a woman described being told by a foreigner working with W.H.O, through a translator, that she would have to sleep with him in order to get a job.17

18.We were particularly disappointed to hear that the victims and survivors told the journalists that they did not know how to report the exploitation and abuse they experienced. Improving reporting mechanisms was one of the key commitments that the international community signed up to at the October 2018 Safeguarding Summit, however Nellie Peyton, West Africa Correspondent at the Thomson Reuters Foundation told us that in Beni:

All of the organisations had in place hotlines, mailboxes, email addresses and various other mechanisms. UNICEF said they had 22 mechanisms in place to receive complaints. None of the women we talked to were aware of this.18

19.Robert Flummerfelt explained that the women considered the aid organisations as a single block and felt victimised by the organisations as a whole. The journalists told us that the women spoke to them because they were able to build the trust of the local population. This example is a sobering reminder that for all the warm words and commitments to action the international community has made over recent years, sexual exploitation and abuse is still able to occur with seeming impunity in humanitarian responses. Since The New Humanitarian and Thomson Reuters Foundation reported on these cases in September 2020, the W.H.O has launched an independent commission to investigate the conduct of its employees.19 Several other organisations named in the media reports have also launched investigations, yet little action seems to have been taken after these concerns were previously raised in February 2019.

20.Aid organisations must be alert to the barriers that might prevent aid beneficiaries from reporting abuses. They should design sensitive reporting mechanisms with the local population, in order to give victims and survivors, and their families and friends a safe means to report their concerns and complaints. This might include face-to-face reporting if they prefer and will often involve community-based organisations and safe spaces for women to report, without necessarily going through the formal mechanisms set up by the aid providers. These community-based organisations should also be encouraged to hold open and frank conversations with aid beneficiaries about any concerns they have about the aid organisations operating in the area, to encourage them to open up about the experiences they have had.


21.Witnesses told us that there is a feeling that even if cases of sexual exploitation and abuse are reported, aid organisations are reluctant to undertake thorough investigations into the matter and punish the perpetrator appropriately if the complaint is upheld.20 Our predecessor committee found that often organisations were more concerned about protecting their own reputations than taking effective measures to stamp out sexual exploitation and abuse and that these decisions are made in a “macho” environment.21 The culture of the aid sector is discussed in Chapter four of this report. The absence of robust investigations has led to a lack of trust in the humanitarian community and prevents aid beneficiaries from reporting cases. Robust investigations into cases of sexual exploitation and abuse are key to catching perpetrators, punishing them, and removing them from the aid sector. This will help to provide justice to victims and survivors and act as a deterrent to other perpetrators.

22.We continue to have concerns that if a perpetrator resigns before an investigation has taken place then the case will not be followed-up and their misconduct will not be properly recorded. Aid organisations should ensure that an outcome is reached on the balance of probability and shared with the victim, even if no further action can be taken. Furthermore, it is not enough for aid organisations to report abusers to the local police or law enforcement agency and consider the matter closed. No matter whether the perpetrator is an international aid worker, or it is someone who has been hired in-country, the aid organisation should follow-up on the investigation to ensure an appropriate outcome is reached. Often cases will not have a criminal outcome, but a disciplinary process would still be appropriate. It is crucial that this information is captured and recorded.

Progress made to improve reporting and investigations

23.Since 2018 DFID has funded Proteknôn Consulting Group, LLC to develop a report handling toolkit for the aid sector. It was published by Bond in 2019 and includes 20 core elements to strengthen safeguarding report-handling.22 The safeguarding working group on reporting and complaints mechanisms which is coordinated by Bond, has published further resources, including a set of case studies that illustrate how these elements can be practically applied in different situations. It has also published a set of safeguarding definitions, and guidance on safeguarding governance for trustees.23 In its written evidence DFID said that it has introduced language in its funding agreements requiring partners to report cases to it.24 The Safeguarding Investigations Team (SIT) checks that reports are acted on and dealt with. DFID also committed to continuing to work with its partners across the sector to improve their investigation and disciplinary processes. Furthermore, it said it has plans to fund work over the next three years to build the skills of first responders and investigators to better ensure safe and sensitive handling of cases.25

24.Written evidence from Oxfam GB said the organisation has been on a journey of improvement with regards to handling sexual exploitation and abuse. It set out what it has found to be the key elements to a quality and safe response to cases:

Our experience is that the key to consistent, quality and safe response to SEA allegations is to ensure that (i) standard operating procedures for managing cases are in place and are consistently implemented by people with the right capabilities and capacity to do so; (ii) local referral pathways, labour laws, and legal frameworks are clearly mapped out in all the countries where we work so that we can act appropriately and as swiftly as possible when a case is reported; and (iii) all staff who interact directly with community members and/or who might receive complaints are trained on how to respond and how to report. Additionally, having experienced SEA investigators who can be swiftly deployed and provide safeguarding support in regions and countries is an essential aspect of survivor-centred case management.26

25.However, Lesley Agams, a writer, lawyer and social entrepreneur from Nigeria reminded us that any new policies and processes must be designed in conjunction with people based locally if they are to be effectively implemented in the contexts in which they are designed to be used:

When I discuss the matter with my African feminist sisters, we still agree on one thing: the reason why a lot of these policies are not implemented is because they are produced in London and somebody gives country directors in various African countries literally a checklist of, “Do this, this and this.”27

26.We hope work to improve investigations at UK ODA receiving partners will continue under the merged FCDO in a way that encourages participation of the local population in the process. However, the culture of the sector (described in Chapter 4 of this report) is also key to ensuring that robust investigations are undertaken and complaints against perpetrators are upheld.

27.The FCDO should adopt the practices developed by DFID to improve investigations, including incorporating a requirement to report cases to the FCDO into funding agreements with partners. The Safeguarding Investigations Team should continue to check that reports of sexual exploitation and abuse are satisfactorily managed; and it should take-up the work proposed by DFID to improve the skills of first responders and investigators.

Employment cycle schemes for preventing perpetrators

28.The UK Government has concentrated a significant amount of its international safeguarding efforts towards supporting employment cycle schemes that are designed to prevent perpetrators of sexual exploitation and abuse from being re-hired within the sector. This is an important issue which needs to be addressed if we are to combat sexual exploitation and abuse. We note that in August 2020 DFID said the Misconduct Disclosure Scheme which helps aid organisations to share misconduct information about staff had already been used in over 3,000 recruitments and 34 individuals had been rejected due to information that was shared through the Scheme since it was launched in January 2019.28 However, the Misconduct Disclosure Scheme, as well as the INTERPOL supported Project Soteria, and the Aid worker Registration Scheme all rely on the perpetrator being reported, and an effective investigation being undertaken in order for accurate information about their behaviour to be shared.

29.The work undertaken by the UK government and the sector as a whole to improve reporting and investigations and provide additional guidance is welcome, however, the lack of capacity in the sector and absence of common standard for investigations means that the outcomes of investigations are unreliable. Therefore, there is a risk that the employment cycle schemes could be used to retaliate against people who raise legitimate concerns and they might fail to properly identify and prevent the re-employment of perpetrators.

30.Employment cycle schemes which are designed to prevent perpetrators of sexual exploitation and abuse from being re-hired in the aid sector will only work if perpetrators are reported and robust investigations undertaken. Therefore, improving reporting and investigations should be prioritised. The FCDO should support initiatives to increase investigations capacity in the aid sector and work with its partners to ensure that the employment cycle schemes incorporate checks and balances to ensure they are just and fair to survivors and aid workers.

31.The FCDO should undertake a review of the cost and likely effectiveness of the employment cycle schemes at preventing perpetrators of sexual exploitation and abuse from being re-employed in the aid sector.


32.In its initial report into Sexual exploitation and abuse in the aid sector, our predecessor committee set out how important whistle-blowers have been in publicising sexual exploitation and abuse in the aid sector, which in turn, galvanised efforts to combat it. The Committee also raised significant concerns about the retaliation that aid workers who blew the whistle on misconduct have faced.29 Sally Proudlove, Co-Chair of the NGO Safeguarding Working Group on Leadership and Culture, told us that if someone has to whistle-blow then it signals there is a wider problem internally, which means the individual hasn’t been able to raise their concerns through normal reporting routes.30 Considerable effort has gone into ensuring that aid organisations have whistleblowing practices and procedures in place, but it is less clear whether staff have the confidence to use them. Sally Proudlove explained:

There can be a disproportionate amount of security given, where we feel that we have the policy in place and we have ticked that box. From so much of what we have seen in the sector, I do not think the problems we have are for a lack of policies and procedures. Lots of the organisations that we operate in have lots of safeguarding and whistleblowing policies and procedures. We want to see what difference those are actually making and to help organisations understand the jump from compliance to culture and that those are two different things.31

33.A majority of the individuals who responded to our survey told us that they believe their organisation has adequate policies and practices in place to protect whistle-blowers and others who speak up about sexual exploitation and abuse perpetrated by aid workers. An even greater number said they have knowledge of the policies and practices in place; however, 57% of individuals who said they had tested the whistleblowing practices at their organisation found the policies and practices had been inadequate. Several organisations expressed in their written evidence that they have strengthened their whistleblowing policies,32 however, it is important that the FCDO does not just check whether its implementing partners have whistleblowing policies on paper; it should seek to understand how those policies are understood and used by staff. It needs to know whether staff feel they would be supported if they decided to blow the whistle.

34.Former Secretary of State for International Development, Rt Hon Penny Mordaunt announced several measures that organisations who attended the March 2018 Safeguarding Summit agreed to. These measures included “to plan for a systematic audit of whistleblowing practices across the sector to ensure individuals feel able to report offences.”33 However, in its response to our predecessor’s most recent report on sexual exploitation and abuse, DFID said it had not agreed to the audit:

We agree that protection for whistle-blowers should form part of all frameworks for reporting sexual exploitation, abuse and harassment of both beneficiaries and staff. The March Summit did highlight the importance of support to whistle-blowers, but without agreeing to a systematic audit of whistleblowing as suggested by the report.34

35.Instead, DFID pointed towards the central safeguarding enhanced due diligence assessments of 31 of its delivery partners undertaken by Keeping Children Safe (KCS) and told us it would publish a synthesis of the main findings of the assessments later in the year. A summary of the findings was published in June 2020 and is described in more detail in Chapter six of this report. With regards to whistleblowing, the KCS found:

As a result of the recommendations that came out of the assessments two more partners decided to make it obligatory for staff to raise safeguarding concerns.36

36.We note that the FCDO did not include any information on whistleblowing in its Progress Report on Safeguarding Against Sexual Exploitation, Abuse and Sexual Harassment (SEAH) in the International Aid Sector, 2019–20, published in October 202037 despite its inclusion in the donor commitments that the Government singed up to in 2018.38 The progress update should track actions taken against all the donor commitments to aid transparency.

37.A full and transparent audit of whistleblowing in the aid sector has still not taken place. The FCDO should undertake an audit to provide a full understanding of how whistleblowing practices are being implemented and used, to give confidence that whistle-blowers are actively supported and not retaliated against by their organisations.

38.An audit will also help the FCDO along with other donors to hold aid organisations accountable for their treatment of whistle-blowers. The results of an audit could help donors to develop incentives for managers to encourage effective reporting on standards of conduct.

Nondisclosure agreements

39.Recent media reports have raised concerns that non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) are being used in the aid sector to silence allegations of misconduct.39 In her oral evidence to this inquiry independent consultant, Dr Miranda Brown said that NDAs are a disincentive to disclosing abuse:

We have cases of aid workers who have been pushed out their organisations and forced to sign non-disclosure agreements. We know that survivors and victims have also been compelled to sign non-disclosure agreements. In situations like that, there is a real disincentive to disclosing abuse. There is no contractual protection. Aid workers who fall under UK law have some measure of protection, but the vast majority do not.40

40.According to an article published by Devex in September 2020, experts said that NDAs are becoming more common in employment contracts with development organisations, and are sometimes used in termination settlements, but it is difficult to assess how common they are.41 The CHS Alliance, an international membership organisation for the aid sector, published a set of guidelines on the use of NDAs after receiving inquiries about whether they are in line with the Core Humanitarian Standard. The guidelines suggest that NDAs are often used lawfully by employers to protect confidential information.42 When we asked Tanya Wood, CEO of the CHS Alliance about the use of NDAs and the guidance the Alliance had published, she told us:

We put out the guidance in order to put this in the context that this is about the cover-up of power abuses. They can never, ever be used to cover up power abuses. They can only be used if it right for the victim or the survivor.43

41.We are concerned that the use of non-disclosure agreements in the aid sector could be used to cover-up misconduct and will exacerbate power imbalances. As part of its due diligence processes the FCDO should require organisations it funds to report to it the number of non-disclosure agreements they have signed, to help the FCDO to ensure that its partners are not misusing NDAs to silence individuals who raise legitimate concerns.


42.As noted earlier in this Chapter, DFID told us that the number of safeguarding cases reported to it increased from 73 in 2017–18 to 260 in 2018–19 and reached 452 in 2019–20, of which around 60% are related to sexual exploitation, abuse and harassment.44 However, it is impossible to know what the overall scale of the problem is. Witnesses told us that understanding the scale of the problem is crucial for assessing whether measures taken are working,45 otherwise we are reliant on anecdotal evidence and scandals breaking in the media before we know where it is occurring. In its written evidence Bond said it would also be helpful to know the extent to which lower level safeguarding concerns are reported, because this can indicate how much of a positive ‘speak up’ culture exists.46 This data is not currently collated across the sector. Aid organisations that participated in the March 2018 Safeguarding Summit agreed that safeguarding case data should be published in their annual reports.47 In July 2018 the IDC recommended that aid organisations should report annually the total number of allegations received and the number that are upheld,48 but this does not appear to have happened across the board. In its Progress Report on Safeguarding Against Sexual Exploitation, Abuse and Sexual Harassment (SEAH) in the International Aid Sector, 2019–20 the FCDO set out its plans to improve data collection across the aid sector:

Under-reporting by survivors and many organisations’ reluctance to publish information on the number and types of allegations received through reporting channels hampers efforts to analyse trends and effectively support prevention and response efforts. The FCDO will work with its partners in the coming year to explore ways to improve data collection, data management and reporting systems, with the aim of improving coherence, transparency and accountability in tackling SEAH and supporting victims and survivors.49

43.We welcome the plans that the FCDO has to improve data relating to sexual exploitation and abuse in the aid sector. We believe this is a key step to understanding the scale of the problem and will enable the international community to better evaluate efforts taken to combat sexual exploitation and abuse. To facilitate the collection of data, the FCDO should make it clear to its partners that reporting cases of sexual exploitation and abuse will not be treated as a reason to be penalised, as long as they can demonstrate that they have robust mechanisms in place to deal with the misconduct. FCDO partners should report annually their total number of safeguarding allegations they receive and the number that are upheld.

7 International Development Committee, Eighth Report of Session 2017–19, Sexual exploitation and abuse in the aid sector, HC 840, para 143

8 Q59

12 The Guardian, “Ebola vaccine offered in exchange for sex, Congo taskforce meeting told”, Accessed 14 December 2020

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

19 Thomson Reuters, “WHO names independent body to investigate Congo sex abuse claims”, accessed 14 December 2020

20 Eg, Q145

21 International Development Committee, Eighth Report of Session 2017–19, Sexual exploitation and abuse in the aid sector, HC 840, paras 46 & 217–218

29 International Development Committee, Eighth Report of Session 2017–19, Sexual exploitation and abuse in the aid sector, HC 840, page 5

33 Department for International Development, “Actions to tackle exploitation and abuse agreed with UK charities”, 5 March 2018

34 International Development Committee, First Special Report of Session 2019–20, Follow up: sexual exploitation and abuse in the aid sector: Government Response to the First Report of the Committee, HC127, page 4

35Summary of Findings from KCS Central Assurance Assessments of DFID Partners”, published by the Department for International Development, July 2020

38Commitments made by donors to tackle sexual exploitation and abuse and sexual harassment in the international aid sector”, published by the Department for International Development, October 2018

39 Devex, “NGOs accused of hiding misconduct behind gag orders”, accessed 14 December 2020

40 Q5

41 Devex, “NGOs accused of hiding misconduct behind gag orders”, accessed 14 December 2020

45 Eg. Professor MacLeod, Q105, Minister Cleverly, Q245

47 Department for International Development, “Actions to tackle exploitation and abuse agreed with UK charities”, 5 March 2018

48 International Development Committee, First Report of Session 2019, “Follow-up: sexual exploitation and abuse in the aid sector”, HC 111, para 40

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