Stephen Twigg: DfID must ensure that the most vulnerable are protected from predatory practices

Posted On: 
23rd September 2018

We will continue to shine a light on safeguarding issues in the development sector and protect the beneficiaries of aid, says Stephen Twigg

A Haitian woman outside the earthquake-damaged Notre Dame Cathedral, Port-au-Prince
PA Images

In February, The Times published the findings of an investigation into the behaviour of Oxfam staff after the 2010 Haiti earthquake. The most appalling allegations were that humanitarian workers were paying young women for sex. These allegations were made in the context of one of the largest humanitarian missions ever carried out in the Caribbean, with upwards of 160,000 people dead and 250,000 homes destroyed. The Times investigation would be the first in a series which would see safeguarding in the development sector scrutinised like never before.

The abuse of power is wrong in any context. When it happens in the aid sector, it affects the people who are arguably the most vulnerable in the world. When you don’t have access to food, clean water, education, shelter or medicine, you depend on those delivering these services to you.

On the back of these allegations, the International Development Select Committee (IDC) began an inquiry into sexual exploitation and abuse in the aid sector. We wanted to understand why there had been a regular and seemingly systematic failure to protect the beneficiaries of aid, as well as looking at how safeguarding practice could be improved in the future.

The inquiry was one of the biggest we have undertaken since I have been chair. We received over 50 pieces of written evidence and called 23 witnesses. We also visited New York and Washington DC to hear directly from organisations like the UN, the World Bank and the IMF what they are doing to improve their safeguarding and reporting mechanisms. We released our final report in July.

It became apparent early in the IDC’s inquiry that safeguarding issues were not being taken as seriously as they needed to be, with many organisations seemingly putting their own reputations ahead of victims. As well as finding a long history of sexual exploitation and abuse against the intended beneficiaries of aid, the committee also received evidence about the sexual harassment and abuse of aid workers by their colleagues.

We also found that there was reluctance across many aid organisations to be fully transparent about SEA allegations, and there were concerns about the extent to which these were being properly reported to the Charity Commission and the Department for International Development (DfID). The sector showed “complacency verging on complicity” and it was clear that significant reforms were going to be required.

Both a cure and prevention are needed if we’re going to tackle this issue going forward. Our recommendations include establishing an independent aid ombudsman to support survivors, provide them with a right of appeal and ensure they have an avenue through which they can seek justice if aid organisations fail to provide this.

In terms of prevention, we recommended a global register of aid workers to prevent known abusers moving through the system.

Crucially, the voice of victims and survivors must be front and centre of any reforms. Without a victim-centred approach, you will design a system that isn’t fit for use – a system in a vacuum that, essentially, nobody will use.

In recent months, DfID has taken a leading role in addressing the issue of safeguarding. In February, the secretary of state wrote to all organisations that receive UK aid funding, asking them to spell out in detail their safeguarding policies. This included NGOs, multilateral partners and other DfID suppliers, and numbered well over 1,000 organisations.

DfID has a further opportunity to be a global leader in this area. Next month, DfID will host an International Safeguarding Conference, bringing together governments and NGOs from around the world to look at wider safeguarding reforms. The conference in October provides us with a vital opportunity to push for a global vetting and referencing system and an independent aid ombudsman, as well as providing a long overdue platform for survivors and victims. With strong leadership from DfID, we can ensure that the most vulnerable are protected from predatory practices in the future. 

Stephen Twigg is Labour MP for Liverpool West Derby and chair of the International Development Select Committee