‘We failed to put the beneficiaries of aid first,’ says development secretary

26 Feb 2018 News

Penny Mordaunt, development secretary

International aid charities failed to put beneficiaries first and lost sight of their values, the development secretary said this morning. 

Penny Mordaunt, international development secretary, was giving the opening keynote at Bond’s annual conference today. 

She said that the sector was failing on both its mission to reduce poverty and on living up to its values. 

“We set ourselves the task that by 2030 every child will have the chance of a decent education, but we are 85 years adrift on current projections – not set to achieve that until 2115,” Mordaunt said.

She said that the sector needs to understand where it is “falling short”. 

Referring to the ongoing scandal of sexual exploitation by aid workers, she said: “How did those, there to protect, support and serve the most vulnerable people on earth, become complicit in their exploitation – by protecting the perpetrators, by failing to grip the problem or turning a blind eye?

“Because we failed to put the beneficiaries of aid first.” 

She speculated that fundraising pressures, competition for contracts, and protecting the reputation of individual charities and the sector had led to people not speaking up. 

“The result was the grotesque fact of aid workers sexually exploiting the most vulnerable people, and threatening whistle-blowers if they protested,” she said. 

Mordaunt said there was “no choice”, and that: “You cannot help and support people, you cannot give them hope and a chance, you cannot promote human rights or the dignity of every human being – whilst paying them for sex, and whilst funding an industry that exploits them.” 

Forgotten three things 

She said the aid sector has forgotten three things: “The needs of those we are here to serve. The expectations of those who enable us to – the British people. And the values that make us who we are. 

“To recover we must put the beneficiaries of aid first.” 

She urged charities to be more collaborative and “live up to the values of our nation”. 

“We need the humility to recognise what others can bring will multiply our efforts. And we need to let many others help,” she said. 

Public ‘want us to raise our game’ 

Mordaunt said that improving was a “condition of the British public’s support”. 

She said: “They continue to give, but I can tell you on many fronts they want us to raise our game: on what you do, on what I fund, and what together we can achieve.” 

New approach

Mordaunt said the sector must “live its values” or risk failing. 

“So, let this moment not just be a wake-up call to improve safeguarding. Let it also be a wake-up call to all that we must be, if we are to deliver on our promise to the world’s poor,” she said. 

She said there will soon be a new development offer around the Global Goals that will “require us to change where we work and who we work with”. 

It will also mean DfID and the armed forces co-operating more. The sector will need to share more data and work with the private sector. 

“It will make UK aid work harder – delivering for the world’s poor, but also for the UK’s security and prosperity, upon which UK aid depends,” she said.

Any organisation not meeting new statndards will not get any more funding she added. 

“It will require me to stop funding organisation that do not deliver our objectives, contribute to the Goals, or live up to our standardsm,” she said.

She said she still believes in aid but the sector can do more. 

“Since the Oxfam scandal broke, you and UK aid have helped vaccinate around 1.5 million children from polio. That’s heroic. But if we have the courage and the will to change we can do more."

Aid charities commit to improvements 

Bond, the umbrella body for international aid charities, has co-ordinated an open letter on behalf of 22 aid charities, in which they commit to “taking better action on safeguarding”. 

“There can be no tolerance for the abuse of power, privilege or trust within our organisations or in our work,” the letter said. 

It announced four “urgent and immediate measures” to address safeguarding concerns. 

  1. Increase safeguarding resources
  2. Review current referencing systems 
  3. Work with authorities and regulatory bodies “to ensure any individual caught abusing their power cannot do so again”. 
  4. Work with government to “overcome the legal and institutional barriers to rigorous background checks in the UK”. 

The letter also said charities are urging people to “come forward to report unacceptable behaviour”. 

It added that the measures outlined were “only the first step”. 

“The challenge we face in our own organisations is a challenge for the whole of society,” the letter said. “This is something that requires leadership in every sector – and we ask people from all walks of life and all corners of our communities to help us to strengthen safeguards, tackle abuse and stand up for the vulnerable – and to call out inappropriate behaviour wherever we see it.

“We are truly sorry that at times our sector has failed. We must and will do better.”

The 22 signatories are: 

ActionAid UK
BBC Media Action 
CARE International UK
Christian Aid
Concern Worldwide UK
Global Citizen 
Islamic Relief UK
Mercy Corps Europe
Muslim Aid
Oxfam GB
Plan International UK
Practical Action 
Save the Children UK
Start Network
Scotland’s International Development Alliance
World Vision UK

Charities reveal cases of sexual abuse

Earlier this month Mordaunt said that charities must be open about the challenge.

A number of large aid charities have so far disclosed the number of incidents of sexual abuse and exploitation in their charities and how they have dealt with them. 

At Plan UK there were six cases of sexual abuse and exploitation of children by staff, volunteers or the charity’s partners between 1 July 2016 and 30 June 2017. One staff member was involved and the others were volunteers or partner organisations and none of the cases involved British citizens. 

“The staff member was dismissed without a reference and contracts of volunteers or partner organisations were terminated. Five out of the total six cases were of a criminal nature and were reported to the local authorities,” Plan International UK’s chief executive Tanya Barron, said in a blog on the charity’s website.

During the same period there were nine cases of sexual harassment or misconduct by staff against other adults which led to seven dismissals. 

“The painful but important truth to acknowledge is that sometimes things can go wrong. When they do, we are deeply sorry,” she added.

ActionAid issued a statement saying that in the last five years there have been 20 sexual harassment incidents and two safeguarding reported. 

A spokesman said: “Throughout the organisation we have a zero-tolerance policy on any form of sexual harassment and misconduct, and clear child protection policies aimed to protect beneficiaries. We have a whistleblowing policy to encourage staff to come forward if they have any concerns and if an allegation is made, processes are in place to ensure immediate and decisive action is taken.” 

ActionAid added that it hired an external safeguarding expert last year to develop its policy and procedures and that it offers compulsory training for all staff. 

“We know from our work all over the world that violence against women knows no nationality. It may manifest in different ways, or be exacerbated because of a woman’s ethnicity, gender identity or socioeconomic status, but it is ever-present,” the charity said. 

ActionAid said it is committed to being “transparent and accountable”.

Christian Aid issued a statement earlier this month, saying that it had investigated two incidents overseas in the past 12 months, one of which resulted in the dismissal of a member of staff. 

Save the Children: Stories in nationals are 'incorrect'

Meanwhile Save the Children has issued a statement saying that reports in today’s Times and in the yesterday’s Mail on Sunday are “incorrect”. 

Both papers have reported that the charity’s chief executive, Kevin Watkins, stepped down from a review of the charity’s handling of sexual misconduct after criticism that he was a trustee of the charity when complaints about Brendan Cox and Justin Forysth were made.  

But Save the Children has said that it was never his intention to lead the review. 

The charity said: “Stories published in the UK media this weekend and today are incorrect. The Mail on Sunday (25 February 2018) and The Times (26 February 2018) have been contacted by Save the Children to request that the articles that are running are corrected or removed from their on-line services.  While we do this we wish to make it clear that statements made about Kevin Watkins, CEO of Save the Children in today’s Times are wrong and Mr Watkins chose to recuse himself from any part in the independent review from the date of announcing it on 18 February.” 

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