Trump Administration moves to get tougher on sexual abuse by humanitarian workers

The Trump administration is moving to get much tougher on the issue of sexual abuse committed by humanitarian aid workers, and joining an international bandwagon that could cut off funding for international agencies who can’t—or don’t-- address the problem.

The administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), Mark Green, was convening a task force of senior officials and representatives of “some key implementing partners” on Friday to more aggressively address the issue.

It is the latest step among wealthy countries who pay most of the tab for such assistance to quell seemingly endless crimes against some of the world’s most desperate people—not to mention keeping scandal from eroding support for aid efforts in a world increasingly afflicted with humanitarian donor fatigue.

The U.S. is the most generous of those donors: USAID’s 2018 budget requisition asks for $2.5 billion for humanitarian assistance, plus another $1.5 billion for global health programs—though the Trump Administration looks on foreign aid with a relatively jaundiced eye.

USAID officials would not yet name the “key partners” taking part in the session, dubbed a “Forum on Preventing Sexual Misconduct.”  It follows closely a similar British “safeguarding summit” held on March 5 that laid out new standards and means of scrutiny for domestic and international aid organizations — including United Nations agencies — in dealing with sex crimes and exploitation.

The burst of action by rich nations comes after years of highly publicized but evidently ineffectual “zero-tolerance” declarations from the United Nations against sex abuse by U.N.-sponsored peacekeepers and aid agencies, which kindled widespread outrage and cynicism at the anti-sex crime effort, even as the number of victims kept rising.

Similar declarations were made by U.N. Secretary Antonio Guterres soon after he took office in January 2017.

The threat brandished by Britain’s equivalent of USAID, the Department for International Development (DFID), to organizations that did not toe the line was considerably more blunt:  “new funds to organizations will not be approved unless they pass the new standards.”

So far, Green has said nothing so bare-knuckled, at least in public.

Earlier this week, he also sent a worldwide memo to agency staff, saying he had asked USAID legal     officials to “strategize on ways” to ensure that USAID’s humanitarian partners “are able to institute a culture of accountability and effectively root out alleged abusers within their organizations.”

Green has been coordinating closely with Britain in the anti-sex-crime effort. Prior to the British summit, he asked USAID’s Office of the Inspector General to get in touch with its DFID equivalent,  and said the OIG will continue to “explore the appropriateness of  audit and investigation,” meaning a separate USAID probe.

The detonator for the latest round of action was, by the ugly standards of  sexual abuse in humanitarian crises, a relatively minor event: allegations last month in The Times of London that a senior official of Oxfam, Britain’s most widely respected international charity, had partied with local prostitutes in Haiti while supervising aid work in the aftermath of that country’s disastrous 2010 earthquake.

Further reports alleged that the same official carried out similar activities during a 2006 relief operation in Chad.

The official, Roland van Hauwermeiren, denounced the charges as full of “lies and exaggerations.” But an internal Oxfam investigation said he admitted to the use of prostitutes, and found other Oxfam workers had done similar things.

Van Hauermeiren, however, was allowed to resign, and the others charged were fired or resigned under the bland heading of “bringing Oxfam’s name into disrepute,” among other things. The investigation report was quietly archived.

The Times revelations spawned an uproar almost immediately in Britain, where Oxfam is one of the country’s most admired private aid organizations. The furor quickly spurred action, starting with the resignation of Oxfam’s deputy chief executive, and a mutually agreed freeze on Oxfam funding by DFID. (The organization got some $46 million from DFID in 2017, and it has current projects with USAID worth about  $23 million.)

This week’s British safeguarding summit went much further in promoting an overall house-cleaning for British international charities, including the creation of “an independent body to promote external scrutiny and ensure the highest possible standards across the aid sector.”

It also called for:

- Tighter vetting standards for all humanitarian staffers “to ensure no offender can fall through the cracks,”

- A “systematic audit of whistleblowing standards” to ensure individuals “feel able to report offenses,” and

-“Clear guidelines for referring incidents, allegations and offenders to relevant authorities” - including criminal investigation agencies.

Oxfam, at least, says it has got the message. In the wake of the summit chaired by Britain’s secretary of state for international development, Penny Mordaunt, the charity’s CEO declared that “that as a sector and individual organisations we can and must do better.”

Prior to the meeting, Oxfam declared it had produced a new “plan of action” to ward off similar disasters, including an independent watchdog commission of women’s right experts, and a new database for vetted staffers.

So what about the scandal-plagued U.N., whose peacekeeping forces and other aid agencies have been tarred by even more serious offenses?

Though the main focus of the safeguarding exercise was aimed at national and international aid organizations, Mordaunt has made it clear U.N. agencies also had to provide satisfactory “action plans” for how they intend to deal with sexual crimes and abuse.

As she put it two weeks ago, “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.”

A number of U.N. aid organizations have apparently started to pursue that house-cleaning, spurred on even before the new scandal by Secretary General Guterres.

The Secretary General’s spokesperson, Stephane Dujarric, declared the U.N. received 40 allegations of sexual exploitation and abuse in the last quarter of 2017, involving 54 victims, 16 of them girls under age 18.

In U.N. protocols, even consensual sex with anyone under 18 is to be considered statutory rape.

Some U.N. agencies offered up even more meager tallies. The United Nations Development Program, for example, which is heavily involved in development and disaster recovery work around the world, told Fox News that in 2016 its internal watchdogs reported only two proven cases of sexual abuse and harassment:  one an alleged harassment of U.N. staffers, the other an attempt by a service contractor “to have sexual relations in exchange for money.”

U.N. critics argue such numbers are vastly, even ludicrously, understated. One private advocacy organization, Hear Their Cries, has claimed as many as 60,000 people per decade have suffered sexual exploitation and abuse at the hands of U.N. peacekeepers, aid workers and other staffers.

The basis of those numbers, however, is flimsy. The man who compiled them, Peter Gallo, a former U.N. investigators, told an Italian publication last month, “Maybe there is less than 60,000 victims. Maybe there are more. We don’t know. It’s an estimate and at the end of the day we will never know the real number.”

On the other hand, there is some disturbing evidence that the sexual abuse problems, in the midst of the largest refugee and humanitarian crisis the modern world has seen, are far larger than anyone yet cares to imagine.

If so, the task force that USAID Administrator Green is convening truly has its work cut out for it, for a long time to come.