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UK Aid Sector Urged to Take Action

6 March 2018 at 8:33 am
Wendy Williams
Aid charities in the UK are being urged to take action to tackle sexual exploitation and abuse in the sector in the wake of the Oxfam scandal.

Wendy Williams | 6 March 2018 at 8:33 am


UK Aid Sector Urged to Take Action
6 March 2018 at 8:33 am

Aid charities in the UK are being urged to take action to tackle sexual exploitation and abuse in the sector in the wake of the Oxfam scandal.

UK International Development Secretary Penny Mordaunt, has tasked delegates of a landmark summit to come up with a series of actions to address the shortcomings in the aid sector.

Speaking ahead of the summit on Monday, Mordaunt said “now is the time for action”.

“The aid sector needs to ensure it is meeting its duty of care to the world’s most vulnerable people,” Mordaunt said.

“It needs to be honest about past mistakes. It must do all it can to win back the trust of the British public.”

Mordaunt said the summit, which is co-hosted by the Department for International Development and the Charity Commission, was a “crucial moment” to learn lessons from the past and drive up standards across the sector.

“Today, we begin taking the practical steps to ensure the safety of the people we help is always our first priority and that the British aid sector sets the standard for the rest of the world to follow,” she said.

The summit brings together UK international development charities, regulatory bodies and independent experts, with the aim of forging a commitment to drive up safeguarding standards and take steps to tackle sexual exploitation and abuse within charities and by staff abroad.

Those in attendance are set to sign a joint statement setting out key principles they will adhere to and will agree on a set of practical actions to improve standards and restore trust in the sector following the allegations that have come to light since early February.

Some of the ideas to be discussed include ensuring whistle-blowers and survivors of exploitation and abuse get the counselling and support they need, changing organisational culture to tackle power imbalances, encourage reporting, and hold people to account, and creating an independent body to promote external scrutiny and ensure standards across the aid sector.

The newly appointed chair of the Charity Commission Baroness Tina Stowell said she was  encouraged to see leaders of international aid agencies coming together at the summit.

“The recent accounts of sexual exploitation and abuse in the aid sector are deeply distressing. Not only have some aid workers abused the people they were sent to support, but by not exposing and responding to these serious failings properly at the time, charities have betrayed the public’s trust in what the word charity actually means,” Stowell said.

“I am encouraged to see leaders of international aid agencies coming together at today’s summit with a firm commitment to bringing about cultural change in charities and making the protection of people their top priority. The Charity Commission will work constructively with charities to identify practical changes and help make them work.

“But however noble the cause, it will never justify means which fall below basic standards of conduct expected of any organisation. And if we are to restore public trust and the nation’s pride in what charities achieve, we have to show that’s what we understand.”

Her comments come after the Charity Commission opened a statutory inquiry into Oxfam on 12 February, after it examined documents sent by the organisation regarding allegations of misconduct by staff involved in its humanitarian response in Haiti.

The commission raised concerns that Oxfam may not have fully and frankly disclosed material details about the allegations at the time in 2011, its handling of the incidents since, and the impact that these have both had on public trust and confidence.

The commission announced a suite of measures, including a new Charity Commission taskforce, to help ensure charities “learn the wider lessons” from recent safeguarding revelations and to strengthen public trust and confidence in charities.

Meanwhile, the points raised at the summit will be taken to a wide-ranging global safeguarding conference later in the year to drive action across the whole international aid sector.

It builds on action already taken by DFID in response to allegations of sexual exploitation and abuse in the aid sector, including establishing a new Safeguarding Unit to urgently review safeguarding across all parts of the aid sector.

In a statement to Parliament on 20 February, the international development secretary committed DFID to a review of reported allegations of sexual misconduct involving DFID staff and delivery partners, which is due to report back by Tuesday 6 March.

The international development secretary has also written to every UK charity working overseas that receives UK aid insisting they spell out the steps they are taking to ensure their safeguarding policies are fully in place, and confirm they have referred all concerns they have about specific cases and individuals to the relevant authorities, including prosecuting authorities.

Paul Ronalds, CEO of Save the Children Australia, told Pro Bono News that no organisation can afford to be complacent.

“There is a clear distinction between the way that the aid sector in the UK has been regulated compared to the regulation here in Australia. So some years ago the industry adopted a voluntary code of conduct which I think has been a really significant source of ensuring public trust in the aid sector here, so I think that is the first piece to really reinforce. The second piece obviously is we’ve got the accreditation process with DFAT and things like child safeguarding is a key part of that,” Ronalds said.

“All of that said I don’t think that any organisation can be complacent, so while we might point to a whole range of good practice in Australia, we also have to, I think, make sure we go back over the way we vet staff, that is how we identify staff and bring them into the organisation, how we train staff, how we promote access to whistleblowing and those sorts of things, how we do regular reporting on these sorts of child safeguarding and sexual abuse type issues.

“And what we have really clearly learnt from the United Kingdom’s experience is that public trust in the way that aid is administered by charities, by managing contractors, but the government itself is absolutely critical and we all need to make sure that we are doing absolutely everything to maintain that public trust.”

He said the summit in the UK was a useful mechanism for the country’s aid sector to rebuild trust.

“Certainly here in Australia, we’ve been having ongoing conversations as signatories to the code to conduct and with our peak body ACFID, about what work we should do as a sector here to make sure that we are collectively adopting the highest possible processes and systems to make sure that we have got the right standards in place,” he said.

“So I would just reiterate that no organisation can be complacent, we are relatively large organisations, we have thousands of employees around the world and in any situation you are going to have the odd bad apple, it is about do you have systems and process in place that are able to identify those really early in the process and then are you dealing with it really vigorously and transparently.”

Wendy Williams  |  Editor  |  @WendyAnWilliams

Wendy Williams is a journalist specialising in the not-for-profit sector and broader social economy. She has been the editor of Pro Bono News since 2018.

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