The aid sector is guilty of “complacency verging on complicity” over an “endemic” sex abuse scandal, a damning report from MPs has said.
International Development Committee chairman Stephen Twigg said charities were “more concerned to protect their own reputation” rather than victims.
In February the Times revealed senior staff at Oxfam had paid survivors of the 2010 earthquake in Haiti for sex.
Charities welcomed the report, and Oxfam said it had “further to go”.
The MPs’ report said “so much more” could have been done to tackle the “open secret” of people working in the aid sector committing such acts.
But despite the charities knowing about the problem, the committee said there had been a “collective failure of leadership”, and action only when there was a crisis.
The committee said this “episodic” response had been “reactive, patchy and sluggish”, and meant safeguarding policies were created but never effectively implemented.
The report also said leaders were “self-deluded” in thinking they had addressed problems before they became public.
What needs to be done?
MPs insisted more resources were needed to tackle the issue – and said victims had to be at the “heart of solutions”, or the response could be “harmful”.
The committee suggested:
- Ensuring the beneficiaries of humanitarian aid have knowledge and confidence in their rights
- A zero-tolerance culture on sexual exploitation and abuse is the least that victims should expect
- Reports of wrongdoing should be proactively sought and responded to robustly, with feedback to victims and survivors
- Known perpetrators of sexual exploitation and abuse should be identified through improved reporting and accountability, and prevented from moving into new positions
Labour MP Mr Twigg suggested developing a “DBS-style system” for aid workers, where organisations could check previous allegations put forward about prospective employees.
“That won’t cure this but it’s one of the ways in which we can try to ensure this won’t happen again,” he said.
What did aid workers do?
The report looked at allegations of sex abuse and child abuse by aid workers, dating back to 2001.
In a 2008 Save the Children report seen by MPs, author Corinna Csaky recalls how a young boy in Haiti described the rape of a girl by an NGO worker in 2007.
“He gave her one American dollar and the little girl was happy to see the money. It was two in the morning. The man took her and raped her. In the morning the little girl could not walk.”
Asmita Naik, who wrote a 2002 UNHCR and Save the Children report, said it was mainly men who had abused people in the communities they were providing aid to.
In her research of refugee camps in Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone in 2001, she found that humanitarian workers extorted “sex in exchange for desperately needed aid supplies (biscuits, soap, medicines, plastic sheeting etc.)”
How has the industry reacted?
Oxfam trustees chairwoman Caroline Thomson said the report made for “painful reading” for the whole aid sector, and apologised that Oxfam had failed to protect vulnerable women in Haiti.
She said the charity had tripled funding for safeguarding, established an independent whistleblowing phone line and agreed to publish the details of safeguarding cases twice a year.
Save the Children UK said it was strengthening its internal safeguarding systems and had called for greater government oversight.
Chief executive Kevin Watkins said: “We have made mistakes in our own handling of historical sexual harassment complaints from staff in the UK,” adding, “there is a great deal more to do”.
International Development Secretary Penny Mordaunt welcomed the report, saying: “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.”
An international summit on the issue is due to take place in October, and Ms Mordaunt has called for the sector to demonstrate the progress they have made by then.
How did the scandal unfold?
In February the Times reported Oxfam male aid workers used prostitutes during a humanitarian mission after the Haiti earthquake in 2010.
More allegations then followed, against Oxfam and other UK charities:
- Ex-Save the Children chief executive Justin Forsyth faced three complaints of inappropriate behaviour against female staff. He said he had “apologised unreservedly” to the workers at the time. He then resigned from his post at Unicef saying he did not want coverage of his past to “damage” the charities
- Brendan Cox, the husband of murdered Labour MP Jo Cox, had to quit his role at the two charities set up in her memory after it was revealed he was accused of assaulting a woman in her 30s at Harvard University in 2015 – which he denied – and inappropriate behaviour while working for Save the Children that he admitted to