Since 2018, the international aid sector has lived under the shadow of the long-running scandal involving Oxfam GB, one of the components of the global charitable confederation Oxfam. At that time, initial media reports that Oxfam had covered up an investigation into the hiring of sex workers for orgies by Oxfam staff who were working in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake quickly led to a cascade of problems for Oxfam GB: a statutory inquiry by the Charity Commission for England and Wales, widespread international criticism, the loss of thousands of its donors, and ultimately a three-year ban on receipt of overseas development funding from the United Kingdom government.
Moreover, even though Oxfam GB regained its eligibility to bid for UK government funds this spring, almost immediately the UK government again suspended Oxfam GB’s eligibility when new allegations of Oxfam workers’ sexual exploitation and bullying of people in the Democratic Republic of the Congo came to light. As a spokesman for the UK Foreign and Development Office explained, “All organisations bidding for UK aid must meet the high standards of safeguarding required to keep the people they work with safe.”
The Charity Commission has now taken the extraordinary step of issuing a formal regulatory alert to assist trustees of international aid charities in improving their safeguarding practices. The Commission noted that international aid charities had delivered “tangible safeguarding improvements” in various areas, but cautioned that “further work is required to deliver transformative change.” It also stated that “[a]nalysis of recent safeguarding serious incident reports, including those related to activities in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, has also identified specific areas of ongoing risk.”
Accordingly, the Commission directed three sets of recommendations to trustees of international aid charities to achieve more effective safeguarding arrangements:
- Strengthening safeguarding risk prevention and risk management measures: On this issue, the Commission advised that every trustee “should have clear oversight of how safeguarding and protecting people from harm are managed within their charity,” including monitoring performance with statistics and supporting information. In particular, the Commission offered five key steps for trustees to consider:
- “making sure policies, communications and ongoing performance management help maintain appropriate behaviours by charity staff and workers to each other and the beneficiaries they serve
- joining the Steering Committee for Humanitarian Response’s Misconduct Disclosure Scheme to help protect charities and other organizations in the sector “from individuals who pose a safeguarding risk”;
- exploring whether gender and diversity imbalances in a charity’s trustee board and senior management “are potential safeguarding risk factors which require proactive management”;
- determining whether trustees “can use the sector-led safeguarding culture tool as part of developing and modelling a positive safeguarding culture”; and
- reviewing the UK charity Keeping Children Safe’s “summary findings from safeguarding-specific central assurance assessments of charities” to identify any relevant lessons for a charity, such as whistleblowing and safeguarding risk management.
- Improving reporting by local beneficiaries: On this issue, the Commission reported that it had recently contacted a sample of international aid charities “and found that several had not received any safeguarding reports from third parties or partner agencies.” Recognizing that “underreporting of safeguarding incidents directly to international aid charities persists,” it offered four key steps for trustees to consider:
- “giving victims and survivors, and their families and friends, a safe means to report their concerns and complaints”;
- “designing reporting mechanisms that are sensitive to the local context, considering face-to-face reporting and safe spaces for witnesses and survivors to report”;
- “where appropriate, using community-based organisations to hold open and frank conversations with beneficiaries about any concerns in a safe and trusted environment”; and
- “reviewing the reporting arrangements in place with any third parties or partner agencies and assessing what steps can be taken to develop them.”
- Developing management responses including victim and survivor support: On this issue, the Commission urged trustees to ensure that support is available to victims and survivors. It offered four key steps for trustees to consider:
- “developing a survivor-centred approach to safeguarding that accurately reflects the range of potential harms faced and considers possible victim and survivor support services from programme/project conception”;
- “clearly communicating what support is available to victims and survivors and how it is accessed”;
- “acting quickly to prevent or minimise any further harm or damage when incidents or allegations occur”; and
- “launching robust and timely investigations into allegations or concerns where they arise.”
All of the Commission alert’s recommendations are salutary. What the alert omits to address is that charities’ trustees and senior leaders must also unequivocally state, in codes of conduct and periodic internal training, that any form of exploitation, such as sexual or financial, of beneficiaries is strictly forbidden and may result in severe disciplinary action, including termination. The future credibility of the international aid sector will depend substantially on how well aid charities communicate their commitment to safeguarding vulnerable populations and demonstrate that commitment through concrete action.