More work needed to tackle abuse in the aid sector, organisations tell MPs

Two of the sector's biggest international aid organisations admitted they need to do more to prevent sexual exploitation and abuse after MPs questioned why they are not more proactive in identifying victims.

Children’s charity Unicef, and the United Nations refugee agency UNHCR were put under the microscope by MPs during an online evidence session by the House of Commons International Development Committee yesterday.

The committee is investigating sexual exploitation and abuse in the aid sector.

Both Unicef and the UNHCR described how they had strengthened investigative capacities, improved internal and external training, strengthened host country awareness raising for partners and beneficiaries, and created safe spaces for victims to speak out.

Other initiatives focused on preventing perpetrators from moving through aid recruitment systems, and addressing power imbalances in gender and employment, but MPs heard that under-reporting was still a challenge.

“We don’t go looking for reports but we do try to provide safe spaces," aid Diane Goodman, senior coordinator on sexual exploitation, abuse and harassment at the UNHCR. "We also work with the women to design reporting mechanisms."

Hannan Sulieman, deputy executive director at Unicef, said individual victims were not always sought because there was concern about exposing them in their communities but the charity did organise awareness sessions on how and where to report.

MPs also heard from the Charity Commission and the international development network Bond.

Helen Stephenson, the regulator’s chief executive, said that if international development charities could not keep people safe then they should not be in receipt of aid.

Asked whether the current regulatory system was sufficient to hold international aid agencies to account, Stephenson said there was no “magic bullet”, and that reform was needed but it was a complex challenge because it includes so many actors, not just charities, but businesses and other organisations delivering aid.

She also said the commission had not had any conversations with the government about a possible international aid regulator.

Stephanie Draper, chief executive at Bond, described the need to instil a culture of safeguarding across the sector.

She said a “fully funded” commission could support investigations, and share what is learned, especially at smaller charities that may not have the knowledge or capacity to investigate claims. 

Last week, MPs heard that sexual predators were joining the aid sector because abuse was so prevalent they believe they could get away with it.

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