Shaista Aziz and Alexia Pepper de Caires: Time for accountability in aid NGOs such as Save the Children

It’s very clear from today’s Charity Commission report that Save the Children, one of the UK’s largest and best established charities, with an annual turnover of millions, behaved appallingly throughout the period in which sexual abuses were conducted by senior male managers in the organisation. It is Save the Children's toxic workplace culture that enabled and covered up these abuses of power. This is as serious as it gets.

The Charity Commission investigation into Save the Children has taken more than eight months to be finalised and shows clearly that senior managers and trustees failed to “own” the toxic cultures inside the organisation that enabled sexual harassment, abuse and cover-ups.

The report shows clearly the devastation to women seeking redress for sexual harassment, bullying and abuse caused by weak governance and a cosy male management team running informal processes to "investigate" very serious allegations.

As those who worked at Save the Children at the time can testify, the organisation had a culture of serious mismanagement.

Trustees and directors led a cover-up and issued misleading or inaccurate statements because, as we have seen repeatedly with #AidToo, the first priority for organisations such as Save the Children is to protect their brand and launch aggressive communications campaigns to do.

In Save the Children’s case, it was their former chair of trustees, Sir Alan Parker, chair of the PR company Brunswick Group, who was accused by staff in an internal petition issued in 2018 of trying to “dampen down” the reputational risk to the organisation from failing to investigate serious allegations and claims made by women against senior male managers. The Charity Commission's powerful report also echoes this.

One senior journalist investigating the claims made against Save the Children told us in 2018 that they had never witnessed such an aggressive push back from any organisation, which was, in effect, trying to stop them from reporting on the abuse allegations.

Indeed, amongst journalists we’ve been working with over the past two years on our #AidToo campaigning, this message has been repeated.

It is workplace cultures such as the one at Save the Children that further harm women who have been exposed to sexual harassment, misconduct and abuse. The harm is physical, mental, economic and long term. For many it echoes the harm survivors of domestic abuse live with.

It is beyond incredible that Save the Children’s current chief executive, Kevin Watkins, was a trustee at the time these abuses were taking place and was later appointed chief of the same organisation he and other trustees were appointed to regulate, but failed to do so.

This huge conflict of interest goes to the heart of weak and failed charity governance and toxic patriarchal cultures that heap further harm on women being targeted by sexual harassment and abuse.

Two years ago, we founded NGO Safe Space, an intersectional platform seeking to hold the aid sector to account over #AidToo abuses and to support victims, survivors, whistleblowers and campaigners.

As women with decades of experience of working in the aid sector in operational teams, including that of Save the Children, we witnessed the toxic patriarchal abuses of power in these institutions.

As intersectional feminist campaigners and advocates working outside the sector, we continue to see even more clearly how power in western NGO headquarters, overwhelmingly white, privileged and male, protects and, indeed, reinforces power and allows these same men to fail upwards. 

We have also seen how NGOS such as Oxfam and Save the Children have closed ranks and continued to conflate the issue of safeguarding with accountability.

The two are radically different: accountability is the element of the equation that is overridden in the name of so called "safeguarding", which has become a cottage industry in the #AidToo charity sector.

We need to see urgent accountability across this sector, but so far it is  missing.

It is why we, as former Save the Children employees and women working with victims and survivors of #AidToo abuse, call on Kevin Watkins to resign immediately as Save the Children’s chief executive and for the organisation to provide counselling, support and compensation to victims of sexual harassment and abuse.

Shaista Aziz and Alexia Pepper de Caires are founders of NGO Safe Space

Have you registered with us yet?

Register now to enjoy more articles and free email bulletins

Register
Already registered?
Sign in