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Sexual exploitation and abuse: why pick on charities?

There is always a line to be drawn between protecting reputation and doing the right thing. Charity trustees should be judged on whether they draw it in the right place.

Members of the Solomon Islands Young Women’s Christian Association march in support of female rights during International Women’s Day in Honiara, 2011. Credit: Flickr/DFAT/Jeremy Miller via Wikimedia Commons. CC BY 2.0.

In February 2018 The Times newspaper claimed that Oxfam GB workers in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake had paid young women for sex and that Oxfam had covered this up. This provoked a frenzy of criticism of Oxfam in the media and in Parliament. It was followed by further assertions that the aid sector had failed to deal adequately with sexual exploitation and abuse, including alleged poor governance and process around the handling of sexual harassment claims at Save the Children UK. Oxfam in particular has been forced onto the back foot and has struggled to defend itself. Both charities have suffered serious falls in income.

The Charity Commission has launched two statutory inquiries and the House of Commons International Development Select Committee (the IDSC) has undertaken an investigation into sexual exploitation and abuse in the wider aid sector. The Charity Commission is yet to pronounce, but the IDSC’s report was published on 31 July. It is an impressive piece of work, a welcome attempt to provide a holistic and balanced view of a complex and difficult issue.

Yet having worked in the sector in a leadership role and grappled with these problems I find some of the report’s conclusions harsh, particularly with regard to Oxfam. Aid organisations carry a lot of risk, operating in chaotic and stressful environments where in trying to do good they can end up doing harm. Recent revelations of sexual exploitation and abuse have pointed the finger at aid charities, but actually they are the ones who have done most to address this issue. The problem is complex and there are no easy answers; sensationalising the debate doesn’t help.

We should definitely take the IDSC’s recommendations seriously: the aid community’s duty to protect vulnerable people demands that it does better than it has done so far. Even if some of the proposals turn out to be unworkable, doing nothing is not acceptable. Improved systems and processes will make a difference, but ultimately it is the integrity and quality of leadership that counts most.

Nevertheless it is important to stress that the report is not about aid charities but the “aid sector” as a whole (including United Nations and other multilateral bodies, UN peacekeepers, bilateral donors including the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID), and international and local NGOs. Yet you would struggle to understand this from some of the media coverage of the report’s launch.

For example the headline on the BBC website’s coverage was “Charities' sexual misconduct scandal,” while the more detailed report that followed quotes the IDSC’s reference to a "collective failure of leadership" and then lazily links this to “the charities” rather than to the wider aid sector. Indeed, much of the criticism directed against charities since February has been disproportionate. Why have they been the target when the problem goes much wider?

One answer is that they are in the spotlight because they take the issue of safeguarding seriously. The report’s starting point is the 2002 enquiry carried out for Save the Children and UNHCR into sexual exploitation and abuse of refugee children by aid workers and peacekeepers in West Africa. It draws extensively both on this and on a further 2008 Save the Children study covering Haiti, Cote d’Ivoire and South Sudan.

Following the 2002 enquiry the Steering Committee for Humanitarian Response (SCHR), which comprises the chief executives of the leading international relief agency networks including Oxfam and Save the Children, instituted a process of peer review and chose the issue of safeguarding as its first topic.

In other words, these are responsible agencies who attempt to do the right thing even if they don’t always succeed—though I distinguish here between Save the Children’s approach to safeguarding in its operational work and the way it appears to have handled allegations concerning its senior executives in 2012 and 2015, which I make no attempt to defend. Bad behaviour at the top of an organisation certainly weakens efforts to tackle it lower down.

In terms of its operational work, however, the only reason the unacceptable conduct of Oxfam staff in Haiti came to light was because Oxfam had policies and procedures in place that allowed them to discover the problem and to deal with it—including putting the information in the public domain (although not all of it - see below). As the report makes clear, of more concern is what goes on in those agencies that don’t have the same standards, who don’t take safeguarding seriously enough, and where there is a “culture of denial” that sexual exploitation and abuse actually takes place.  

Unacceptable behaviour by expatriate relief workers has dominated the media coverage of the Oxfam/Haiti saga. However the IDSC was told that local people make up the highest proportion of abusers (simply because they are more numerous), and that it is impossible to deal with sexual exploitation and abuse by staff in any culture in isolation from how women—especially—are treated in those cultures; in other words the problem goes beyond the aid sector.

This highlights the limitations of one of the flagship recommendations of the report, the introduction of “a global register of aid workers.” I would support this measure because it sends a clear message, but it will almost certainly not catch the majority of potential offenders. We must not let a focus by the media on a few individuals blind us to the wider dimensions of the problem.

At various points the report accuses the aid sector of being more concerned with protecting its own reputation than with tackling the root problem of sexual exploitation and abuse. It argues that Oxfam should have given DFID more details of what happened in Haiti and that aid agencies should always be “fully transparent.” While I accept the importance of transparency it seems to me that this fails to take into account the genuine challenges faced by the trustees of charities, who have a fiduciary duty to protect the reputation of the organisation. That is because, if the charity suffers, so do its beneficiaries. So, up to a point, it is perfectly reasonable for charitable trustees to seek to act in a way that protects the charity’s reputation.

Charities are independent organisations, not arms length bodies of government. Clearly they must keep their donors and regulators informed of serious failings. But this sits alongside other obligations, and difficult decisions have to be made. What do trustees do when legal advice and values clash? For example, the legal advice Oxfam received made clear that if it had shared externally the names of those staff members it had disciplined or the reasons for their dismissal it would have exposed itself to legal risk in terms of potential privacy/human rights claims. Any costs arising from such claims would have had to be met from charitable funds that could otherwise have been used to support beneficiaries. It is easy to see why Oxfam were cautious.

Clearly, this duty to protect the reputation of the charity has limits; it cannot legitimise neglecting the interests of beneficiaries or promoting the self-interests of the organization over the values to which it subscribes. There is a balance to be struck and a line to be drawn; trustees should be judged by whether they draw that line in the right place. In the Haiti case, Oxfam at the time judged that they had; the IDSC disagrees. The Charity Commission’s conclusions on this matter will be interesting.

These considerations aside, the central argument in the report is that the aid sector must demonstrate zero tolerance of sexual exploitation and abuse. The Committee is absolutely right about this. Fundamentally this is about just two things: values and leadership. All organisations—but particularly those claiming to be values-based—need to be clear on what they stand for, spell out the behaviours they expect to see and those they will not accept, and demonstrate that they mean what they say through courageous and consistent leadership.

Not for the first time, I am reminded of the wise dictum of philosopher Onora O’Neill: “trustworthiness before trust”—in other words, if you want people to trust you, you have to show you are worthy of their trust. Even if all the recommendations in the IDSC report proved to be workable and were adopted, they could not on their own achieve that end. Systems and processes have an important role to play, but ultimately the only way to sustain trust in the aid sector—among its beneficiaries as much as its donors—is for all aid organisations to behave in a trustworthy way. And if they can’t achieve that they shouldn’t be operating at all.

About the author

Sir Mike Aaronson worked for Save the Children UK for 20 years and was its chief executive from 1995-2005. However he does not speak for the organisation and the views expressed in this piece are his alone.


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