Whistleblower rounds on UK minister over sex abuse in aid sector

by Umberto Bacchi | @UmbertoBacchi | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Thursday, 18 October 2018 17:24 GMT

Britain's Secretary of State for International Development Penny Mordaunt leaves Downing Street in London, Britain, September 13, 2018. REUTERS/Henry Nicholls

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The aid sector was rocked by reports this year that staff at several major charities were involved in sexual misconduct

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By Umberto Bacchi

LONDON, Oct 18 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - A charity whistleblower confronted Britain's aid minister on Thursday as she unveiled plans to tackle sex abuse in the sector, saying "fancy new systems" would not wipe out predators.

The aid sector was rocked by reports this year that staff at several big charities were involved in sexual misconduct, with charities pledging an overhaul after donations fell and the revelations sparked public outcry.

International Development Secretary Penny Mordaunt had promised a major cleanup and was trying to outline her reform plans at a summit when the whistleblower bounded on stage to address fellow aid workers and pour ice-cold water on her plans for tighter controls.

"We do not need fancy new systems, we do not need technology. We need systematic change," Alexia Pepper de Caires, formerly with Save the Children, said from the podium as the minister listened at her side.

The crowd of about 500 aid workers, delegates from United Nations agencies and other organisations listened in stunned silence then applauded the intervention.

Mordaunt was laying out Britain's plans to work with Interpol to stop predators getting charity jobs but the sector faces an uphill fight to root out rogue aid workers who often travel from crisis to crisis and operate with little oversight.

An exclusive survey by the Thomson Reuters Foundation in February found more than 120 staff from leading global charities were fired or lost their jobs in 2017 over sexual misconduct.

Pepper de Caires - who founded Safe Space, a group fighting harassment in aid - said some key voices had been shut out of the conference and questioned the involvement of her former employer, given it had faced sexual misconduct complaints.

Speaking to the Thomson Reuters Foundation on the sidelines of the event, she said the Interpol project failed to address the root causes of the problem, such as sexism and gender imbalance at the top, with many aid agencies led by men.

"The organisations who are involved in giving aid, the government departments - a lot of these places have great feminists in them, but they are not being heard," she said.

HERE TO HELP?

The aid world has come under intense scrutiny since reports surfaced that Oxfam staff used sex workers in Haiti after the country's 2010 earthquake. Reports followed of Syrian women being sexually exploited in return for aid, and the harassment of women in the head offices of global charities.

Mordaunt stopped her speech to listen to the demonstrator and defended her Interpol scheme. She also offered up a slot to those who felt they had been denied a chance to speak.

"We do need to put in place new tools and systems and work with law enforcement. But that is only one part of it," Mordaunt replied. "We won't be perfect in what we set out to do but we have to do it to our best ability."

The minister later denied that Save the Children - which is under investigation by Britain's charity watchdog - would receive funding from Britain for the project, but added the government needed to work with all NGOs to improve the system.

"If they do have good ideas ... about how we can make things better we should take those ideas up," she told reporters.

Mordaunt said the 10-million-pound ($13.14 million) pilot project would strengthen vetting through an online platform.

"There will be consequences for those who do harm, and those who allow harm to be done. Their time, is up," she said.

Save the Children, which sits on the scheme's advisory board, said that, pending the investigation's results, it was not applying for new government funding, but this did not stop it helping Interpol.

"We've been speaking to Interpol for some time. We're highlighting some of the challenges Interpol may face as leaders of this project and helping ensure it works," a spokesman said.

Aid agencies could check future employees against national criminal records and Interpol databases under the scheme, named Operation Soteria after the Greek goddess of safety.

Operation Soteria is to be led by Interpol, with British help. A team of up to nine detectives will also be deployed in two regional hubs in Africa and Asia to help countries improve their criminal records systems, DFID said.

It was not immediately clear when the project - set to last five years - would start and how other nations would fit in.

Kevin Watkins, chief executive of Save the Children, said many problems still had to be "ironed out" but he was hopeful an initial pilot could be up and running by the end of the year.

Britain said it was to commit 2 million pounds for the scheme's first year.

"A critical part of Interpol's mission is to protect the most vulnerable members of society from the most dangerous," Interpol secretary general Jurgen Stock said in a statement.

"This is all the more important when sexual predators attempt to exploit the very people – be it men, women or children - they are supposed to be safeguarding from harm."

Britain's charity watchdog said on Wednesday it believed a significant number of incidents still went unreported.

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(Reporting by Umberto Bacchi @UmbertoBacchi, Editing by Lyndsay Griffiths and Claire Cozens. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)

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