In a scathing report released Tuesday, a British parliamentary committee said sexual predators are still able to get work in international aid organizations, where they can prey on vulnerable children and women. The panel also accused the aid sector of “complacency verging on complicity” in the abuse.
The lawmakers on the House of Commons’ international development committee said that six months after the exposure of sex abuse by British aid workers in Haiti first became known, the international aid sector is still not doing enough to implement safeguards and to crack down on sexually predatory men.
They warned sexual exploitation and abuse is endemic across the international aid sector and said there had been a “collective failure of leadership and engagement from top levels down over many years” to tackle the problem with victims not being put at the heart of solutions, rendering what reforms had been undertaken ineffective.”
“Sexual exploitation and abuse by aid workers and peacekeepers is happening in the aid sector and it has been happening for a long time. Sexual violence, exploitation and abuse against women and girls is endemic in many developing countries, especially where there is conflict and forced displacement,” the panel said in its 116-page report, “Sexual Exploitation and Abuse in the Aid Sector.”
“It is particularly horrifying to find evidence of personnel from the aid and security sectors perpetrating these abuses rather than combating them,” the lawmakers added.
Mounting public distrust
One of the authors of the report — which will add to mounting public distrust of the aid sector, and not only in Britain — said aid organizations are engaging in self-delusion when they say they are confronting the problem.
“It is happening now, and the trouble is I believe there are men who are attracted to the aid industry as they are anonymous,” lawmaker Pauline Latham told Sky News.
Latham said while other organizations are clamping down on sexually predatory men, that is not the case in the aid sector. “They can be anonymous, they can go abroad, it’s not a problem they think. And they can get away with it,” she said.
The British government warned charities and humanitarian relief organizations in February that it would withdraw public funding if they failed to establish effective internal reviews to prevent and investigate sexual predatory behavior and abuse by their aid workers.
The warning came in the wake of disclosures that one of the country’s biggest charities, Oxfam, failed to disclose its dismissal in 2011 of senior aid workers who paid local prostitutes, some likely underage, for sex parties in Haiti in the wake of a devastating earthquake that killed more than 200,000 people and left 300,000 injured and 1.5 million homeless.
Four men were fired and three were allowed to resign, including Oxfam’s country director for Haiti, Roland van Hauwermeiren, who was accused of paying teenage girls for sex at his hilltop villa known as the Eagle’s Nest.
All the men involved were also given references by Oxfam, enabling them to join other aid agencies, despite allegations of sexual exploitation of quake survivors and the downloading of pornography, as well as bullying and intimidation.
Oxfam received $45 million from the British government in 2017 and received more than $200 million in donations from the British public.
Figures analyzed earlier this year by Britain’s Sunday Times revealed that in the past year alone, more than 120 workers for Britain’s top charities have been accused of sexual abuse, harassment or predatory behavior, mostly while serving overseas. Oxfam recorded 87 incidents in 2017, of which 53 cases were referred to police or civilian authorities. Save the Children had 31 cases, 10 of which were referred to authorities.
The report published Tuesday said the delivery of aid to people and communities in crisis had been subverted by sexual predators with only superficial action taken to stop it and the lawmakers outlined “systematic criminal sexual exploitation,” including in the form of human trafficking into prostitution.
Committee chairman Stephen Twigg also accused the aid sector of being in denial about “the horror of sexual exploitation and abuse,” arguing there’s a “cultural” complacency to tackle the endemic problems.
The report blamed charities and British government departments of ignoring reports of sexual abuse going back almost two decades and said the United Nations remains in denial about abuse by its own staff, some of whom have immunity from prosecution.
“In addition to the abuse of aid beneficiaries, there is also evidence of significant numbers of cases of sexual harassment and abuse within aid organizations, including where the resulting proceedings have been conducted very poorly,” according to the report.
The committee said there appears to be a common thread in the apparent inability of the aid sector to deal effectively with allegations and complaints. “There seems to be a strong tendency for victims and whistleblowers, rather than perpetrators, to end up feeling penalized,” it said.
Oxfam issued a statement in response to the excoriating report, saying it is “committed to the safety and dignity of everyone who interacts with us. We are determined to strengthen women’s rights within Oxfam and in the communities in which we work.”
The charity, which has seen public donations fall this year, said it had developed an action plan and had tripled funding to combat the abuse.
Oxfam Chief Executive Mark Goldring announced in May that he would step down at the end of 2018; his deputy resigned in February.