The future of the left since 1884

Making a difference

Strong words on tackling sexual exploitation and abuse in the aid sector need to be backed up by effective action, argues Asmita Naik.



Last year’s scandal of sexual exploitation in the world of aid had a uniquely British angle; with two beloved British charities at its core, Oxfam and Save the Children UK. Perceived largely as a problem for “British aid” by the wider international community, it fell on the UK government to lead the response. But what are the policies needed to prevent these abuses? And where are we now at the anniversary of the scandal and on the eve of the publication of the Charity Commission investigation into Oxfam?

International development secretary Penny Mordaunt threatened funding cuts to implicated agencies; a move quietly welcomed by frontline practitioners who have long wanted a stick to force their own leaders into action. The Department for International Development (DFID) hurriedly assembled a new team; allocated millions of pounds of funding; and mobilised international engagement. In the meantime, the UK parliament kept the pressure up launching an inquiry and issuing a scathing report in July 2018 on the failure of the international system to tackle these abuses; the only independent and frank assessment on the state of the sector.

Policy efforts culminated at the Global Safeguarding Summit in London in October 2018 which brought together more than 500 delegates from across the world of aid. The most critical policy change was an agreement by 22 donor governments (controlling over 90 per cent of the world’s humanitarian aid) to use their financial clout to require aid agencies to adhere to high standards on tackling sexual exploitation and abuse in exchange for funding.

Prevention is key and much can be done at little or no cost to stop abuses from happening in the first place, for example, aid agencies can do more to inculcate organisational values which prioritise human dignity instead of a competitive spirit which emphasises funding, growth and reputation. But realistically implementing high standards will cost. Bread and butter work is needed to set up effective complaints mechanisms so that victims are heard, allegations effectively investigated and perpetrators punished by the organisations responsible for hiring them as well as reported to the authorities where crimes are involved.

But does the government’s investment hit the spot? So far DFID’s flagship projects miss the mark and tinker with the periphery of the issue. A hefty £10m is being invested in an Interpol project to enable agencies to check new recruits against global criminal records. Given that most such incidents do not result in criminal convictions for a variety of reasons – victims don’t report, crimes are not investigated and prosecuted in contexts of conflict, disaster or weak systems of law and order or because the acts in themselves are not crimes but rather breaches of internal codes – it is hard to see what information such registers will reveal. This is in addition to the usual problem affecting such registers; that they are out of date as soon as they are checked. None of the well-known cases reported last year from Oxfam, Save the Children, UNAIDS/WHO, UNWOMEN, UNFPA, MSF or senior aid officials like Peter Dalgleish in Nepal (or even the old 2002 West Africa cases which first sparked off global policy on this issue) would have been prevented by checking a register. Interpol suggests that where criminal convictions don’t exist, it will share mere ’suspicions‘ about individuals with enquiring agencies, raising a whole set of different concerns about civil liberties and data protection.

Another flagship project, humanitarian passporting whereby all aid workers will  be registered takes civil liberties concerns to another level and is inherently ineffectual – given that over 90 per cent of the world’s aid workers are locally recruited, often as casual labourers, and in places without basic  record-keeping, (even birth registration), it is hard to see what difference this will make aside from imposing a great onus on the beleaguered majority of aid workers who enjoy few employment rights as it is. The initiative also threatens the localisation agenda and risks excluding aid workers from the Global South from the market if they are unable to prove their credentials.

These measures don’t address the core issue – that most abusers are opportunistic (taking advantage of lax standards) and, inevitably, often local, given the structure of the workforce.  The stereotypical image of the western paedophile infiltrating aid agencies is not at the heart of this problem. Criminal justice responses driven by that understanding are bound to make little difference; they may tackle other issues of interest to the government – organised crime, trafficking, terrorism, sex tourism – but not this one.

Other policy announcements are likewise bemusing: £20 million for research on sexual violence and conflict when no such sums are announced for action. In any case, since the UK government has been focusing on sexual violence in conflict for years (recalling initiatives involving William Hague, Angelina Jolie etc.) without once looking at aid worker abuse, this rather looks like recycled old money. A ‘resource hub’ was also announced; this has potential value providing it doesn’t duplicate what has already been done in the sector over many years. DFID is also engaging with a Dutch government initiative to explore the idea of an international ombudsman for aid which may add value in terms of ensuring cases come to light in the future, without the need for a media scandal first.

The rights of all constituencies need to be remembered in designing a strong policy response – victims/survivors; witnesses/whistleblowers; aid recipients and communities; accused persons; perpetrators; aid workers at large and tax payers. Solutions need not be over-engineered or expensive; they must be effective and efficient and target the core of the problem first.

The flagship projects announced so far raise inevitable questions about whether there is really new money for this issue or whether funds are being diverted to other matters. Successive British governments, both Labour and Tory, have failed to take this problem seriously since it first registered on the global agenda in 2002. Now that it has got attention and in the absence of a magic money tree, government funding needs to get to heart of the matter if it is to make a lasting difference to aid worker abuses.

Photo credit: Department for International Development

Asmita Naik

Asmita Naik is a consultant on human rights and international development and co-author of the 2002 UNHCR/Save the Children West Africa sex for aid report. She can be contacted on

Fabian membership

Join the Fabian Society today and help shape the future of the left

You’ll receive the quarterly Fabian Review and at least four reports or pamphlets each year sent to your door

Be a part of the debate at Fabian conferences and events and join one of our network of local Fabian societies

Join the Fabian Society
Fabian Society

By continuing to use the site, you agree to the use of cookies. more information

The cookie settings on this website are set to "allow cookies" to give you the best browsing experience possible. If you continue to use this website without changing your cookie settings or you click "Accept" below then you are consenting to this.