Aid sector guilty of ‘complacency verging on complicity’ on sex abuse say MPs

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The international aid sector is guilty of “complacency verging on complicity” over its sex abuse scandal, a new report from a powerful Westminster committee has said.

The delivery of aid to people and communities in crisis has been subverted by sexual predators, according to the latest report from the International Development Committee, with only superficial action taken to tackle it.

Committee chairman Stephen Twigg has set out how abuse remains “endemic” and the sector “deluded” in its denial of “the horror of sexual exploitation and abuse” (SEA).

He said: “Humanitarian organisations and the UN cannot continue a ‘culture of denial’ when confronted with allegations of SEA.

“The committee is deeply concerned that previous attempts have amounted to limited action in order to quell media clamour with no lasting impact or redress.

“No matter how insurmountable this looks, solutions must be found. This horror must be confronted.”

The report, Sexual Exploitation And Abuse In The Aid Sector, comes in the wake of the exposure of abuse in Haiti, first broken by the Times six months ago.

It highlights a lack of barriers making aid an “attractive sector for people wishing to exploit others” and outlines “systematic criminal sexual exploitation”, for example in the form of human trafficking into prostitution, as a result.

Mr Twigg was fiercely critical of the recent response from aid agencies, which he accused of being driven by concern for reputation management and failing to bring about meaningful change.

“Many things have changed in that time with the aid sector, Charity Commission and DfID taking steps to respond to the crisis,” he said.

“One thing has not: the abject failure of the international aid sector to get to grips with this issue, leaving victims at the mercy of those who seek to use power to abuse others. This must be tackled.

“Victims and whistleblowers must not end up feeling penalised for speaking out.”

Asked why action had not been taken, Mr Twigg told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “It would appear that the reputation of the organisation has been put first ahead of the protection of the vulnerable and that is completely unacceptable and has to stop.”

Mr Twigg suggested that a system be adopted internationally akin to the DBS system, the criminal records check system, in the UK, adding: “We have an opportunity with the Safeguarding Summit that the British Government, DfID, is hosting in October to have a step change.”

The report calls for a zero-tolerance approach, which empowers the beneficiaries of humanitarian aid, proactively seeks out any issues and responds robustly, as well as demonstrating “transparency over reputation”.

MPs also want much stronger screening for known sexual predators, including a global register of aid workers who will operate according to expected standards, and an independent aid ombudsman to provide a right to appeal.

DfID has been called on to provide annual updates on safeguarding performance, including details of investigations and “space for the voices of victims and survivors to be heard”.

Committee member Pauline Latham, who will lead follow-up checks on DfID, said the department had a responsibility to provide funding to encourage victims to come forward.

She said: “I have been keen to tackle this subject since the Humanitarian Summit in 2016 when it first became clear to me that this abuse was an ‘open secret’.

“I believe deep cultural change is required across all aid organisations, starting with their – all too often male – senior leadership.

“Sexual abuse of aid beneficiaries, and of women aid workers, which I believe is linked, must be stamped out.”

Responding to the report, Oxfam Trustees chairwoman Caroline Thomson said the committee was right to challenge the sector and she recognised “we have further to go”.

She said: “Today’s report makes for incredibly painful reading for me, for everyone at Oxfam and for the aid sector as a whole.

“Oxfam exists to help improve the lives of the world’s most vulnerable people; we know we failed to protect vulnerable women in Haiti, and we accept we should have reported more clearly at the time – for that we are truly sorry.

“Victims and survivors must be at the heart of our approach and the report’s recommendations demand serious attention.”

Ms Thomson added Oxfam had tripled funding for safeguarding, established an independent whistleblowing helpline and committed to publish details of safeguarding cases twice a year as part of an action plan launched in February.

International Development Secretary Penny Mordaunt welcomed the report’s focus on empowerment, reporting, accountability and screening.

She said: “Until the sector is fully prepared to address the power imbalance, cultures, and behaviours that allow sexual abuse, exploitation and harassment to happen, we will never stamp it out.

“Ensuring survivors’ voices are heard and taken seriously is paramount.

“As we look ahead to October’s international summit on this issue we expect to see the sector demonstrate the progress they have made to put victims, survivors and the people we are there to help first.”

When asked whether extra funding for reporting mechanisms would be provided as recommended, a DFID spokeswoman said some funding had been ring-fenced.

Interim chief executive of Bond, the UK’s network of international development NGOs, Judith Brodie said she was seeing the green shoots of a positive culture shift.

She said: “We can only deliver zero tolerance of sexual exploitation and abuse with strong leadership and culture change in our organisations and as a sector we are committed to delivering this change.”

Charity Commission chairwoman Baroness Stowell of Beeston said it was “very serious indeed”.

She told the Today programme: “We have seen evidence of serious events and there have been serious allegations made of sexual abuse and exploitation in charities and these are things which are absolutely unacceptable and they are certainly unacceptable in an organisation which is dedicated as a charity.”

Lady Beeston said the committee’s report was “incredibly powerful”, and added that evidence of wrongdoing was “so dismaying”.

She went on: “It is very, very serious when they let the public down and the impact that this is having, whilst there is only a small number of charities behaving in this despicable fashion, the impact it is having on the public’s confidence and the sector as a whole is one that we now have to take very seriously.

“And the sector has to understand that every charity, regardless of the nature of its work, has to work harder at demonstrating to the public that it understands the status and the privilege and the responsibility that comes with being a registered charity, and that everything that it does is in pursuit of its charitable purposes and the beneficiaries and the benefits that it is there to create for society at large.”

NSPCC chief executive Peter Wanless said safeguarding must be prioritised.

“Safeguarding is not a nice ‘add on’,” he said. “It is vitally important to prevent abuse from being swept under the carpet by organisations intent on putting their reputation first.

“All organisations working with children in any capacity must put children first, admit it if something has gone wrong, and put steps in place to ensure it cannot happen again.”

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