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Sexual exploitation in the aid sector remains 'rife' and needs urgent action

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4 min read

There must be consequences for failings that lead to cases of abuse, including poor treatment of whistle-blowers.

The International Development Select Committee has today published a report raising alarm that sexual exploitation and abuse of aid beneficiaries is still happening, and it’s happening with impunity.

In 2018, the aid sector was rocked by revelations that Aid workers had been paying local vulnerable women for sex in Haiti during the humanitarian response to the 2010 earthquake.

It was not the first, and not the last instance of sexual exploitation and abuse perpetrated by aid workers.

During our inquiry, we found – through our online survey completed by those in the sector – that 26% of respondents claim to have witnessed sexual exploitation and abuse of aid recipients.

Abuse can happen whenever there is a power imbalance, and such imbalances are almost always at the heart of humanitarian responses.

Aid organisations should be alert to this risk. All too often, there’s a lack of concerted action to face-up to this reality, and aid organisations become complicit in enabling sexual exploitation and abuse to occur.

In the wake of the Haiti scandal, international safeguarding summits were arranged, commitments were signed and working groups were convened.

Numerous organisations have hired Preventing abuse coordinators, while others have introduced new training for staff. Recently, the FCDO published a strategy on safeguarding against Sexual Exploitation and Abuse in the aid sector.

There isn’t a lack of policies and procedures in place.

And yet, abuse is still happening - and the UK Government continues to fund organisations at the centre of Sexual abuse scandals.

Abuse within the aid sector is rife – and until we accept this, we won’t resolve it.

Aid organisations must wake up to the fact that some of their staff are sexual predators

Examples we heard during the inquiry included a case concerning refugees in Uganda and Lebanon, and how they were subject to sexual exploitation and abuse across all points of a programme distributing survival equipment

We heard how many women were sexually exploited to access aid they were already entitled to.

Aid agencies must make a point of telling recipients their rights, entitlements and how to complain.

My Committee was shocked about the scale of sexual abuse of aid beneficiaries during the 2018-20 Ebola response in the DRC, hearing that “sex for jobs” was an “open secret” among aid workers.

One woman described how she had been told by a foreign WHO worker - through an interpreter - that she would have to sleep with him in order to get a job.

The UK is the biggest donor to the WHO.

The government must show zero tolerance and hold organisations – including multilateral organisations – to account for their safeguarding failings.

Aid beneficiaries are some of the most vulnerable people on the planet, and embedding safeguarding in every project is crucial.

We will only see true change when there is a root and branch transformation of the culture of the aid sector. That is why we are shortly launching an inquiry looking at how concerns about culture change can be addressed.

If the sector is serious about preventing abuse, the solution is simple; empower local communities, especially women’s groups, to have a greater say in design and delivery of aid and embed safeguarding from the start.

FCDO funded organisations must be required to report cases of abuse to it.

There must be consequences for failings that lead to cases of abuse, including poor treatment of whistle-blowers.

Our survey found that 57% of those who had tested their whistleblowing policies and practices, felt they were inadequate. Whistle-blowers play a key role in exposing abuse and forcing action, and must be protected.  

I know the vast majority of aid workers are good people, giving their all to make a difference. But, aid organisations must wake up to the fact that some of their staff are sexual predators.


Sarah Champion is the Labour MP for Rotherham and Chair of the International Development Committee.


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