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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 21 November 2018

Aid groups failing to tackle abuse, UK watchdog says

Charity sector accused of "sluggish" response to sexual abuse

UK development minister Penny Mordaunt said overseas aid charities were cracking down on sexual exploitation since the Oxfam scandal broke earlier in 2018. AP
UK development minister Penny Mordaunt said overseas aid charities were cracking down on sexual exploitation since the Oxfam scandal broke earlier in 2018. AP

International aid groups are failing to tackle "horror" sexual abuse and harassment in the charity sector, a British watchdog said on Tuesday.

It follows global outrage earlier this year after the revelation of sexual misconduct by aid workers in Haiti.

The International Development Committee — a British parliamentary group — said the response by the humanitarian sector towards widespread sexual abuse was "reactive, patchy and sluggish" and "one of complacency, verging on complicity".

The aid world has come under intense scrutiny since it was revealed that Oxfam staff used prostitutes in Haiti during a relief mission after the country's 2010 earthquake.

Reports have also surfaced of Syrian women being sexually exploited in return for aid, and the harassment of women in the head offices of global charities.

"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," an IDC report said.

"The abject failure of the international aid sector to get to grips with this issue, leaving victims at the mercy of those who seek to use power to abuse others … must be tackled," said Stephen Twigg, chairman of the committee.

"No matter how insurmountable this looks, solutions must be found. This horror must be confronted," he said.

A survey by the Thomson Reuters Foundation in February found more than 120 staff from about 20 leading global charities were sacked or lost their jobs last year over sexual misconduct.

The IDC, which monitors the performance of Britain's Department for International Development, said the aid industry had a "culture of denial" which penalised victims for speaking out while allowing abusers to move freely.

The report said there needed to be a global register of aid workers to ensure accountability, and better reporting mechanisms for whistleblowers.

"The increased public attention on safeguarding has resulted in more people coming forward to report allegations and incidents. This is a sign that the culture around safeguarding is shifting," said Judith Brodie, the interim head of the British network for agencies working in overseas development.

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Britain's aid minister Penny Mordaunt told the Thomson Reuters Foundation the sector had improved since the scandal broke.

"A huge amount of work has gone on since the Oxfam scandal broke. There's still a lot to do, but from where we were [in February], it's completely transformed," she said.

Ms Mordaunt will host a global summit in London in October aimed at getting leading donors, humanitarian agencies and others to agree on measures to prevent sexual exploitation.