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MPs accuse aid groups of 'abject failure' in tackling sexual abuse

The Guardian logo The Guardian 31/07/2018 Rebecca Ratcliffe
People walk past an Oxfam sign at a camp for displaced people in Haiti: People walk past an Oxfam sign in a camp for people displaced after the 2010 earthquake, on the outskirts of Port-au-Prince in Haiti. © Reuters People walk past an Oxfam sign in a camp for people displaced after the 2010 earthquake, on the outskirts of Port-au-Prince in Haiti.

Charities have shown “complacency verging on complicity” in responding to sexual abuse that is endemic across the sector, according to a damning report by MPs.

In the report, the international development committee (IDC) said the aid sector had a record of “abject failure” in dealing with longstanding concerns about exploitation by its own personnel and appeared more concerned for their reputations than for victims. The response to abuse claims has been reactionary and superficial, it added.

MPs called for the establishment of an independent aid ombudsman to support survivors and for a global register of aid workers to prevent abusers moving through the system.

Stephen Twigg, the committee chairman, said the sector’s failure to deal with the issue had left victims at the mercy of those who sought to use power to abuse others.

Video: Sexual abuse 'endemic' in aid sector (CNN)

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The report, published on Tuesday, also criticised the UN, which it said had failed to display sustained leadership in tackling abuse, and said the historical response of the UK’s Department for International Development (DfID) was disappointing.

The committee launched its inquiry into sexual exploitation and abuse after revelations that Oxfam covered up claims that its staff had used sex workers while working in the aftermath of the 2010 Haiti earthquake. The sector has faced intense scrutiny, with further allegations of sexual misconduct emerging at Save the Children.

Twigg said the aid sector was first made aware of concerns in 2002, when a report by the UN agency for refugees (UNHCR) and Save the Children documented cases of abuse. Despite this, and a series of other warnings, little action was taken. “There are so many reports that go back over this period of 16 years and the system has failed to respond anything close to adequately over the period,” the Labour MP said. “This is 16 years of failure by the entire international system of governments, the UN and the aid sector.”

He added: “I find it hard to escape the conclusion that organisations have put their reputations first.”

The report said experts believed the documented cases were the tip of the iceberg. The globalised and often chaotic nature of aid work made it “an attractive sector for people wishing to exploit others”, it said.

The inquiry examined the sexual exploitation and abuse of the intended beneficiaries of aid, as well as sexual harassment and abuse of aid workers. A failure to robustly investigate and respond to allegations was apparent in charities’ UK offices, and across the UN, the report said.

MPs concluded that self-regulation within the sector had failed and there had not been enough money to implement safeguarding policies and procedures.

The report called for a culture change, with greater representation of women at senior levels in charities, and victims and survivors put at the centre of the sector’s response to abuse claims. It warned of “a strong tendency for victims and whistleblowers, rather than perpetrators, to end up feeling penalised”.

MPs said charities must proactively seek reports of sexual exploitation and abuse, and respond robustly with feedback to survivors. They called on DfID and other donors to provide funding to improve reporting systems, and to support broader programmes to increase beneficiaries’ rights.

Pauline Latham, a Conservative member of the committee, said the abuse had affected some of the most vulnerable girls and women in the world when they were at their lowest.

She said the committee heard evidence of “rape, sex for food, calling people prostitutes when they’re actually desperate women who need to feed their families, or young girls who are trafficked and been abused by these men. It’s absolutely shocking because they [perpetrators] don’t treat them as human beings.”

In response to the Oxfam scandal, DfID has established a safeguarding unit, and will host an international conference in October where organisations are expected to make commitments on tackling abuse. It has also enhanced due diligence standards for its partners and met with the National Crime Agency to discuss prevention and prosecution.

Twigg said DfID’s forthcoming conference was a step forward, but cannot be a stopgap. The committee will continue to monitor the sector’s efforts to tackle abuse.

“We call on DfID to report annually on the safeguarding performance of the sector, including the number and distribution of cases, the resources committee and the department’s own actions and contributions to improvement. Transparency will not be penalised but DfID must send a clear signal that improper handling of cases will be. Crucially, the voices of victims and survivors must be heard,” he said.

The government must also ensure the Charity Commission is sufficiently funded to deal with abuse and harassment reports, the committee said. The number of serious incidents reported to the commission has tripled since the Oxfam scandal.

The international development secretary, Penny Mordaunt, said she welcomed the report, adding: “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 that 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.”

Judith Brodie, the interim chief executive of Bond, the UK’s network of international development NGOs, said the sector was taking action to tackle abuse.

“We need to see increased resourcing in safeguarding, particularly for smaller NGOs, more collaboration across organisations, donors and governments, better transparency, unwavering leadership and measures to ensure whistleblowers and survivors are at the heart of any solutions,” she said. “This sadly cannot undo previous shortcomings but it will result in a safer and more secure environment for both beneficiaries and staff.”

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