LEICESTER, United Kingdom – British Catholic international development agencies said they welcomed a report this week saying the international aid industry is failing to tackle abuse by members of staff.
The UK Parliament’s International Development Committee issued the report, “Sexual exploitation and abuse in the aid sector,” on July 31.
The parliamentary committee wrote the report in response to press reports in The Times earlier this year which showed that the British-based aid agency Oxfam had covered up allegations of sexual abuse by its staff in Haiti in the aftermath of the devastating 2010 earthquake.
The report said sexual exploitation and abuse by aid workers and UN peacekeepers “is happening in the aid sector and it has been happening for a long time.”
It named four key findings:
- Sexual exploitation and abuse is endemic across organizations, countries and institutions.
- There has been a collective failure of leadership and engagement from top levels down over many years.
- Self-delusion has plagued the aid sector in dealing with and tackling problems.
- Failing to put victims at the heart of solutions could be harmful; and certainly renders reforms ineffective.
Member of Parliament Stephen Twigg, the chair of the committee, said the report was “damning” and called it “a small, first step” in tackling the crisis.
“We are putting all the relevant authorities on notice. The International Development Committee will continue to give this high priority and we will be tracking progress with a view to ensuring real improvement is made. No matter how insurmountable this looks, solutions must be found. This horror must be confronted,” Twigg said.
Both CAFOD, the aid agency for the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales, and SCIAF, the aid agency for the Scottish Catholic bishops, welcomed the report.
“CAFOD recognizes that much more needs to be done and we must ensure that policies and culture within our own organizations expose and end any exploitation … [and] will support any measures that help deliver better accountability, transparency and reporting procedures on safeguarding,” said a statement sent to Crux.
“As a sector, all aid organizations need to look at what more we can do. We welcome the recommendations in the report to improve structures that help identify, manage and prevent unacceptable behavior by individuals, such as an international system for background checks on staff and better ways for the people we serve to raise concerns,” said Alistair Dutton, the director of SCIAF.
The report noted that although many aid relief agencies have anti-abuse policies and programs in place, “horrifying” evidence shows that personnel from the aid and security sectors are perpetrating abuses instead of combating them.
“Reports have regularly shown this kind of sexual exploitation and abuse being perpetrated across different countries, organizations and institutions, principally in humanitarian crises. At its core, sexual exploitation and abuse is an abuse of power and the power imbalance is predominantly, although not exclusively, men abusing women and girls. Due to confirmed under-reporting, the exact scale is currently impossible to define, but practitioners suspect that those cases which have come to light are only the tip of the iceberg,” the report says.
The committee made several recommendations for the sector, including empowering aid recipients so they know their rights if they are threatened or violated; proactively seeking out victims and responding “robustly” to their complaints; establishing ‘zero-tolerance’ policies on sexual exploitation and abuse; making sure all accusations are followed up by investigation, and all confirmations of abuse must be met with accountability.
The committee also said aid organizations must choose transparency over their own reputation and called for the establishment of an independent aid ombudsman to provide an avenue for victims and survivors if the established channels fail.
In addition, the report called for better screening of staff at agencies, including strengthening the referencing system between aid agencies and the establishment of a global register of aid workers who will operate according to expected standards — saying, “This will act as one barrier to sexual predators seeking to enter the international development profession.”
“For there to be real progress, we must expect a sustained focus, engagement and leadership on sexual exploitation and abuse,” Twigg said.
Currently staff vetting requires cooperation and trust between aid agencies. Many NGOs work in disaster areas and fund short-term projects, meaning staffing can be fluid, with workers moving from agency to agency. Different aid groups often must rely heavily on the recommendation letters received from previous employers when making hiring decisions.
This trust can break down if agencies have different standards for staff conduct – at the time of the Haiti earthquake, Oxfam had no policies forbidding staff from using prostitutes, for example – or if agencies routinely promise good recommendations to ease problem employees out the door with the fewest hassles.
An example of this lack of due diligence hit home for CAFOD, when it was discovered that one of its staff members had been implicated in the Haiti scandal, while working for OXFAM. The latter agency did not inform CAFOD of the allegations against the aid worker when they asked for a reference.
“Since March 2018, CAFOD has undertaken an independent health check of our systems and processes to ensure they are as robust as we believe them to be. We have held refresher trainings for staff on our whistleblowing and safeguarding policies, as well as our Code of Behavior,” the organization said.
“We would like to understand the details about the role and remit of the [parliamentary committee] proposal for an independent aid ombudsman, for example, to ensure sufficient funding, support and autonomy are provided to improve oversight of aid agencies in the UK. Further we would like to see a strengthening of the Charity Commission and clarity on how the aid ombudsman would work with this existing oversight body,” CAFOD’S statement continued.
The Charity Commission is a government office that regulates registered charities in England and Wales. A separate commission fulfils the same function in Scotland.
“Government must ensure that the Charity Commission is sufficiently prepared to deliver its responsibilities,” Twigg clarified. “There should be an independent aid ombudsman to provide a right to appeal.”
Dutton said SCIAF has a strong culture of safeguarding and robust policies and procedures in place that guide its work, and regularly trains staff to make sure they know what is expected of them.
“The nature of our work demands that we help extremely vulnerable people, often victims of war, natural disasters and poverty, in extremely challenging conditions, and we’re committed to serving them as sensitively as possible,” he said.
Dutton said he looked forward to working with the government to ensure those we serve get the help, care, and protection they need at every step.
Member of Parliament Pauline Latham, another member of the International Development Committee, said it was clear to her that abuse in the international aid sector was an “open secret.”
“I believe deep cultural change is required across all aid organizations, 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,” she said.