The crisis that will not go away: the scandal in the aid sector

1 Aug 2018 Nick Garbutt    Last updated: 1 Aug 2018

There is much more to the sexual exploitation and abuse scandal in the aid sector than the shocking headlines in the media this week suggest.

And the full report by the International Development Committee suggests that the problems are so endemic that eliminating them will be a long, very expensive battle which will take many years – not least because many of the organisations at fault are not directly under control of the UK authorities and Charity Commission. The United Nations, peace keeping forces from many nations, as well as global aid organisations are amongst those culpable.

It is important to fully understand what has been going on, why it has happened, what needs to be done and why this is likely to be so difficult. There are disturbing echoes of clerical abuse both in regards to the exploitation of vulnerable young people and a response which has been more about preserving reputation than tackling the abuse.

Sexual exploitation and abuse (SEA) by aid workers and peacekeepers has been a problem for years, many decades. The exact scale of it is unknown yet practitioners suspect that the cases which have come to light to date are “only the tip of the iceberg.” It is abundantly clear that many more appalling stories will surface in the months and years to come. It will be critical both for governments and the general public to recognise that an increase in reporting of issues is evidence of better safeguarding and not of a decline in standards. Otherwise the entire sector will be under threat of collapse.

Firstly we need to understand that aid work, because it is globalised and chaotic is an attractive sector for predators wishing to exploit others. Aid recipients are in crisis and, often, the affected region is de-stabilised. There may be little or no law and order.

Perpetrators, whether from the local country, or overseas are, according to the report, usually men with power, money and influence and “included mainly local humanitarian workers extorting sex in exchange for desperately needed aid supplies (biscuits, soap, medicines, plastic sheeting etc).

Any circumstances where the distribution of shelter, food and water can provide potential abusers with powerful levers of influence is deeply disturbing and in the case of relief aid, this is a fundamental task and one where the vulnerable need full protection.

Some victims do not see themselves as such but there are many instances of “potentially exploitative but consensual relations between local inhabitants and peacekeepers.”

Unfortunately weeding out predators is a daunting task. UK agencies could be covered off by making aid work a regulated profession and introducing compulsory checks. But aid work is global and the opportunity for abusers to move from region to region in unregulated environments will always exist unless and until global regulation is introduced. This is far from straightforward.

A report into abuse as far back as 2001 in West Africa found that most victims were young girls aged between 13 and 18. The consequences were far-reaching: “pregnancies, abortions, teenage motherhood, exposure to sexually transmitted diseases and HIV/AIDS, lost educational, skills-training and employment opportunities and social exclusion.

Boys were also exploited. One is quoted as being forced to wash other peoples’ underpants for food.

The report concludes: “those receiving aid in humanitarian crisis situations are some of the most vulnerable and disempowered people in the world. The sector as a whole needs to confront the fact that, although the exact scale remains unknown, sexual exploitation and abuse is happening and it is happening across organisations, countries and institutions. It is endemic, and it has been for a long time. Outrage is appropriate, but surprise is not.”

Indeed the response from the UN, many governments, including the UK government and humanitarian organisations to media reports of abuse has been a flurry of initial activity which has, in the past not been followed through.

It seems as if what matters is not so much the safety of victims, as the reputation of the organisation concerned. This seems, from the outside to be extraordinary.

William Anderson, formerly in charge of safeguarding at Oxfam told the committee: “It took me a while to realise that some of my early conversations were at loggerheads; when I talked about risk it was about protecting the vulnerable whereas most risk conversations in Oxfam were about reputational risk and how to protect the Oxfam brand.”

Training is available to NGOs through the Core Humanitarian Standard (CHS) Alliance which operates in 160 countries. It informed the committee that in 2017 it had no requests whatsoever for a training course it ran on effective complaint responses despite this area having the lowest score for the sector.

Government response has been equally lax – a report which contained allegations about British peacekeepers in West Africa was not followed up either by the UN or the UK government. It’s author told the committee that they were the first body to ask about it.

The report points out that the sector’s response to SEA is not victim-centred. This is especially troubling given the many barriers there are to reporting incidents.

For example in Yemen, a survivor of SEA might be accused of adultery or engaging in the crime of prostitution and be arrested as a consequence.

It cites other barriers to complaint:

  • Dependency on the abuser

“He’s using the girl, but without him she won’t be able to eat.” (Teenage girl, Cote d’Ivoire)

  • Fear of retaliation

“Some children are scared they might be killed by the abuser.” (Young boy, Haiti)

  • Fear of being stigmatised

“Your name will be ruined” (Young girl, Cote d’Ivoire)

  • Fear of other social consequences, such as being forced to marry the abuser

“The father would try to persuade the man to take the girl as a bride and to pay cattle for her.” (Young girl, South Sudan)

On top of all that can be community pressure – the notion that if people in a particular area complain about abuse then humanitarian organisations will stop providing aid.

A further issue highlighted in the report is the lack of investment in safeguarding within aid organisations. It seems to be the case that cutting down costs is a bigger priority, so that charities and others can maximise monies that go to the front line. The committee and the Charity Commission are now saying that effective safeguarding is not an administrative cost it is a responsibility and must be properly factored into aid work. On top of this, given that there is considerable under-reporting at present of abuse it has to be accepted that for some time, reported incidents of SEA will increase. This should not be seen as a sign of a failing organisation, but one which is improving its systems. This will be a difficult message to get across to the media and the general public.

Sexual abuse is not confined to aid recipients. Staff also fall victim. The report is especially damning of the UN in this regard: “Caroline Hunt-Matthes, an independent investigator who has worked for 8 UN organisations, described a “culture of brutal retaliation” against whistleblowers at the UN and a “culture of denial when the UN or a humanitarian organisation is confronted with SEA allegations”. This is not just about lack of clarity over what is acceptable, and points to something much deeper and darker, and altogether more difficult to address.”

Civilian UN officials have different levels of immunity from prosecution when working overseas. Those highest in rank have pretty much full-blown diplomatic immunity – a serious barrier to holding people to account. In February 2018 the UN committed to not apply for immunity in sexual exploitation and abuse cases – this has yet to be put into effect but at least it is a positive development. 

The scale of the problem and the response of all parties to date  points to the need for a complete culture change, and also ensuring gender balance in organisations to break down “boys clubs” wherever they exist.

Finally we arrive at one of the most daunting challenges of all. The Charity Commission is already groaning under the weight of an increasing workload in the face of government cuts. This inhibits its ability to deal with the surge in caseloads relating to aid charities. That can be fixed with extra cash. But if there is to be real progress it needs to be on a global basis, with some form of global regulator, or ombudsman in place. At best that has to be a long-term aspiration.

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