The House of Commons International Development Committee has released a damning report saying charities are not doing enough to combat sexual abuse by aid workers of vulnerable people in developing countries.
The report, Sexual Exploitation And Abuse In The Aid Sector, comes six months after the Times exposed that Oxfam had been conducting an internal investigation into sexual abuse and exploitation by aid workers in Haiti.
The report slammed the aid sector’s “abject failure” in tackling such issues, and said that not enough was being done within UK charities and the UN to properly investigate allegations.
Most, but not all, of the abuse was conducted by men against women and girls, it found.
It said the cases that had been reported, like the Haiti abuse, were the “tip of the iceberg” and that the aid sector was “...attractive... for people wishing to exploit others”.
'This scandal is larger than the Catholic church'
Professor Andrew MacLeod, co-founder of Hear Their Cries, an international advocacy organisation to protect vulnerable people in the developing world, likened it to the abuse scandals in the Catholic church.
“One of the problems in the industry is there’s not enough data on this because nobody’s taken it seriously enough so we really don’t understand just how horrendously and horrifically big this problem is,” he told Julia Hartley-Brewer.
“This is a scandal many times larger than the Catholic church. The aid industry today is exactly where we were with the Catholic church in the 1990s, we are just beginning to understand the scale of the problem and it is horrendous.”
He said that people who fail to report abuse despite being aware of it should face jail time.
“Just like Archbishop Wilson in Adelaide, who was thrown in jail last week because he failed to report sexual abuse, this is a warning sign to every CEO and every trustee out there,” he said.
“If you haven’t done all you can to put these perpetrators in jail, you too yourself should be put in jail.”
Australian Archbishop Philip Wilson was given a one-year sentence in May for failing to report allegations of sexual abuse by a priest, who was later convicted of the crimes.
Wilson may avoid jail if the court decides he can be placed under home detention.
'Charities are not above the law'
MacLeod added that charities need to be more proactive in reporting abuse to the authorities.
“The way to see whether a charity is taking this seriously is to ask this one question: how many of your staff have you reported to the police for prosecution? Because if the answer is zero, you’re not taking this seriously,” he said.
“We need to change a number of mentalities. If you abuse a child when you’re working overseas, you’re breaking British law, so these people need to be reported to the police. Haiti - Oxfam didn’t even report themselves to the Haitian police. We need to understand that charities are not above the law and should be reporting themselves to the local police.
“If you abuse a child in the Central African Republic and you’ve got to go to jail in the Central African Republic, I have no sympathy for you!”
Pauline Latham MP, a member of the committee that produced the report, said she wished she’d alerted the press sooner, and that it took her years to get the issue investigated.
“I’ve been talking about it in the committee for two and a half years and nobody’s taken any notice,” she said. “I asked them to bring in an international register [of aid workers] and they said it was too difficult.I talked to ministers, I thought the press would pick it up, but it was only when it was the Haiti scandal that they picked it up. Maybe I should have been more proactive and gone to the press earlier.”
She added: “I do think they’re beginning to take an interest and beginning to take it really seriously, it’s something the committee will continue to monitor, because we don’t want money going to aid agencies that don’t care about the welfare of women and girls and particularly young girls.”
MPs have now called for a global register of aid workers to prevent abusers moving from one job to another unchecked.