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Check backgrounds rigorously before sending charity workers overseas, report says

25 February 2021


Charity workers provide aid to refugees fleeing the bombing of the city of Idlib, in Syria, in September 2019

Charity workers provide aid to refugees fleeing the bombing of the city of Idlib, in Syria, in September 2019

THE danger of abuse by missionaries and aid workers would be lessened if they were subjected to more background checks before being sent overseas, a new report says.

The report, by Christian safeguarding charity Thirtyone:eight and the University of Chester, Sending and serving safely: Understanding the challenges of safeguarding children and young people in international Christian work, was published on Thursday.

It contains the results of an online survey of 72 UK participants — 39 of whom represented agencies and organisations which send and support international Christian workers, and 33 of whom were individuals who had themselves conducted international Christian work.

More than two-thirds of the agencies and organisations said that they had a written child safeguarding policy that included a section for those going overseas who would be in contact with children and young people; three-quarters said that they provided ongoing child-safeguarding support when individuals were overseas; and almost all said that they prepared individuals to address child safeguarding concerns that could arise overseas.

This contrasted with the data from individuals, of whom just 14 people, just over one-third, said that they had undergone safer recruitment processes, such as background checks; ten said that they had been provided with child-safeguarding training; and only half felt that the organisation had helped them to prepare for any child-safeguarding concerns that might arise.

The research team concluded that, while there was plenty of evidence of good safeguarding practice, there was also evidence of numerous challenges for individuals attempting to implement this in cultures outside of the UK.

This included differing perceptions of acceptable safeguarding standards; personal and professional boundaries; national laws and their implementation; and the issue of cultural awareness, for example of differing socially acceptable behaviours in the UK and abroad, such as child punishment.

One UK aid worker said of safeguarding abroad: “While there was a real care for children, and a lot of good work was done among them, I’m not sure safeguarding — as we see it in the UK — is something that is particularly thought about.”

Other participants suggested that understandings, procedures, and regulations concerning safeguarding in the UK can be perceived negatively in an international context and lead to negative perceptions of those engaged in international Christian work.

One participant spoke of “different views on child protection — so what one person thinks is an issue isn’t seen as this in another culture — so I saw children being treated in a way we wouldn’t say is acceptable but it was culturally”.

The study was conducted by Dr Lisa Oakley and Professor Moira Lafferty of the University of Chester. They write: “It is pleasing to see positive examples of good practice in the data, and it is important that we continue to work together to address areas that the research identified as needing further consideration.

“With little previous research in this area, we hope the findings will enable the further development of safeguarding policy in international Christian work and provide a foundation for organisations to work together to develop best practice.”

In 2018, allegations that Oxfam workers engaged prostitutes while working in the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake in Haiti led to widespread reports of sexual abuse in other disaster zones and by workers employed by other agencies (News, 13 February 2018). The resultant outcry led a drop in donations to the charities named, and a formal inquiry by the Charity Commission (News, 13 June 2019).

Sarah Champion MP, who chairs the International Development Select Committee, said on Thursday that abuse, harassment, and exploitation of aid recipients by some frontline aid workers continued, despite “significant” prevention efforts.

Front-line humanitarian work presented “significant risks for organisations, workers, and particularly for local communities and aid recipients” around the world, she said. Organisations and individuals should therefore “do all they can to ensure the contextual vulnerabilities and risks are understood and mitigated through the development of effective and culturally competent practice”, with “the highest levels of clarity and accountability”.

The report makes four recommendations for faith and other organisations which plan to send Christian aid workers abroad. They should: recruit safely; ensure workers are “culturally competent” in safeguarding and child protection; give specific training on working with children and young people; and offer debriefs to aid workers to relay their experiences.

More generally, the report recommends that tools and resources are developed to support smaller faith groups and sending organisations (such as individual churches) to help with safe recruitment and training. It also suggests launching an awareness campaign to remind organisations of the importance of safer recruitment and working practices for international missions.

The head of learning and influence at Thirtyone:eight, Claudia Bell, said: “The international Christian context is both a unique and challenging situation. Through this report we give some clear recommendations which we hope will be a valuable resource for anyone preparing to travel abroad to work with children, and for the organisations and agencies that send and support them.”

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