Britain is leading a growing call for sweeping reforms to international aid organizations after a report found that sexual exploitation and abuse are endemic among charities, UN peacekeepers and aid agencies.
“The aid sector, collectively, has been aware of sexual exploitation and abuse by its own personnel for years, but the attention that it has given to the problem has not matched the challenge,” said the report released Tuesday by the International Development Committee of the British House of Commons. The abuse “is endemic across the international aid sector, predominantly humanitarian provision, and a wide range of organizations have been implicated. … The reactive, patchy and sluggish response of the sector created an impression of complacency verging on complicity and more concern for reputations than victims".
The report presented a damning indictment of aid agencies and the United Nations, which it said had done little to stop sexual abuse by peacekeepers. The committee called for a host of reforms including the creation of a global register of aid workers to weed out sexual predators; greater sharing of data between aid agencies to stop abusers from moving from one charity to another; and the creation of an independent aid ombudsman so that victims “can seek justice”.
It also urged UN member countries that provide much of the resources for peacekeeping, such as Canada, to push for change at the organization. "No matter how insurmountable this looks, solutions must be found. This horror must be confronted,” said committee chair Stephen Twigg, a Labour MP.
The international relief sector has been shaken by a series of scandals involving allegations of sexual abuse and bullying. Oxfam confirmed in February that a group of its workers in Haiti, including the former country director, hired prostitutes and harassed workers while co-ordinating relief efforts after the 2010 earthquake. The chief executive of Save the Children also resigned this year after allegations of harassment surfaced and 26 other British charities have filed reports to regulators concerning 80 serious incidents of abuse.
The U.K. government has proposed several changes to how the sector operates and it’s hosting an international safeguarding conference in October to address many of the issues raised in the report. “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,” International Development Secretary Penny Mordaunt said on Tuesday.
Caroline Thomson, the chair of Oxfam’s board of trustees, called the report “incredibly painful reading for me, for everyone at Oxfam and for the aid sector as a whole.” She added: "We have made improvements since 2011 but recognize we have further to go.” Save the Children said it welcomed the report and added: “We have to accept that, as a sector, we have failed to meet the standards that the public, parliament and the U.K. Government demand, and that our beneficiaries have a right to expect. When it comes to protecting vulnerable women and children there is no room for compromise or complacency – and this report sets out practical proposals for change.”
Oxfam is a federation of agencies, and Oxfam Canada and Oxfam Québec operate separately. In a statement earlier this year, Oxfam Canada said it “has strong systems in place to protect people from this kind of abuse” and added that it was banding together with other Oxfam affiliates to “strengthen our safeguards." The Canadian government has also said it will continue contributing to Oxfam’s Canadian affiliates after receiving assurances they were not involved in the misconduct in Haiti.
The committee’s report said the problems in the sector go far beyond the recent scandals and date back years. It cited a study in 2002 that found 67 allegations of sexual abuse against refugee children in Africa by workers from 40 aid agencies and nine UN peacekeeping battalions. In 2004, another report found widespread abuse by both UN peacekeepers and civilians during a mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo and, in 2008, a study by Save the Children found “significant levels of abuse of boys and girls continued in emergencies, with much of it going unreported”.
The response to these findings is almost always the same, the committee report said: “policy change without proper implementation.” If anything, the MPs said, aid agencies typically move to protect their brand instead of their victims.
The MPs singled out the UN for failing to show “sustained leadership” on the issue. UN fact finders have scant understanding of the crimes of sexual violence and UN personnel often operate with legal immunity, which means it’s difficult to prosecute them. The UN has promised change and it has set up a series of task forces to implement reform.
The report said one of the biggest challenges is getting victims to come forward. Many are afraid to speak out for fear of being cut off from aid or suffering humiliation. After the death of one abuse victim in South Sudan, the local government urged the family to keep quiet because “we are worried the humanitarian assistance will go.” However, the report said there are ways of encouraging reporting and it has urged the government to require charities to make safeguarding victims a budget requirement. “Logistical, practical and financial difficulties, whilst they present challenges, should not be treated as insurmountable obstacles,” the report said.