To tackle sexual abuse in the aid sector effectively, we need to look much further than international NGOs


There have been a number of very sensible and well-articulated commentaries on the sexual abuse scandal in the aid sector which point out that we should not expect the aid sector to be immune to what is a systemic problem, that there are specificities within the aid sector that make it difficult to address these issues, and that neither of these facts should be used to undermine the importance of aid.  Here are a few examples:

There is something important to add, which is that the architecture of the aid sector poses particular challenges to safeguarding.  While the Oxfam story focuses on abuse by international and western aid workers, as I pointed out the other day, most people delivering aid are nationals of the countries where the programme is being delivered.

Moreover much actual aid delivery is not done directly by international NGOs but through patnerships with national and local institutions – both governmental and non-governmental.  There is sometimes oversight through the country offices of international organisations or NGOs, but a number of projects are also funded directly by donors based in rich countries.

Just as INGOs, banks, parliaments and film producers are not immune to sexual abuse, these national and local entities are not either.

Also, local entities delivering aid are often resourced to do so through a range of sources – different international donors, local funding, government funding and volunteerism – which makes the job of figuring out who is responsible for what somewhat murky.  Accountability towards donor agencies is often much stronger than accountabililty to citizens and monitoring tends to focus on financial management risk rather than programme results.  Safeguarding and abuse risks are low on the list of priorities.

To cut a long story short, aid is delivered through an intricate web of partnerships and intermediary relationships and deciding who is ultimately responsible for what is difficult – and is often dealt with by simply passing the buck. And to make things harder, aid is often delivered in contexts where there are limited safeguards or safeguarding implementation.

What this all means is that the welcome spotlight on abuse in the aid sector and the need to strengthen efforts to combat it needs to look much further than the roles of INGOs.  As welcome as international humanitarian passports and DBS checks are, they are only a small part of the solution.  It needs to engage primarily with safeguarding systems at country level and with the need to support them to be effective.  Unfortunately this is going to be even more complicated to do but it is essential if the sector is going to get this right.

Post script.

I also wonder if there is a particular challenge for organisations working in the areas of sexual and reproductive health, HIV, and LGBT rights.  One of the biggest challenges to tackle in these areas is stigma. To do this effectively it is important to take a positive and open approach to sexuality.  Does this make it harder to identify and call out abuse? Possibly; so it’s important that organisations working on those areas pay particular attention to their systems while not compromising positive, evidence-based approaches.