Allegations have emerged in the media of sexual misconduct and safeguarding breaches by volunteers at the youth charity Restless Development.
According to allegations uncovered by The Independent, the charity has faced 35 formal complaints, five of which detail allegations of sexual misconduct since 2012.
The accusations relate to the charity’s operations under the International Citizen Service (ICS) – a government-funded programme which offers overseas placements for 18- to 25-year-olds.
According to the Independent, young people who volunteered in South Africa in 2012 and 2016 claim staff and other volunteers were involved in sexual relationships.
Volunteers also said they were made to stay in unsafe living quarters and exposed to violence between feuding taxi gangs.
It also reported that some of those who raised alarm said that management dismissed their concerns.
Sexual misconduct allegations
According to the Independent, in 2016, two male volunteers in Libode, South Africa, allegedly engaged in relationships with female pupils they had been teaching in an ICS-associated school.
The news site said the charity confirmed the students involved were taken back to the volunteers’ homes, but claimed no sexual activity took place and said the pupils were over the age of consent. However, the two volunteers were subsequently dismissed.
During the same placement, it was also alleged a team leader had relationships with a string of volunteers, breaching the charity’s code of conduct.
A staff member was additionally accused of sexual relations with a female British volunteer, while a field officer reportedly asked volunteers for money so she could buy alcohol.
The Independent says it has seen an internal report in which Restless Development describes a “number [of] incidents” pertaining to misconduct in 2016 which “did not reach the management team in South Africa”.
It says the report adds: “This indicates that there is improvement needed in identifying, communicating and managing misconduct amongst the field staff.”
Some 21 of the 35 complaints made against Restless Development concerned safety issues, according to the Independent.
It reported that in 2012, volunteers in South Africa allegedly were made to stay in accommodation that had been broken into, with windows left smashed, even after reporting the incident to the charity and police.
Four years later, safety concerns were raised again – this time relating to dangerous transportation in Libode.
Volunteers were expected to travel in taxis involved in violent feuds between rival drivers that saw a number of fatal shootings in the area. Volunteers said they were not told in advance about the risks.
One British volunteer who worked in the charity’s Tanzanian office told The Independent that safety in general is a concern across the entire ICS programme – despite the mitigations put in place.
Volunteers from 2016 also claim their concerns were dismissed by senior staff in South Africa, who put complaints down to a “failure to adapt” to circumstances. The volunteers said grievances were repeatedly “brushed under the carpet” and insist the London head office was alerted only to the most serious incidents.
Issues with handling of complaints were not restricted to South Africa – one volunteer in Zambia “felt that volunteers were encouraged by staff to keep incidents to themselves so as to not scare the other volunteers”.
‘No breaches of safeguarding’
In response to the Independent article, the charity said its investigations in 2016 and subsequent reviews into the allegations described “have found no evidence of breaches of safeguarding”.
The charity said in a statement: “We listened to volunteers who made complaints to understand their concerns; we ran detailed investigations; and we created action plans and implemented them to improve our work where it was needed.
It said it was “sorry for the challenges that volunteers faced in these cycles” and stressed that “the safety and wellbeing of our volunteers is our number one priority”.
The charity said it ran two 24 hour phones for volunteers to raise concerns, one in South Africa and one in England.
Restless Development said it took “appropriate disciplinary action” where volunteers and staff were found to have breached its code of conduct following internal investigations into each case.
It added: “Working with our partners and volunteers, we will continue working to strengthen our processes and ensure ICS is an impactful and positive experience for volunteers and communities.”
The charity receives funding from the Department for International Development indirectly through the NCS programme.
In 2017/18, DFID provided Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO), the lead supplier on the ICS programme, with around £31.3m.
VSO distributed this funding to its six subcontracted partners, including Restless Development.
In the year to 2017, Restless Development received £585,461 in unrestricted income from this source, while in previous years, it has received about £3m a year.
A DFID spokesperson said: “Volunteer safety and security is the first priority for DFID, VSO and the entire ICS consortium. VSO has 60 years’ experience working with international volunteers and uses this expertise to lead the ICS consortium.”
“The International Development Secretary has been clear she is committed to driving up standards across the aid sector and that she expects every organisation that we work with to have rigorous reporting and complaints mechanisms in place to protect beneficiaries and employees alike.”
Meanwhile, a Charity Commission spokesperson said: “We are aware of a number of historical allegations about Restless Development, some of which have only recently been reported to the Commission.
"We are currently assessing information provided to ensure appropriate action has been taken in all cases.”