MPs have accused aid organisations of “dragging their feet” over combating sexual exploitation and abuse in the sector, despite safeguarding pledges made in 2018 after the Oxfam abuse scandal.
Work to improve protection and support for whistleblowers has “stalled”, and more needs to be done to protect survivors, a report by the UK international development committee (IDC) has said.
While MPs recognised efforts across the aid sector to improve safeguarding, they were “disappointed” by the lack of progress in key areas.
In a report published on Thursday, the committee found limited progress had been made among NGOs on transparency, with some organisations still reluctant to publish the number of sexual abuse allegations they had received, and the outcome of investigations.
The committee expressed concerns about the Department for International Development and Bond, the UK network for aid organisations, both of which “seem reluctant to take responsibility for driving up standards on whistle-blower protection”, they said.
Measures by DfID and Bond aimed at providing better reporting and complaints mechanisms have focused too much on theory at the expense of ensuring changes in practice, the committee said. The MPs called for “an end to voluntary self-regulation” of aid agencies, which they said “allows failures on sexual exploitation and abuse to slip through the cracks”.
Pauline Latham, a Conservative member of the IDC, said: “Some of the most vulnerable people in the world are being abused and they are being abused by people they should be able to trust. We need to support these people. This is a huge issue within the industry. We need to move faster and they are just dragging their feet.”
The criticisms came as Alok Sharma, the fourth international development secretary in two years, issued a statement outlining steps made by DfID since February 2018 to put survivors first and drive culture change across the aid sector.
“The international work led by DfID over the last year has generated good momentum and is starting to deliver results,” Sharma said in a statement. However, the accompanying progress report acknowledged that providing support to victims and survivors remains a “crucial challenge”, and recognised that more needs to be done.
Sharma highlighted the introduction of a sexual misconduct disclosure scheme for employers, which had prevented the hiring of at least 10 individuals. He also called attention to the creation of a £10m register, using Interpol and national policing databases, designed to strengthen criminal record checks and stop perpetrators moving around the sector, announced at a DfID safeguarding summit in October 2018.
The MPs urged DfID to champion an independent aid ombudsman, proposed by the Dutch government, to allow an alternative form of access to justice for survivors, and to monitor the safeguarding of the sector as a whole.
“I want Britain to lead the world on this,” said Latham.
Stephen Twigg, the committee’s chairman, said MPs had previously urged the aid community to work quickly to develop robust protections focused on “victims and survivors”.
“In the year since, this work has sadly not progressed to the point it needs to be,” he said.
“The success of reforms can only be judged by how they support victims and survivors in humanitarian situations across the globe. It is clear that in this respect much more work needs to be done. There should be sufficient resourcing in place to provide access to safeguarding staff on the ground, and improvement in how whistle-blowers are supported and protected.”
In June, it emerged that Oxfam is investigating the suspected involvement of its humanitarian workers in a new sex-for aid scandal. The charity was issued with an official warning from the Charity Commission after it found Oxfam had failed to disclose allegations of child abuse in Haiti.
Commenting on the IDC report, Asmita Naik, co-author of research published in 2002 that exposed sexual abuse by aid workers in west Africa, said: “Until these organisations are prepared to speak up and be honest, how on earth do they expect victims on the ground to do so? At the moment, they are still too defensive, too secretive.”
She added: “Where’s the sense of urgency? Where are the changes on the ground? It still seems stuck at that top level policy. That is where it has been for years.”
A DfID spokesperson said: “We will continue to take robust action and are making sure UK aid doesn’t go to organisations who fall short of our expected standards.”
Stephanie Draper, CEO of Bond, said: “We value the IDC’s commitment to working with all sectors and DfID to improve safeguarding practices. However, it is a shame that months of hard work from the NGO sector to up its game across a wide range of aspects of safeguarding seems to have been overlooked in the committee’s report.”