MPs call for register of staff and an ombudsman for the overseas aid sector

A report from the Commons International Development Committee says charities in this area showed 'complacency verging on complicity' towards sexual abuse

The report
The report

The House of Commons International Development Committee has called for a register of workers and a specialised ombudsman for the overseas aid sector, after concluding that organisations in this area displayed "complacency verging on complicity" towards the issue of sexual abuse and exploitation.

The committee’s report, Sexual Exploitation and Abuse in the Aid Sector, published today, says abuse in the aid sector is endemic and that organisations are more concerned with protecting their reputations than with looking after victims.

The investigation by the cross-party group of MPs was prompted by newspaper stories about sexual exploitation of both development charity beneficiaries and staff earlier this year.

The report says the sector’s response before the negative news stories emerged in February had been "reactive, patchy and sluggish".

Exploitation and abuse had been an "open secret", the report says, and those who spoke out were "silenced and ostracised". In many cases safeguarding policies had not been effectively implemented or funded, MPs found.

In the face of the news stories that exposed the issue, it says, "outrage is appropriate but surprise is not".

People who were responsible for sexual exploitation and abuse had too often been able to move to new organisations where they were able to abuse again, the report says.

"We need to see a rapid improvement of the methods for screening staff to prevent this from happening," it says.

"In the short term, this means strengthening referencing practices to improve the way that organisations communicate with each other about potentially dangerous individuals. In the longer term, this means a global register of aid workers who we can trust to operate according to the standards that we expect."

An international ombudsman should be set up, not as a "global Charity Commission" but to give victims somewhere to appeal to, the report says.

"The shortcomings that we have observed within the aid sector during the course of this inquiry demonstrate to us that self-regulation has failed," it says.

"Currently, when organisations fail to hold abusers to account, the victims and survivors have no other recourse to justice."

It also calls for the aid sector to ensure there is better gender balance on boards, at senior management level and throughout the workforce.

"While a structural gender imbalance persists within the sector, cultural change will be very difficult to achieve," the report says, calling for agreed targets and timeframes to be established at the international safeguarding conference in October.

It also calls on charities to empower their beneficiaries with knowledge of their rights and where to seek help, to proactively seek out reports of exploitation and to follow them up with investigation.

"A zero-tolerance culture on sexual exploitation and abuse is the least which victims (either in crisis situations or in the workplace) should expect," it says.

"Aid organisations must demonstrate transparency over reputation."

The sector and the Department for International Development should commit to making the recommended changes a reality when they come together for the the conference, the report says, and should not treat logistical, practical and financial difficulties as insurmountable obstacles.

It says DfID has historically failed to display leadership on the issue, although its response in recent months has been encouraging and must be sustained.

It says it is also incumbent on DfID and other donors to provide the resources for improved victim-centred reporting mechanisms.

The government must also ensure the Charity Commission has "sufficient resources" to meet the demand created by the likely increase in safeguarding-related incident reports, MPs say.

In a statement, the commission said it was pleased that the issue had been raised and it would continue to work with government to ensure it was adequately resourced to meet future challenges.

Stephen Twigg, chair of the committee, said the report was "putting all the relevant authorities on notice".

He said: "The International Development Committee will continue to give this high priority and we will be tracking progress with a view to ensuring real improvement is made.

"No matter how insurmountable this looks, solutions must be found. This horror must be confronted." 

Penny Mordaunt, the international development secretary, welcomed the report.

"Until the sector is fully prepared to address the power imbalance, cultures and behaviours that allow sexual abuse, exploitation and harassment to happen, we will never stamp it out," she said.

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