Horror of sexual exploitation in the aid sector must be confronted – International Development Committee

Empowerment, reporting, accountability, screening: MPs urge a full response with victims at centre.

Key points

  • Sexual exploitation and abuse is endemic across organisations, countries and institutions
  • Collective failure of leadership and engagement from top levels down over many years
  • Self-delusion of aid sector in dealing with and tackling problems
  • Failing to put victims at the heart of solutions could be harmful; certainly renders reforms ineffective

Aid sector

The aid sector has been aware of sexual exploitation and abuse by its own personnel for years, but it has collectively failed to fully confront or address the problem. The reactive, patchy and sluggish response of the sector has created an impression of ‘complacency verging on complicity’ and more concern for reputations than victims says a report from the International Development Committee, published today.

The Committee’s Report, Sexual Exploitation and Abuse in the Aid Sector, sets out how the delivery of aid to people and communities in crisis has been subverted by sexual predators who exploit weakened systems of governance. So much more could have been done to tackle this open secret, says the Report: ‘outrage is appropriate but surprise is not.’

The apparent inability to deal well with allegations, complaints and cases involving the abuse of power extends to the organisations’ own governance and employment practices in the UK and at international levels in the UN. As a result, Part I of the Committee’s report considers sexual exploitation and abuse of the intended beneficiaries of aid. In Part II, the Committee deals with the significant factor of the sexual harassment and abuse of aid workers.

The Committee is roundly critical of the sector’s ability to drive transformational change. Action only seems to come when there is a crisis, says the Report, and even then, it has been superficial. A reactive, cyclical approach, driven by concern for reputation management in the face of media reports has not, and will not, bring about meaningful change.

Recommendations for the future

The Committee sets out how a full response to sexual exploitation and abuse depends on four inter-related areas:

  • Empowerment: the beneficiaries of humanitarian aid should have knowledge and confidence in their rights and how to find help if those rights are threatened or violated.
  • Reporting: reports of sexual exploitation and abuse should be proactively sought and responded to robustly with feedback to victims and survivors. It is incumbent on DFID and other donors to provide the resources for improved victim-centred reporting mechanisms.
  • Accountability: a zero-tolerance culture on sexual exploitation and abuse is the least which victims (either in crisis situations or in the workplace) should expect.
    – Reports of sexual exploitation must be followed by investigation; confirmation must be met with accountability.
    – Aid organisations must demonstrate transparency over reputation. – Donors and the Charity Commission must insist on this with the assistance of an independent aid ombudsman to provide an avenue for victims and survivors if the established channels fail.
  • Screening: it is imperative that known perpetrators of sexual exploitation and abuse, identified through improved reporting and accountability, are prevented from moving into new positions. The Committee calls for:
    – a rapid improvement of methods to screen staff
    – an immediate strengthening of referencing practices in and between organisations
    – a global register of aid workers who will operate according to expected standards. This will act as one barrier to sexual predators seeking to enter the international development profession.

Part of a longer press release at https://www.parliament.uk/business/committees/committees-a-z/commons-select/international-development-committee/news-parliament-2017/sexual-exploitation-report-publication-17-19/