CARE's response to the parliamentary inquiry into sexual exploitation and abuse in the aid sector

by 10th Apr 2018
Crowds at #March4Women 2018, CARE International UK's annual International Women's Day event to campaign for gender equality Crowds at #March4Women 2018, CARE International UK's annual International Women's Day event to campaign for gender equality CARE/Guy Bell

On Friday, CARE International UK submitted a response to UK Parliament’s International Development Committee’s Inquiry into sexual exploitation and abuse in the aid sector.

Following on from increased scrutiny on the sector after revelations earlier this year, I strongly support efforts being made to prevent future abuse and to protect and safeguard beneficiaries and other vulnerable people as well as our own employees.

Our response to the Inquiry focuses on four key issues.

Dismantling existing power imbalances

If the sector is serious about tackling abuse, it is not enough to just deal with incidents as they materialise. A huge culture change is needed to prevent further exploitation. Sexual harassment and abuse come from a society that is unequal. And as aid workers supporting the world’s poorest and most vulnerable communities, we need to acknowledge and dismantle gender inequality as well as wealth inequality.

Leaders and managers must start looking at the bigger picture, starting in their own organisations. How diverse is senior management? What is the gender balance of women and men in senior positions? Now would also be a good time to consider racial inequality.

There are certain risks that are unique to the aid sector. Female staff deployed to difficult environments face additional risks and managers need to identify, manage and prevent these risks. While the head offices of many aid organisations are staffed largely by women, in emergency contexts, humanitarian and security teams are largely dominated by men.

We welcome the Department for International Development (DfID’s) new Strategic Vision for Gender Equality. In implementing this Vision, we would like to see DIFD prioritise resources for women’s leadership and women’s rights organisations, and commit to greater women’s leadership in its own humanitarian programming.

It is up to those with power to challenge our existing structures. Expecting those who have experienced harassment and abuse to bear the sole responsibility of reporting what has happened to them is not good enough.

At that point they have already been traumatised. At that point it is too late.

Recognising financial cost

It is time that factoring in costs for protecting women from sexual harassment and abuse becomes part of work culture.

The reality is that rigorous safeguarding systems that include comprehensive training, policies and processes cost money. From managers to department leaders to CEOs to funding bodies themselves, this needs to be accounted for in budgeting.

We factor in costs for other forms of training. We factor in costs for preventing fraud. If we are to take sexual exploitation and abuse seriously, we need to be prepared for the financial cost.

The cost of not acting, to people who’ve experienced abuse is too high.

But a recent global study by CARE International shows that violence against women costs society upwards of 2% of its GDP worldwide. So the costs of prevention are more than outweighed by the moral and economic benefits.

Being transparent

Transparency is crucial. In order to demonstrate that they are taking the issue seriously, NGOs must report the number of incidents that they have investigated, and what action has been taken.

This is crucial not just to win back the trust of the public and donor institutions, but to reassure survivors that action will be taken. It is also a deterrent for would-be perpetrators.

Funding institutions need to give agencies the opportunity to be transparent without fear of repercussions. In a recent Guardian article, the University of Portsmouth’s Angela Crack wrote how, if transparency is important to bodies like DfID, these institutions should brace themselves for more stories of workplace harassment and abuse.

More disclosure should be expected, and encouraged, in order for organisations to feel that they can be transparent without it harming donor relationships. Only then can long term change take effect.

In this vein, managers must also take time to communicate with employees about options for reporting incidents – and they must listen to them.

Vetting staff

Something else that has arisen throughout discussions of this topic has been the problem of perpetrators moving around the sector. 

Scrutiny has therefore now fallen on HR departments of aid agencies to carry out more rigorous background checks on potential employees and share information with other organisations.

The concept of a ‘humanitarian passport’ – a system of accreditation for international development and humanitarian practitioners – has been widely discussed across the sector. This would mean that all individuals working in international development would have a license showing they are suitable to work in the sector – a license that would be lost should they engage in inappropriate behaviour.

While CARE fully supports the principle behind this, we feel there are easier and quicker ways to vet staff.

Employers are often reluctant to provide honest or useful references, fearing legal reprisals. It would be extremely helpful for governments to implement legal frameworks on sharing information between employers in order to prevent perpetrators from moving easily between organisations.

At CARE, we have implemented immediate new guidelines which we feel will help significantly: ensuring every member of staff and trustees have had DBS checks; specifically asking about safeguarding concerns in reference requests; being fully transparent about reasons for any dismissal in our own references, and referring to any disciplinary actions or pending investigations taking place relating to sexual harassment; asking all staff to refer reference requests to HR so that we can tell potential employers any concerns.

This is not a CARE issue – it is a sector issue. It will be most effective if all agencies take a consistent approach.

Why this matters

Sexual exploitation and abuse are wrong – and that’s why it matters.

CARE’s mission is to deliver humanitarian aid and long term development programmes to the world’s most vulnerable people.

The better we are at preventing sexual exploitation, abuse and harassment, the more effective our work will be.


Laurie Lee

I joined CARE in August 2014, because I believe strongly in our focus on economic development, gender equality and people holding governments accountable. My focus at CARE is on ensuring we have the best people to do the job we do, to support our teams on the ground in over 70 developing countries, and to ensure we continuously improve our ability to monitor the impact of our work, and learn how to do it even better.  

Prior to CARE I worked for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation for seven years, advising them on development policy issues in Europe and Africa. Before that I worked for the British government. I managed British development programmes in South Africa and Afghanistan. He worked in 10 Downing Street to prepare the G8 Gleneagles Summit on Africa in 2005. And I ran the DFID Trade Policy Unit until 2008.

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Twitter: @lauriejlee