Sexual exploitation and abuse continues to be “a scourge” on the international development sector, MPs have concluded.
The chair of the House of Commons International Development Committee, which has today published its report examining progress made on tackling the sexual exploitation and abuse of people receiving aid, said the sector had “effectively become the last safe haven for perpetrators”.
The committee’s report says that almost three-quarters of stakeholders that took part in a snapshot poll said sexual exploitation and abuse perpetrated by aid workers remained a problem, while 26 per cent said they had witnessed what they thought was abusive behaviour.
The report says that the overwhelming majority of aid workers carry out remarkable work in challenging circumstances.
“However, sexual exploitation and abuse continues to be a scourge on the sector,” it says.
But it says that the problem should not be seen as a reason to cut aid programmes.
“We will continue to challenge aid delivery organisations to improve their policies and practices to ensure they are doing everything they can to prevent sexual exploitation and abuse from occurring,” it says.
In some instances, this will require a “root and branch transformation of the culture at the organisation”, the report says.
The report notes that some improvements have been made in the sector, such as hiring dedicated champions to prevent abuse and exploitation and new whistleblower protections.
“However, predominantly female aid beneficiaries are continuing to be preyed upon,” it says.
Recommendations made by the committee include asking the UK government to amend existing legislation to require aid workers to undertake enhanced disclosure and barring checks before they undertake their work.
The committee also said a huge issue with reporting remained, with female aid recipients understandably distrustful of a sector that might have abused and exploited them.
Aid organisations must attach much more importance to engaging women on the ground, making sure they know their rights and design possible solutions with them, MPs said.
MPs also said a full, transparent audit of whistleblowing in the aid sector should be carried out by the Foreigh, Commonwealth and Development Office to provide a better understanding of how whistleblowing practices are being used and give confidence that whistleblowers are not being retaliated against by their employers.
Sarah Champion, chair of the committee and the Labour MP for Rotherham, said: “I have huge admiration for the aid sector, but it needs to wake up to what is going on and embed safeguarding within all of its programmes.
“Our inquiry has found that abuse of beneficiaries is rife, and that the sector has effectively become the last safe haven for perpetrators.
“Throughout the inquiry we heard repeatedly of abusers acting with impunity, whistleblowers being hounded out of their jobs, and victims finding it impossible to secure justice.
“We must stop this patronising attitude of aid giants imposing aid programmes on beneficiaries and local groups without including them in the design.
“It only builds distrust and gives an ‘us and them’ picture to the people that the aid sector is meant to support, and also the abusers looking to exploit.”
Stephanie Draper, chief executive of Bond, the UK network for organisations working in international development, said enhanced DBS checks for frontline aid workers was an “obvious change that is needed to keep people safe and is something that the government can implement right away”.
She said: “The FCDO must also adopt the highest safeguarding standards within its code of conduct and apply this consistently across all delivery partners.
“Leaders across the sector should understand, and step into, the pivotal role they play in creating and maintaining a safe culture that prevents sexual exploitation and abuse within organisations and programmes. Alongside better gender and ethnic diversity representation in leadership, this will help make good safeguarding standards a behaviour, rather than just another set of policies.”
A spokesperson for the FCDO said the government would be looking carefully at the IDC report “and will review our funding agreements and code of conduct for partners in light of the recommendations”.
They added: “This government has zero tolerance for any failure to address this problem and we have tackled it head-on by setting enhanced standards and vetting procedures, and publishing a safeguarding strategy covering the entire UK aid sector.”
The committee said its findings had led it to decide to begin a new inquiry into the philosophy of aid.