Reform or else: Rich donor countries threaten money cutoff to end sexual abuse in aid organizations

Outraged developed nations that largely fund the world’s humanitarian aid and peacekeeping efforts, fed up with sexual exploitation and abuse by United Nations-sponsored peacekeepers and humanitarian aid workers, are taking matters into their own hands to end the sordid practices.

Among other things, they are threatening financial cutoffs for organizations that do not immediately report sexual wrongdoing to the proper authorities, and fail to provide clear-cut plans for preventing sexual abuse in the future.

“We should not wait for the U.N. to take action,” Penny Mordaunt, Britain’s secretary of state for international development and head of the Department for International Aid, or DFID, told Parliament last week. “We must set up our own systems now.”

The U.S., Canada, the Netherlands and “others,” she said, “have already agreed to support our goal of improved safeguarding standards across the sector.”

The U.N. in particular, Mordaunt added, needed to heed the warning about proper safeguarding for the  millions of desperate people, including young children, already victimized by civil war and natural disasters, who also need protection from the  sexual abuse plague.

“The message from us to all parts of the U.N. is clear—you can either get your house in order, or you can prepare to carry out your good work without our money,” she said.

Mordaunt set a Feb. 26 deadline for “all [British] charities working overseas” to “spell out the steps they are taking to ensure their safeguarding policies are fully in place and confirm they have referred all concerns they have about specific cases and individuals to the relevant authorities, including prosecuting authorities.”

A “similar” exercise was also underway, she added, with all non-British “charity partners”—393 organizations—“to make clear our standards and remind them of their obligations, and we are doing the same with all multilateral partners too.”

DFID is currently assessing the information received. A newly augmented, 15-person Safeguarding Unit will be working at DFID to ensure compliance.

Mordaunt also said her department would hold a “safeguarding summit” on March 5 with “international development charities, regulators and experts to confront safeguarding failures” and agree on “practical measures” to halt the sexual abuse plague.

She further promised that “we will take this program of work to a wide-ranging, global safeguarding conference to drive action across the whole international aid sector.”  As to when that would happen, Mordaunt said only “later in the year.”

Mordaunt’s declaration of war against sexual exploitation and abuse--known in relief circles as SEA - while clearly global, was sparked by anger and dismay in Britain over a scandal much closer to home, which is still rippling across the close-knit and interlocking international aid sector.

The detonation followed allegations earlier February in The Times of London  that Roland van Hauwermeiren, then a senior official of  Oxfam, Britain’s most widely respected  international charity, had partied with local prostitutes at his residence in Haiti while Oxfam did aid work in the aftermath of the battered country’s devastating 2010 earthquake. (The Times is owned by News Corp, a sister company of 21st Century Fox, which owns Fox News).

Van Hauerweiren was head of Oxfam’s country team in Haiti. Subsequent press reports added allegations that prostitutes were also invited to Oxfam quarters in Chad in 2006, during another disaster intervention that van Hauwermeiren had led.

Van Hauerwieren has declared press reports were rife with “lies and exaggerations.” But according to an internal Oxfam investigation report of the Haiti charges, undertaken in 2011, he admitted to the use of prostitutes “in OGB [Oxfam Great Britain] premises,”   and then was allowed to resign with one month’s notice.

Another half-dozen Oxfam employees were found to have solicited prostitutes and either were fired outright or resigned while under investigation.  Oxfam announced cryptically at the time they had been charged with breach of the agency’s “behavioral code of conduct,” and “bringing Oxfam’s name into disrepute,” as well as “bullying.”

But then Oxfam quietly buried its report, until The Times’ revelations brought it to light. The relief agency apparently also failed to make any reference to van Hauwermeiren’s investigation, or its outcome, when he applied for work in other aid agencies.

Once the scandal erupted, Haiti’s Prime Minister, Jovenel Moise, added more fuel. He called the Oxfam incidents “the tip of the iceberg,” and said there were other NGOs (non-governmental organisations) “in the same situation, but they hide the information internally.”

He specifically noted that the French-based medical organization, Doctors Without Borders/Medicins Sans Frontieres, which has been active for years in Haiti, “had to repatriate about 17 people for misconduct which was not explained.”

(On its website, MSF declares that  in 2017, 19 people were dismissed for sexual harassment and abuse, out of 24 cases reported. It has also said that 10 people were dismissed on similar grounds in 2016.)

Unlike innumerable U.N.-related cases of alleged sexual harassment, where the collection of accusations is often haphazard, processes of investigation muffled and any processes of justice delegated to countries that originally supplied the offending personnel, the reaction in Britain was immediate.

After The Times revelations, Oxfam’s deputy chief executive, Penny Lawrence, resigned and publicly took “full responsibility” for the fiasco. A public apology from the organizations CEO, Mark Goldring, soon followed. (“People put their trust in Oxfam and we betrayed that trust,” he said.)

Oxfam also quickly put the long-buried investigation report online for public inspection.

Within four days of Lawrence’s announced resignation, Oxfam also produced a new “plan of action” to ward off similar disasters. Among its measures:

An independent watchdog “High-Level Commission on Sexual Misconduct, Accountability and Culture Change” has been created, to be composed of “leading womens’ rights experts.”

It will have free access to Oxfam records and staffers, as well as aid recipients, to look into “criticisms, complaints and allegations, particularly in relation to abuse of power, and sexual misconduct.” Its findings will be public.

A new database is being created, “designed to end the use of forged, dishonest or unreliable references by past or current Oxfam staff. Oxfam will not be issuing any [hiring] references until this is in place.”

Oxfam also pledged to “improve the culture within Oxfam to ensure that no one faces sexism, discrimination or abuse, that everyone, especially women, feels safe to speak out, and everyone is clear on what behavior is acceptable or not.”

Meantime, the aid organization has agreed to take some immediate financial lumps until its changes in behavior are examined and approved.

Mordaunt announced Oxfam “has agreed to withdraw from bidding for any new UK Government funding until DFID is satisfied that they can meet the high safeguarding standards we expect of our partners.”

Mordaunt did not mention the amount of any such funding. In 2017, according to Oxfam reports, the agency received some $46 million from DFID.

USAID’s current projects with Oxfam total more than $23 million for aid work in the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and South Sudan, among others; the U.S. agency has given Oxfam more than $100 million since 2011.

Sweden’s foreign ministry also announced it was suspending unspecified amounts of funding to Oxfam for current projects “pending an investigation” of the organization’s behavior. Last year, according to the U.N.’s Financial Tracking Service, Oxfam’s British branch got $3.7 million from the Swedes.

Even more money could be at stake with the European Commission, another major Oxfam donor, which announced “we are ready to review and if needed cease funding any partner who is not living up to the required high ethical standards.” Last year Oxfam got about $40 million from the EC.

Will the same tough tactics work for multilateral organizations such as the U.N.?

It remains to be seen. But the British, at least, may find some things out soon—perhaps early enough for that March 5 summit.

Updated DFID funding agreements with a number of U.N. agencies contain the proviso that they take every action possible to prevent all forms of sexual exploitation and abuse and take prompt action in response to any such allegations.

Among the agencies affected: UNICEF, the World Health Organization, and the United Nations Development Program, all deeply involved in disaster relief and recovery.

DFID is currently reviewing action plans from these agencies to see how seriously they are tackling SEA.

As it happens, similar action plans to combat sexual abuse were ordered up by U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres for arrival nearly a year ago, from all U.N. agencies “with operations and programs in the field.” Guterres “requested” the plans only months after taking office as Secretary General, as part of his own renewed war on SEA. 

According to U.N. spokesman Dujarric, “So far, 35 entities out of 40 have provided plans that include measures for risk mitigation, community engagement, complaint-reporting, outreach to, and protection of, victims, witnesses and family members.”

The plans are “currently being implemented,” Dujarric added.  “Those that have yet to submit their action plans are in the process of  doing so. These  offices, entities,and  departments are small units that do not have much field presence."

The result so far? In 2017, U.N. peacekeeping operations alone, according to its official website, recorded 62 allegations of sexual abuse, including 16 involving child victims, which were allegedly perpetrated by 137 members of its military, police and civilian staff. The numbers were a distinct decline from the previous year.

During the same year, the U.N. repatriated only 12 of the alleged perpetrators to their original countries, where national governments have so far demoted one person and jailed another. Actions against the remaining ten are listed as “pending.”

In the last three months of 2017 alone, the spokesman for Guterres, Stephane Dujarric de la Riviere, told a press briefing last week, the U.N. recorded 40 allegations of SEA across its peacekeeping missions, and other agencies and “implementing partners,” scattered over a number of years. They involved 54 victims, including 16 girls under age 18.

These were “not reflective of the conduct of the majority of the dedicated women and men who serve the organization,” Dujarric declared. He also said that “not all allegations have been fully verified, and many are in the preliminary assessment phase.”

Secretary General Guterres, meantime, “is regularly liaising with Member States to improve their accountability and bring justice to victims.”

The U.N.’s actions still draw a skeptical response from critics like Brian Concannon, executive director of the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti, an advocacy group seeking individual compensation for thousands of Haitians stricken by a cholera epidemic that U.N. peacekeepers are widely acknowledged to have caused, starting in 2010.

“Oxfam’s response this month -- quickly accepting responsibility and releasing its original investigation report -- is a sharp contrast to the U.N. ‘s persistent policy of delay, denial and refusal of responsibility, for either sexual exploitation or unleashing cholera on Haiti, ” Concannon says.

With donor nations breathing fire, the question is whether that is all about to change.