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Select Committee on International Development

Volume 687: debated on Thursday 14 January 2021

Select Committee statement

We now come to the Select Committee statement. Sarah Champion will speak for up to 10 minutes, during which no interventions may be taken. At the conclusion of her statement, I will call Members to put questions on the subject of the statement, and I will call Sarah Champion to respond to those in turn. I call the Chair of the International Development Committee, Sarah Champion.

I speak to the report issued this morning by the International Development Committee titled “Progress on tackling the sexual exploitation and abuse of aid beneficiaries”. I thank the Chair and members of the Backbench Business Committee for allocating time in the Chamber for this statement, and the sponsors and contributors to this afternoon’s debates for their understanding.

We launched our inquiry in July 2020, and we are very grateful to everyone who provided evidence to inform our work. I would particularly like to thank our specialist advisers and the wonderful Committee staff, who have provided invaluable support throughout—plus, of course, my fellow MPs on the Committee.

Sexual exploitation and abuse of beneficiaries is still happening, and it is happening with impunity. In February 2018, the aid sector was rocked by revelations that aid workers had been paying local vulnerable women for sex in Haiti while they were meant to be working on the humanitarian response to the 2010 earthquake. During the investigations that followed, it became clear that organisations involved put limiting reputational damage ahead of fulfilling the duty to report and challenge abuse.

That case did not occur in a vacuum; our inquiry shows that sexual exploitation and abuse is endemic in the aid sector. Twenty-six per cent. of respondents to the Committee’s online survey claimed to have witnessed sexual exploitation and abuse of aid recipients. That disgusts me, but it does not come as a surprise. Abuse can happen whenever there is a power imbalance. Extreme power imbalances are almost always at the heart of humanitarian responses. Local populations are totally reliant on aid workers for their most basic needs, and perpetrators know the power that affords them.

Aid organisations should be alert to the obvious risk that they will be targeted by individuals intent on abusing vulnerable people, but all too often there is a lack of concerted action to face up to this reality. Aid organisations therefore become complicit in enabling sexual exploitation and abuse to occur.

I am proud that in the wake of the Haiti scandal, the Department for International Development was at the forefront of efforts to tackle abuse. International safeguarding summits were arranged, commitments were signed and working groups were convened. Numerous organisations in receipt of UK aid funding have taken steps showing their commitment to tackling sexual abuse. Many hired preventing abuse co-ordinators, while others introduced new training for staff. Recently, the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office published a strategy on safeguarding against sexual exploitation and abuse in the aid sector.

Clearly, there is not a lack of policies and procedures in place, yet abuse is still happening, and the UK Government continue to fund organisations at the centre of sexual abuse scandals. Some 73% of people who responded to our survey think that sexual exploitation and abuse of aid beneficiaries is still a problem. The Committee agrees. Abuse within the aid sector is rife, and until we accept this, we will not resolve it. Alina Potts from the Empowered Aid project gave evidence to our inquiry about its work looking at how survival equipment is distributed to refugees in Uganda and Lebanon. It found that sexual exploitation and abuse by aid and non-aid actors is pervasive across all points of distribution. Alina told us that, of the many women who reported sexual abuse, the majority were abused to access aid that they were unknowingly already entitled to. This behaviour must be robustly challenged, yet a third of respondents to our survey thought their organisations had made little or no progress on ensuring that aid recipients know their rights, including how to report cases of exploitation and abuse. My Committee strongly recommends that all aid agencies make a point of telling recipients their rights and entitlements and how to complain.

Last September, we learned of the scale of the sexual abuse of aid beneficiaries during the 2018-20 Ebola response in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The Committee heard that sex-for-jobs schemes were an open secret among aid workers. Local women who sought employment with aid organisations were subjected to horrendous sexual abuse by men with the power to decide whether to hire them. The level of impunity was astounding. Abuse victims were ferried to and from hotels where aid workers stayed in vehicles carrying World Health Organisation insignia. One woman described how she had been told by a foreign WHO worker—through an interpreter—that she would have to sleep with him in order to get a job. The UK is the biggest donor to the WHO. The Government must show zero tolerance and hold organisations, including multilateral organisations, to account for their safeguarding failings.

Giving evidence in October, the Charity Commission warned about sexual exploitation and abuse taking place in Myanmar. While I was pleased to hear that these issues are being identified and efforts are being taken to tackle them, the Committee is clear that abuse should not be treated like some repulsive game of whack-a-mole, chasing problems from country to country. By their very nature, aid beneficiaries are some of the most vulnerable people on the planet, and therefore the potential for sexual abuse and exploitation should always be a concern. It can be prevented by embedding safeguarding in every project.

I am fed up with hearing that lessons have been learned. We will only see true change when there is a root-and-branch transformation of the culture of aid organisations. The Committee heard appalling accounts of this culture, with accusations of racist, colonial and sexist attitudes fed by unchallenged power imbalances. This discrimination enables abuse to flourish. Just 8% of respondents to our survey believe the culture of this sector is as strong as it can be to prevent exploitation and abuse. Sexual abusers are almost always men, and their victims almost always women. Some 80% of WHO workers in the DRC Ebola response were men. The Committee heard that there are repeated calls from aid recipients for more female aid workers, but we are yet to see any real moves by the sector to address this. Is it any wonder that most beneficiaries never formally report abuse? How can anyone have confidence that they will be listened to and believed and that a robust investigation will be undertaken in such circumstances?

Only 16% responding to our survey felt that their organisation had in place safe reporting and complaints mechanisms. Even when abuses are reported, aid organisations hide behind weak justice systems in the country where the abuse occurred, or the difficulty of penalising local contractors, to avoid taking proper investigations. The Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office could do more to combat this. Our embassies already liaise with local enforcement. Why not use them when a British citizen is the perpetrator, and help survivors to access support? The Sexual Offences Act 2003 provides existing legislation to prevent sex tourism, but it is rarely used. It could be a powerful tool to prosecute aid abusers. The forthcoming Domestic Abuse Bill could do the same. Criminal convictions are a strong deterrent. Victims and survivors of UN staff face even greater hurdles, with agencies wrongly invoking UN immunity to protect perpetrators from robust investigations.

The Government have invested heavily in schemes to prevent perpetrators from moving from one job to another, but first we need to identify the perpetrators, and no evidence we received made us believe that reporting and investigations were working as they should be. If the sector is serious about preventing abuse, the solution is simple: empower local communities, especially women’s groups, to have a greater say in the design and delivery of aid, and embed safeguarding from the start. FCDO-funded organisations must be required to report cases of abuse to it, and any associated non-disclosure agreements. There must be consequences of failings that lead to cases of abuse. Failings would include poor treatment of whistleblowers. Our survey found that 57% of those who had tested their whistleblowing policies felt that they were inadequate. Whistleblowers must play a key role in exposing abuse as they force action to happen. They must be protected. Bizarrely, the Government have not designated aid workers as a regulated activity eligible for Disclosure and Barring Service checks, which means that aid organisations cannot apply. This should be changed today.

I conclude by saying to the sector: I know that the vast majority of aid workers are good people giving their all to make a difference, but you have to wake up to the fact that some of your staff are sexual predators. You have to change your organisational culture to address this, and embed safeguarding in everything you do. I commend my Committee’s report and this statement to the House.

I thank the Chair of the Select Committee. We will now take brief questions to the Chair of the Committee, starting with David Mundell.

Although the report does not make for comfortable reading, I welcome it and the efforts of the Committee to ensure best practice within the aid sector. Does the hon. Lady agree that it is imperative that the UK Government now embed safeguarding in all their development work and that they sanction aid organisations, including multilateral organisations, that fail to do so?

I completely agree with the right hon. Gentleman. Unless that happens, the abuse will continue. It is the Government’s duty to do that. They are spending taxpayers’ money, and they need to be accountable for that.

This report from the International Development Committee is very important, and I would like to pay tribute to all the staff who have served the Committee and send my best wishes to Fergus Reid, the principal Clerk to the Committee, who is taking some time off. After a lot of fanfare, the Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict Initiative is a skeleton of its former self. Does my hon. Friend agree that, without the political will from the Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs, the ability of the initiative to have a positive impact will continue to dwindle?

I thank my hon. Friend and fellow Committee member, and I completely agree. We need to see the broader perspective on this, and unless we deal with and prevent violence against women and girls in all its forms, these examples of where it pops up—whether it is violence in war or violence towards aid workers—will just keep on happening. The Government have great strategies in place for this, but they need to embed them in all their work.

Since concluding our inquiry, the scale of the reductions to UK aid have become much clearer. Does the Committee Chairman agree that the Government must ensure that cuts do not lead to aid delivery partners and contractors reducing operational standards and leaving women and girls at increased risk? How can the Government ensure that their tenders for aid projects, and bids in reply, require effective provision for spending on safeguarding?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question and for his work on the Committee. At the moment only 0.3% of Government funding goes specifically to women and girls’ projects, so I share his concern that with a third now taken away from the aid budget they will be the ones really let down by this system. I urge the Government to stop that. They have to embed safeguarding in every aspect of their work and make sure they fund aid organisations to do the same. This is not a bolt-on. This is not additional. Safeguarding the most vulnerable people on the planet must be funded and must be core to everyone’s work.

I thank the Select Committee for this very important report. Is it not the case that organisations that receive Government grants should have robust procedures in place, including complaints procedures, so the Government can monitor and approve? Should those procedures not be required by the Government before any organisation receives any funding?

I completely agree. It is one of our recommendations that not only do the Government audit and ensure safeguarding policies are in place, but that they are acted on. When the Government feel there are shortcomings, there should be sanctions, including financial sanctions.

As always, it is an honour to speak to my fellow Rotherham MP. I welcome the Select Committee’s work on tackling the sexual exploitation and abuse of aid beneficiaries, but inevitably there will be a power and wealth imbalance in the sector. We must never accept that that inevitability will lead to exploitation. Does the hon. Lady agree that we must do more through our safeguarding standards and that we must act quickly?

I thank my honourable neighbour. I agree. The best way to stop abuse and achieve value for money on aid projects is to involve local people in delivery and safeguarding, and in the building of and reporting on such projects. They know what they need best and we should be there to serve them.

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for all the many years of work she has done on these important issues. Does she agree that Ministers must urgently set out what steps they are taking to work with local populations to dismantle imbalanced power dynamics, and what actions they are taking to ensure aid organisations do the same?

I agree with my hon. Friend. What we need to see now is the Minister step up and outline how the Government are going to address the imbalance between recipients and aid workers which many seek to exploit, how we ensure all projects that receive UK funding are properly audited on their delivery and outcomes, and how they are looking actively to empower local communities so they can all reach their potential.

I thank the hon. Lady for her statement. My belief, having been involved since 2018, is that it is no good having tick-boxes for organisations when it is well known that it is endemic in the sector. It is also no good putting up notices in refugee camps in different places, because many of the women and girls cannot read. How are they going to report the situation anyway? Does she agree that now, having done this latest report, which is still pretty damning, the FCDO needs to cut off the funding for organisations—whoever they are, whether it is the WHO, Oxfam, Save the Children or whoever—and publicise what they are doing and why, so it gets out that nobody is above the law?

May I take this moment, Madam Deputy Speaker, to pay tribute to the hon. Lady who is a member of the Committee? She fought to get the first two reports into sexual abuse in the aid sector off the ground and continues to fight for women’s rights around the world. I completely agree with her. The Government need to show zero tolerance. The most effective way to do that is by taking away the cash. There can be no safe space for sexual abuse within the aid sector and no taxpayers’ money spent on supporting it.

I thank the Chair and the Select Committee for all they have done on a very difficult and emotive topic. The Committee has made a number of suggestions for changes to end the cycle of abuse. Can the Chair confirm that the goal of prosecuting sexual offenders overseas is achievable and will be available as redress to non-governmental organisations in every form, not just those funded or part-funded by Government?

Abusers are getting off the hook because aid organisations have put prosecuting them into the “too difficult” box, either because it happened overseas, or because it involved locally employed subcontractors. It is not too difficult, and we owe it to the survivors to do that. We can use the existing sex tourism Act, and we can work to support local justice systems to ensure that prosecutions take place. The Committee heard that sexual abusers are actively trying to get into the aid sector because they know that they can get away with the abuse there. We have to stamp it out.

I thank the Chair and the Committee for an extremely important report on this difficult and poignant area. Some of the individuals most vulnerable to sexual exploitation are people with disabilities. Will the Chair comment on what more can be done to ensure that people with disabilities in the aid sector have the support they need to know their rights, communicate their experiences, and navigate any criminal justice system?

The hon. Member is absolutely right. The inquiry found that there is so much discrimination, and the power imbalances that exist are not being challenged by the aid organisations. We found that there was very little effort to engage local populations in developing programmes or safeguarding routes. Methods to enable beneficiaries to report abuse tended to be in written form, or someone would telephone in. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, one organisation had 22 different reporting mechanisms, and not one of them got used. Unless we build things in partnership with local people, and ask them what is the best way forward, whatever clever systems we put in place will not engage the local population and they will fail. We need aid organisations to be much more proactive about engaging with everybody who they are meant to be serving.

The covid-19 pandemic and measures taken to contain it have exacerbated gender inequality around the world, creating yet greater power imbalances and raising the risk of abuse and exploitation. DFID’s strategic vision for gender equality 2030 provided a strong framework to ensure that the rights of women and girls, and gender equality, continue to be prioritised in development and humanitarian responses. Does my hon. Friend agree that the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office must formally adopt that framework? What assessment has her Committee made of the impact of the upcoming cuts to the aid budget on the ability of safeguarding to be at the heart of our official development assistance programmes?

I thank my hon. Friend for her powerful question, which gets to the nub of this issue. I have no idea why the FCDO has not formally adopted the gender strategy that DFID put in place in 2018. I am grateful that it has put a safeguarding strategy in place, but my fear is that unless it also puts money in, and expects aid organisations to embed safeguarding in their projects, that will fall. It has been estimated that, because of the pandemic, 30 million girls are being forced into child marriages, and my concern is that—this issue was touched on in the previous statement—women and children who are locked in homes because of covid are bearing the brunt of this. That will be happening around the world.

Our second report comes out at the end of the month and tries to deal with the secondary impacts of covid. Women and girls bear the brunt of that, and the Government must proactively put the money where the intent is, sign the document, and ensure that gender equality is embedded across all FCDO and Government projects.