It's pointless telling this government how to reform the aid sector, MPs hear

There is no point making recommendations to the current UK government on how to reform the international aid sector when it is going backwards on human rights and accountability, MPs have been told.

An activist giving evidence to the House of Commons International Development Committee said a strategy involving anti-racism, decolonising and removing patriarchy from the sector’s systems of governance was needed. 

The committee, which was holding virtual evidence sessions yesterday as part of its ongoing inquiry into sexual abuse in the aid sector, heard how for some, bullying and harassment were commonplace within INGOs, why safeguarding was not a substitute for accountability, and what progress – if any – had been made on reform.

Responding to a question about what the UK government could do, Alexia Pepper de Caires, co-founder of Safe Space, a platform to gather testimonies on sexual harassment, exploitation and abuse in the humanitarian aid and international development sector, said: “If we start a serious agenda of anti-racism, decolonising and removing patriarchy from our systems of governance then we have a chance of doing the work that’s necessary.

“But given that we’re going in the opposite direction on those fronts, I find it hard to sit here and recommend, yet again, what the government should do.”

She said it was a waste of time because the government had already failed to listen to thousands of recommendations, not just on aid, but also on human rights.

“So until we have a government that is human rights-led, interested in accountability, and opens up space for the people with lived experience to come in and do the work, I feel that honestly this is a waste of your and my energy,” she said.

Shaista Aziz, a co-founder of Safe Space, echoed that sentiment. “We have to lead by example. The issue of #aidtoo is not just confined to aid; there’s been a #Westministertoo, there’s been many allegations inside Westminster of bullying and harassment of women and members of staff, which is what we see in other contexts.”

In a joint comment piece for Third Sector published after yesterday’s evidence session, Aziz and Pepper de Caires called for the system to be dismantled and defunded.

Earlier in the session Aziz said she thought the UK government had fallen into a trap with safeguarding, which was one of the main responses that came out of the allegations against Oxfam in 2018.

“Obviously it's essential, and a legal duty, but it’s not the same as accountability.”

Lesley Agams, a writer, lawyer and social entrepreneur, said the UK government had not done enough to listen to victims, especially those in host countries.

“As a very active member of the African feminist movement, the same points just made about safeguarding are the same points my sisters make in Africa. Safeguarding is not about us, it's about the organisations, those ‘white saviours’ protecting themselves.”

In an earlier session yesterday, experts warned that sexual predators were joining the international aid sector because abuse and harassment was so rife that they can get away with it, and called for funding cuts to aid agencies while claims of abuse were investigated or nothing would change.

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