Sexual Abuse and Exploitation

Published date : 04 November, 2020
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Mid Derbyshire (Mrs Latham) on securing this debate on such an important and distressing subject. It has been a genuine pleasure to hear so many distinguished contributions from Members who have taken a long-standing and deeply principled stance on exposing this scandal, doing all they can to highlight it to other Members and the public at large, and seeking genuine reforms that can make a real difference to many people in vulnerable situations around the world. We have heard harrowing cases cited from many countries, including Liberia, Guinea, Sierra Leone, Namibia, Thailand, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Pakistan. They include cases of exploitation of women and girls in particular—albeit not exclusively—but above all people at their most vulnerable. These cases involve the abuse of power and the power imbalances in the relationship between those there to deliver aid and help on the ground, and those in need of that help. It is about who has power in those situations and who does not. It is about who has control—or, in many cases, who is thought to have control—over access to food, shelter, medicine, jobs and life opportunities, and over the immediate future for people, their families and perhaps even their wider communities.

When that relationship is abused, it undermines trust not only in aid workers, who are there to assist how they can, but in the agencies and the work itself. That is not something that we should allow to stand, because that undermining of trust is hugely debilitating for all concerned—not only for the wellbeing of those in need of the aid, but for those who are exploited indirectly through that and for the aid agencies themselves, which rely on their public standing to carry out all the work they do.

According to Professor Andrew MacLeod of Hear Their Cries, a charity fighting sex abuse in the aid sector, there is almost a culture of impunity for abusers at the moment. As we have heard from many speakers this morning, the organisations frequently act as if they are above the law. In many cases, they find it more convenient to cover up than to act and eradicate this problem. Professor MacLeod also said:

“Predators now target the aid industry to join because they know they get away with it.”

As a result of recent enquiries in Parliament, humanitarian groups and five of seven UN agencies, including the WHO, UNICEF, the International Organisation for Migration, World Vision and the medical non-governmental organisation Alama, have now announced inquiries into the matter. Although I welcome that recognition of the problem, which is overdue, it is far too easy just to talk of “zero tolerance”. Those words come very easily; the challenge is in actually doing something about it. Sadly, it will take a great deal more than simply expressing disapproval to ensure that lasting change is to happen, as the hon. Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion) said.

Yes, there needs to be a culture of safeguarding within aid agencies and organisations—we are all familiar with that and need to ensure it happens—but there also needs to be a culture in which concerns can be reported and taken seriously without fear of consequence, apart from the consequences that need to arise from those concerns being reported. People need to know that their concerns, when expressed, will be taken seriously, particularly victims, but also those within aid organisations who know what is going on and perhaps do not feel that they have the power to report their concerns.

When we deal with aid agencies, we are dealing with organisations that are by definition at the sharp end of the human experience, operating as they do in areas where civil society has perhaps broken down, whether through conflict or chaos. Many of our own domestic institutions have struggled to deal with accusations of sexual abuse, in a country with a functioning judiciary and legal system. We should not underestimate the difficulties of trying to tackle sexual abuse in situations of chaos and conflict, but that cultural change needs to happen nevertheless. One fundamental thing that we could do that would greatly assist that would be to ensure that more women are represented in aid agencies in leadership, management and frontline positions—I am pleased to see so many hon. Members nodding—to ensure balance and supervision that might not otherwise be there. I do not mean to decry the men working in aid agencies who do their very best and are not party to the abuse, but we need that balance, which could help to bring about and embed the necessary cultural change to challenge the abuse that operates in plain sight.

We need to provide mechanisms to ensure that those who are abused never have to report that abuse to an abuser. We need to find ways of ensuring that recipients of aid—no matter where they are or what their situation, their level of literacy or their access to technology—are made aware that aid is not a transaction: that there is no cost to them and that aid agencies are there to provide aid unconditionally. All that requires leadership, clarity, organisational effectiveness and an improvement of culture in the aid organisations, and is urgently necessary to maintain public confidence, particularly among those who receive the aid.

It is also fair to say that a Government response is required. As I draw my remarks to a close, I will make, I hope, a few constructive suggestions, which I would be grateful if the Minister considered. The UK Government’s reputation in international development is long established and well earned. That authority, together with membership of the permanent five on the UN Security Council, gives the UK Government a particularly strong leadership role in demanding reforms of the United Nations and its agencies—the UN sets a standard that many other agencies will follow. Our leadership position would allow us to embed that culture of internal and external accountability.

We could also do more to facilitate the prosecution of alleged perpetrators of abuse. Too often, it is left to the jurisdictions of the countries where the aid is distributed to deliver justice, when civil society may have substantially broken down and there is chaos. We could allow for prosecution at home. We could allow for a special tribunal to carry out those sorts of prosecutions and to make sure the rights of whistleblowers are defended, particularly regarding abusers but also those who are accused but not as yet deemed guilty, to protect everyone’s rights and also to make sure that mechanism of accountability exists.

The FCDO could also lead in establishing a global register of aid workers, which could allow us to track perpetrators of abuse as they seek to move around countries and agencies. I do not underestimate the challenge, but I think it would be a strong declaration of intent, and a practical way to try to eliminate that sort of behaviour and keep those who are not entering the aid sector with positive motivations away from the most vulnerable as they move around agencies and around the world. We could do a great deal more to build up civil society, strengthening the role of women not only within aid organisations but within civil society, as we seek to rebuild it in those zones that are receiving aid. There is also work to be done to embed a culture of training aid workers to spot abuse and empower those they are there to help, and to help people be aware of their rights and how to challenge and report abuses.

In drawing my remarks to a close, I will say that we have a position of leadership. Many of us—certainly in my party, and I know others across the House—had some concerns about the merger of DFID and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. We need to be assured that the Government will dedicate the efforts and resource needed to play a part and, more importantly, to help to restore the reputations of aid agencies around the world. We are in a unique position to do that, and I look to the Minister to tell us how we can carry that out.

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