THE aid sector showed “complacency verging on complicity” in responding to sexual exploitation and abuse, MPs have said.
A report published on Tuesday by the International Development Select Committee, Sexual exploitation and abuse in the aid sector, says that the problem of sexual abuse is “endemic” in the aid sector, and that there has been an “abject failure” in tackling it.
The report is the conclusion of the inquiry launched by the committee after the Oxfam scandal emerged earlier this year (News, 16 February).
Reports in The Times that Oxfam workers engaged prostitutes while working in the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake in Haiti spread rapidly to cover other disaster zones and other agencies.
The committee says: “It [sexual exploitation and abuse] is endemic, and it has been for a long time. Outrage is appropriate, but surprise is not. The sector needs a complete change of mindset, whereby those who fund and deliver aid are actively working together to seek out and root out the problem.”
Recommendations from the report include a global register of aid workers; the establishment of an independent aid ombudsman to support survivors; and that charities should review their culture as an organisation.
It says: “A global register of aid workers would act as one barrier to sexual predators seeking to enter the international aid profession. Logistical, practical and financial difficulties, whilst they present challenges, should not deter efforts to make this a reality.”
The Labour MP Stephen Twigg, who chairs the committee, said: “Victims and whistleblowers must not end up feeling penalised for speaking out. Humanitarian organisations and the UN cannot continue a ‘culture of denial’ when confronted with allegations of SEA [sexual exploitation and abuse].
“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.”
The report also criticises the United Nations, saying that its approach to tackling sexual exploitation and abuse in the aid sector “lacks coherence”. It also says that the Department for International Development [DfID]’s historical response to reports of sexual abuse was “disappointing”.
Mr Twigg said: “We acknowledge that today’s report — though damning — is a small, first step, but take note: we are putting all the relevant authorities on notice. . . For there to be real progress, we must expect a sustained focus, engagement, and leadership on sexual exploitation and abuse: in DfID and beyond, in international arenas.
“The forthcoming International Safeguarding Conference presents an opportunity for DfID to secure commitments from across the aid sector. It is the start of a process, not a stopgap.”
The CEOs of the Christian charities Tearfund and Christian Aid were among 22 who signed an open letter in February saying that they were “truly sorry” for failings in safeguarding.
Both aid agencies welcomed the findings of the report. A spokeswoman for Christian Aid said: “The Committee . . . makes some important points about the need for culture change across the whole aid sector, and we believe this is at the heart of the issue.
“We will be reviewing all the recommendations carefully to ensure that we continue to do all we can in this critical area. We have taken significant steps already this year to improve our safeguarding policies and practice.
“We will play a proactive role in working with others to ensure that any change is meaningful and systemic. Our partners overseas, our supporters, and our staff require nothing less.”
A spokewoman for Tearfund said: “We remain deeply saddened and distressed by the recent devastating news of safeguarding and misconduct cases in the international development sector.
“Our solemn commitment is to investigate and appropriately deal with all such incidents reported to Tearfund. Since the beginning of the year we have carried out a ten-year review to ensure this has happened.
“At the same time, we are increasing our investment into safeguarding and training to better protect all those we and our partners work with, including our staff and volunteers.”