The international development sector should have done more to tackle sexual abuse before recent media reports shed light on the issue, the chair of the NGO umbrella body Bond has told MPs.
Caroline Nursey told the International Development Select Committee yesterday that although she thought the issue of sexual abuse in charities was not something "that will ever stop", Bond and its members had always been working to tackle the issue and it was on the agenda of every trustee board.
But Nursey said it was worrying that the alleged abuse of beneficiaries in Haiti by Oxfam aid workers happened despite previous revelations emerging in 2002 about sexual abuse in the international development sector.
She said it was thought that the sector had "done a lot to address" sexual abuse since 2002, but it had obviously not done enough. She said a "cultural change" was needed in international development charities to prevent this abuse reoccurring.
"Obviously we need to do more, and that is what is being done now," said Nursey. "In the long term we will need to keep this up when attention has moved on to the next issue."
Most other sectors that had experienced problems with sexual abuse had found that "regulation from outside" was not the answer, Nursey told MPs.
She said she wanted to see more evidence that an ombudsman or a passporting system for international development staff could work in practice.
At a hearing of the committee last month, Helen Evans, former head of safeguarding at Oxfam, called for an ombudsman to be set up to scrutinise charities’ investigations into alleged sexual abuse by staff.
"Passports" for all international development staff have also been mooted in the sector after several Oxfam employees who left the charity’s Haiti programme after being accused of sexual abuse of beneficiaries worked for other charities elsewhere.
But Nursey said it could be difficult when operating abroad to ensure that staff accused of perpetrating abuse did not move on to different roles elsewhere, especially if they left before any investigation into their behaviour had been completed.
She also raised concerns from smaller international development charities about whether they would have the capacity and the funding to introduce rigorous safeguarding practices in the future, especially with the public also wanting to see a reduction in charities’ back-office costs.
Nursey told the committee that it was difficult to know the true scale of the problem of sexual abuse in the aid sector and said the issues of the abuse of staff and the abuse of beneficiaries were being "conflated" in the media coverage and the general debate about sexual harassment.
Bond members will be asked to complete a survey on safeguarding practices, Nursey said, which was expected to be completed in the next two months. She added that there would be more workshops and time at Bond’s annual conference to discuss safeguarding issues.
According to Nursey, four working groups were looking at aspects of the international development sector’s response to the safeguarding crisis, and a further safeguarding summit would be held in the autumn.