International development chariites must not bury their heads in the sand and understand that the sector is facing a crisis of trust, the chief executive of Save the Children told a conference on Monday.
Kevin Watkins was talking at Bond’s annual conference on Monday when he referred to the current uproar that the sector is facing over safeguarding concerns, both in the countries it works and in its UK headquarters.
Speaking on a panel about the UK’s vision for international development, Watkins said: “If we pretend we are not facing a crisis of trust in our sector we are delusional. If we pretend we are not facing systematic challenges that raise questions about our values as a community, about our ability to protect the people we are there to serve – our beneficiaries – we are burying our heads in the sand and we cannot afford to do that.”
‘This is the sector’s financial crisis’
He said that this crisis is the sector’s “2008 financial crisis moment”, saying: “The financial crisis happened because of institutions that got too big and too confident, too exuberant and had too much belief in their own power, who refused to look at their own organisational cultures and what they were doing to people internally. We cannot afford to repeat those mistakes.”
Watkins spoke directly on concerns raised over Save the Children, which has included stories emerging about the actions of both Brendan Cox, the widow of murdered MP Jo Cox, and the charity’s former chief executive, Justin Forsyth, who both left the organisation following complaints over their behaviour.
He said: “I am appalled by a lot of what I have read, and I am appalled by a lot of what I have heard in confidence from my staff in my office or through my emails.”
‘100 per cent committed to fixing the problem’
Watkins told conference delegates that he was “100 per cent committed to fixing this organisational culture problem”.
He said that this is not down to problem with the letter of the law, adding: “I could read out our great policies on respect in the workplace, our whistleblowing mechanism. They are all probably near best practice standard, but the letter of the law and the spirit of the law are not the same thing.
“People need to feel in the workplace secure and protected, they need to know that if they see bad behaviour and call it out, people will listen and act on it, and defend them. That is what I intend to ensure happens in Save the Children.”
‘A dark hour for international development’
Kate Osamor, shadow secretary for International development, was also speaking on the panel. She echoed what the secretary of state Penny Mordaunt had said earlier on the practice of international aid charities: “I wouldn’t normally say this but Penny Mordaunt was right this morning and last week, when she said the aid sector must do better. Let us make no mistake, this is a dark hour for international development.”
She said that “the issue of sexual exploitation is much bigger than any political party”. Adding: “The last fortnight also raised serious questions about the kind of culture in the aid sector. What happened to redistributing power rather than entrenching it? What happened to speaking with the truth to power and challenging its abuse in whatever form that takes? And when did empowerment just become a buzzword?”
The MP for Edmonton added: “Let me be clear. It is time for the sector to change, so I urge you now to be the change.
“The people and agencies in this room must do better than the rest of society, you must lead the way. And you usually do.”