• Opinion
  • October 29, 2019
  • 9 minutes
  • 0

Shining a light on the aid sector’s dark side

For too long, sexual misconduct has loomed over the aid sector

This article was written by Peter Taylor, head of DFID’s Safeguarding Unit whose work focuses on tackling sexual exploitation and abuse and sexual harassment in the international aid sector.


Sexual exploitation, sexual abuse and sexual harassment remains far too common in almost all societies.

But it is more likely to go unchallenged or undetected in areas characterised by conflict, remoteness, weak governance and extreme power imbalances. Children and vulnerable adults — perhaps linked to characteristics including disability, ethnicity or sexuality — are most at risk.

It feels more shocking when those who are ostensibly there to help people suffering from conflict, hunger and poverty through the provision of Official Development Assistance (ODA), take advantage of their relative positions of power.

In early 2018 the aid sector’s failure over many years to do enough to prevent and respond to sexual exploitation, abuse and sexual harassment (SEAH) came into sharp relief.

Too many aid workers had been allowed to get away with sexual misconduct against adults and children. Their actions undermine trust in the whole sector and all the positive work that it does.

Cracking down on the perpetrators

18 October 2019 marked one year on since the UK Department for International Development (DFID) hosted the 2018 Safeguarding Summit, Putting People First: tackling sexual exploitation and abuse and sexual harassment in the aid sector. 

Since February 2018 DFID has significantly stepped up work with others to change the way the aid sector tackles SEAH, from root to branch.

The October 2018 summit in London was an important milestone. Representatives from more than 500 organisations came together along with survivors, victims and whistleblowers.

The summit saw eight families of organisations — including the United Nations, private sector contractors, NGOs and 22 donors who provide 90% of global ODA — committing to global standards on prevention and improved processes covering ethical behaviour, robust recruitment and complaints processes.

These were not empty promises. Work is ongoing to put victims and survivors first and drive real culture change across the aid sector. This includes:

  • DFID’s £10 million project with INTERPOL to help stop perpetrators of SEAH moving around the aid sector by strengthening criminal record checks and information sharing between countries. Regional hubs are being set up and priority countries have been identified.
  • The Misconduct Disclosure Scheme coordinated by the Steering Committee for Humanitarian Response, which means employers can share data on conduct and disciplinary records related to sexual misconduct with greater confidence. It is still early days, but the over 1,500 requests for information since January have prevented the hiring of at least 10 individuals.
  • Launching DFID’s £10 million Resource and Support Hub to provide guidance, support and training to NGOs and others and access to independent investigators for smaller charities.

Drivers of change

In October this year DFID published three reports showing some of the progress made and the challenges remaining.

The first has updates from each of the eight groups which made commitments at the summit: donors, UK NGOs, private sector suppliers, the United Nations, International Financial Institutions, CDC, research funders, and Gavi and the Global Fund.

Initiatives include new tools and guidance for NGOs; mechanisms to collaborate and learn lessons among private sector suppliers; a new reporting tool for United Nations staff; the development of a Good Guidance Note by International Financial Institutions and CDC; an evidence review of safeguarding challenges by research funders; and the rollout of new training by Gavi and the Global Fund.

It is too early to talk of success, but we are making progress

The second covers how donors are meeting their commitments.

This includes the adoption of a new OECD Development Assistance Committee recommendation on ending SEAH in the aid sector; work to align donor SEAH clauses in funding agreements with multilateral agencies; and collective leverage to drive change across the UN.

Donors are continuing to strengthen accountability, build more robust systems and drive culture change across the whole international system. The third gives more details about what DFID has done.

Demanding more

The concerted efforts since February 2018 have generated good momentum and some early results. It is too early to talk of success, but we are making progress.

DFID has a team focused solely on tackling SEAH in the aid sector. We promote transparency and information sharing, but always with the needs and wishes of victims and survivors in mind. We are trying to remain humble, recognising our limitations and the expertise and experience of others.

Even after an enormous amount of work since early 2018, building on earlier efforts too, we remain at the start of a journey

We regularly convene multiple groups to break down silos and bring representatives from donors, NGOs, the private sector, the research community and representatives of vulnerable groups together to discuss difficult issues and learn from each other. DFID has hardwired measures to improve prevention and response throughout the project cycle, from design, to due diligence, implementation and monitoring and learning. We are trying to align with other donors to minimise burdens while driving up standards.

We are being more demanding of our partners, but also supportive in terms of guidance and resources to help them meet the more exacting safeguarding standards we have introduced into our funding arrangements.

A long journey ahead

But even after an enormous amount of work since early 2018, building on earlier efforts too, we remain at the start of a journey.

We must collectively keep working until every individual feels able to speak up and challenge abuses of power wherever they occur. We must continue to do all we can to make zero tolerance a reality, by which we mean responding appropriately to every single report or case.

DFID will continue to do all we reasonably can to prevent SEAH from happening, listen to those affected, respond appropriately when allegations are made, and learn from every single case.

We are determined to maintain momentum across the whole aid sector, to ensure the failings of the past do not happen again and to deliver better results for the people we serve.

If we do not get things right on safeguarding, and ensure the protection of the most vulnerable, then we fail in our ultimate goal to support the world’s poorest and jeopardise all the positive work aid does.

The commitments made at the London summit are having a positive impact. But more is required by every organisation and every programme if we are going to stop sexual exploitation and abuse and sexual harassment in the aid sector. Something which we must achieve. — Peter Taylor

(Picture credit: Albert González Farran – UNAMID)

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