Rethinking how we safeguard some of the world's most vulnerable people

Three months ago news of a "sex scandal" involving Oxfam's staff in Haiti made headlines around the world. This was followed by weeks of dreadful news stories about more than a dozen major international humanitarian and development NGOs. The #MeToo and #timesup movements had hit the humanitarian and development sector with full force. Just this past weekend there was a news story about a long-time, award winning Canadian aid worker in Nepal who was arrested for raping at least two children.

The UK's Department for International Development has referred to the reports over the last months as "a wake-up call for the entire international development sector." The Secretary of State for International Development, Penny Mordaunt, convened a Safeguarding Summit in early March. She also announced an international conference that will take place later this year.

Ms Mordaunt has demonstrated leadership and courage with the swift and determined statements and concrete steps she has taken.

I am nonetheless concerned that despite best intentions, what is being discussed and tabled so far is inadequate and risks falling well short of what could make real difference.

The proposals put forward so far include

  • An international safeguarding centre to support organisations to implement best practices on safeguarding and maximise transparency in the sector

  • New vetting and referencing standards to ensure that no offender can fall through the cracks

  • New whistleblowing provisions so individuals feel able to report offences

  • Mandatory inductions on safeguarding for all staff so any issues are identified and acted upon

  • Clear guidelines for referring incidents

Working groups of major British development NGOs are developing policy proposals built around these recommendations that will be submitted to DFID in the run-up to the conference planned later this year. Early drafts were tabled last week.

Oxfam International put forward its own set of proposals a week after the scandal broke that include:

  • A high-level commission to look into culture and practices at the organisation, with a mandate to investigate past and current claims of sexual exploitation

  • Increase the budget for the charity's safeguarding team, and doubling the number of staff working in the department

  • A global database of accredited referees to ensure sex offenders cannot falsify references and reoffend at other charities

  • A whistleblowing mechanism that is external, safe and confidential

Both sets of proposals are the cutting edge of compliance based reform when it comes to sexual malpractice. But this edifice of reforms will only work if victims and survivors speak up and come forward. Many large aid organisations, such as the World Bank and the Global Fund to Fight Aids, TB and Malaria, have whistle-blower hotlines. Yet it is almost unheard of for reports of sexual abuse to be made through these hotlines.

Harvey Weinstein now stands accused of raping women as early as the 1980s. Some of his survivors were among the best paid women in the world. Yet even they did not feel safe enough to come forward until recently. The victims of Bill Cosby go back 50 years. And when multiple allegations of sexual abuse were made against Bill O'Reilly, Fox News' star anchor, in his defence the company stated that no one had ever used the anonymous complaints hotline to raise any issues about him.

Closer to home, in the United Kingdom, over 1,500 children were sexually exploited in the town of Rotherham over a 16-year period. In a country of laws, functioning institutions, of social workers, overwhelmingly honest police officers, a free press, that has a well known independent hotline for children, it was possible for sexual predators to go almost unchecked in this small town from 1997 to 2013 because of what has been ascribed to a “toxic mix” of factors. More than 1,500 children.

A system of compliance that has effectively failed to safeguard far too many women and children in the rich, democratic West will not deliver deep change in the humanitarian and development sectors. If well paid, educated, and well connected adult women did not feel safe to speak up for decades, how can we realistically expect children, refugees, and victims of humanitarian and natural disasters to use a similar system to voice their concerns or speak up when they are victimised?

A bottom-up rethinking of how we safeguard some of the world's most vulnerable people is needed. I will make an outline proposal for this in my next post.

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