Government pondering idea of an aid sector ombudsman

Responding to a report from a parliamentary committee, the government says it partially agrees with this recommendation and is looking at the next steps

Aid sector: is an ombudsman needed?
Aid sector: is an ombudsman needed?

The government has said it is looking into the "next steps" in developing an international ombudsman for the aid sector.

In its response to the House of Commons International Development Select Committee’s report on sexual exploitation and abuse in the aid sector, the government said it had "actively considered" the option of forming an international aid ombudsman since the scandal over safeguarding in the aid sector erupted in February.

In its report, published in July, the committee called for the aid sector to "recognise the vital importance of establishing an independent aid ombudsman and take tangible steps towards making this a reality" and said the Department for International Development should "play its part by ensuring that there is a sector-wide commitment on this" at the International Safeguarding Conference it had planned for 18 October.

In its response, the government said it partially agreed with this recommendation. It said that it had "actively considered the idea of an international aid ombudsman".

It said: "The Netherlands facilitated an independent study into the matter and circulated the final report on 17 October. It was too late at that stage to agree on next steps in time for the summit. Over the coming months DfID and other members of the donor group will examine the study and consider next steps."

But the government said it did not believe the creation of a stand-alone international register of aid workers, which the committee’s report recommended, was "currently feasible".

Instead, it pointed to a series of pilot measures launched at the 18 October summit that, if successful, would "achieve the desired effect of the proposed register – namely to deter and prevent perpetrators from entering the sector and to quickly identity and root them out if they do".

These included a passport for aid workers to prove their identity and provide background information on their previous employment and vetting status, a new disclosure-of-misconduct scheme to prevent known perpetrators moving around different charities undetected, and a new system to improve background checks on staff who work in the aid sector, piloted by Interpol and with financial support from DfID.

The government said it did not believe that an audit of the aid sector’s whistleblowing practices was necessary because it had already commissioned a report from its Violence Against Women and Girls Helpdesk on the evidence of the effectiveness of different mechanisms for reporting sexual exploitation and abuse.

The response said: "DfID’s enhanced safeguarding due-diligence guidance, which was published on 18 October, includes a focus on a partner organisation’s whistleblowing policies." It added that, unless the policies outlined by DfID’s guidance were present at an organisation, it was unlikely to pass its due-diligence assessment.

The government’s response welcomed the report, saying: "Aid must be delivered in a way which does no harm. For too long, the sector has failed to protect people from sexual exploitation and abuse and sexual harassment or hold perpetrators to account.

"DfID recognises that it is important that we hold ourselves to at least as high a standard as we hold our partners. We have therefore conducted a rigorous assessment of our policies, systems and processes to make sure they provide the support needed to our staff, partners and beneficiaries. This is a long-term agenda and we will work to ensure that it remains a focus across the international system."

Judith Brodie, interim chief executive of the international development umbrella body Bond, said: "We agree with the select committee that safeguarding cannot be resolved with quick fixes. This is why we have committed to continuing to work with our members, DfID and the Charity Commission to explore and develop long-term, sustainable solutions that prevent the wrong kind of people working in our sector and ensure any incidents are dealt with promptly and robustly when they arise."

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