Kevin Watkins, chief executive of Save the Children, has called for a global equivalent of the Disclosure and Barring Service to allow aid organisations to vet people before employing them.
Speaking yesterday at an International Development Select Committee hearing called in the wake of revelations about sexual exploitation by Oxfam staff in Haiti, Watkins said the vulnerability of the people whom aid organisations worked with meant a strong system of checks was required.
He said Save the Children had produced two reports since 2002 that looked at its own safeguarding and safeguarding in the wider aid sector. These, he said, had highlighted "the role of powerful men as gatekeepers – to food, to shelter and to security" and showed that beneficiaries dealing with such people could feel threatened and unprotected.
"The problem we have is that if you tip poison into the river, everyone who uses that river will be affected by it," he said.
"Here in the UK we have very strong screening procedures and, because we’re a children’s charity, we can take full advantage of the DBS."
But further afield, he said, it became more difficult to vet workers. "I actually strongly believe that as a sector we would benefit from legislation that established humanitarian aid work as a regulated sector," he told MPs. "But it can’t apply just to the UK – we need a globalisation of the DBS system."
Watkins also revealed that 11 Save staff had been dismissed in 2016 after allegations of sexual misconduct were made. The charity had been told of 193 cases of sexual misconduct that year, of which 53 had been investigated and 20 had resulted in information being handed to the police.
He said the Oxfam crisis was a warning to the sector against complacency.
"If I sat here and told you I thought we were doing enough, that would be complacency," he said. "We are absolutely not being complacent. We have to strengthen our systems across all our programmes."
Watkins said the aid sector was vulnerable to predatory men who inserted themselves into positions of power by offering food and security to those in need.
"And the whole aim of a regulated system is to constrain arbitrary power and to protect people from the abuse of arbitrary power, which is a consistent thing in these cases," he said.
Save the Children’s former policy director, Brendan Cox, resigned from the charity in 2015 while he was being investigated for alleged sexual harassment.
This week, as the allegations resurfaced in the national press, Cox stepped down as a trustee of the Jo Cox foundation, which he set up last year in memory of his wife, the murdered MP Jo Cox.
It also emerged today that Justin Forsyth, Save the Children’s former chief executive, had apologised for sending inappropriate messages to female staff while at the charity.