Documents to download

Since the beginning of 2018 there has been heightened concern about the sexual exploitation and abuse (known for short as SEA) of aid recipients by aid providers, as well as sexual harassment and abuse within aid sector organisations. This concern was initially triggered by reports that Oxfam GB staff had paid three local women for sex in Haiti during the humanitarian response to the 2010 earthquake there and that the group had covered up these offences, failing to report them to the Charity Commission.

Soon afterwards, there were allegations of sexual misconduct and harassment by senior male figures at Save the Children. After these incidents became public, a significant number of similar allegations involving a range of other organisations emerged, some of them stretching back nearly 20 years. Previous controversies about SEA by UN peacekeepers were revisited. These developments are seen as partly responsible for a drop in the value of charitable donations in the UK.

DFID, the Charity Commission and the International Development Committee (IDC) quickly became involved in efforts to address these scandals. UK-based aid organisations have also taken steps of their own.  

An extensive discussion of the actions taken by different stakeholders between 2018 and early 2020 can be found in the Library briefing UK aid: frequently asked questions. The COVID-19 pandemic has inevitably taken up most of the time and attention of the UK aid sector since then, but the issue of SEA remains high on its agenda. 

In July 2020 the International Development Committee (IDC) launched a fresh inquiry into the issue.  It said in a press release at the time:

In February 2018 our predecessor committee started working on sexual exploitation and abuse in the aid sector, holding an oral evidence session in light of the scandal in Haiti and then launching a full inquiry in March 2018, as the scale of the problem became apparent to them. It published a wide-ranging report in July 2018 which put numerous recommendations to the Government to help tackle the problem. That Committee undertook follow-up work on this issue, including two oral evidence sessions and a follow-up report published in October 2019 which set out the Committee’s disappointment at the lack of progress in key areas.

The Department for International Development (DFID) held a safeguarding summit in October 2018 during which it signed up to a number of donor commitments. It has set up a Safeguarding Unit and we also aware of the various steps that NGOs, the private sector, multilateral organisations, including the UN have taken.

Chair of the International Development Committee, Sarah Champion MP said:

I have listened in horror at how the aid sector is targeted by perpetrators of sexual exploitation and abuse. In many cases, extremely vulnerable people are taken advantage of and abused by the very people they trusted to support them.

The fact that this inquiry is the third piece of work the Committee will have undertaken on sexual exploitation and abuse in two years tells me that this issue continues to rumble on as no one is prepared to challenge the culture that perpetuates it.

The Committee will investigate what progress has been made since the UK’s international safeguarding summit in 2018. We will look at whether aid recipients, victims and survivors know their rights and feel properly supported. Crucially, we will help identify what work needs to be done by the new Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office as it takes on responsibility for this in September to end this abuse once and for all.

So far, the IDC has held several oral evidence sessions and numerous written submissions have been submitted — including by DFID, shortly before it was merged with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCDO). Below are some extracts from the DFID submission which set out how the new government department intended to approach the issue:

What action should the new Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office take to improve reporting mechanisms, strengthen independent investigations and oversight, support victims and survivors and provide access to justice?

  • One immediate priority is to ensure that as a result of the merger the quality of what DFID currently provides in these areas is maintained.  DFID has a Ministerial lead for safeguarding and this will continue in the FCDO. DFID’s Investigations Section is discussing with FCO how to ensure a single reporting mechanism is in place for 1st Communications will be issued early and widely internally and externally to promote the new reporting route.  
  • Another priority is to continue to ensure high safeguarding standards for partners and for staff members and the capability offer and operational procedures which underpin them. Other longer-term and more externally focused things that FCDO could consider to secure improvements in the areas set out in the question include: lobby regularly – both at international level through Ministers and headquarter officials and at country level – on the importance of all those issues in the context of keeping people safe from harm; continue to chair and convene the wide range of external partners and networks that DFID has since 2018; and continue to provide funding for existing and possibly new programmes which directly seek to address these issues. 


What are the opportunities for improvement under the new FCDO which will bring the Safeguarding Unit, existing initiatives to tackle SEAH, and the Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict (PSVI) programme under the same department and Secretary of State?

  • All UK ODA spending government departments signed up to the donor commitments at the October 2018 London Safeguarding Summit. Since then they have met quarterly, convened by DFID, to drive delivery of those commitments across portfolios. All departments have indicated that they wish to continue to meet quarterly convened by FCDO. The creation of FCDO should bolster even further that all-of-government approach to tackle sexual misconduct which is an affront to British core values and basic human rights.  
  • DFID and FCO have throughout this period worked closely on issues such as PSVI and engaged with organisations such as the United Nations. For example, DFID and FCO both provide financial support to United Nations initiatives linked to PSVI and work to tackle SEAH. We are also finalising a guidance note that brings together work to tackle SEAH and PSVI as part of our broader strategic objective on ending gender-based violence under the UK’s National Action Plan on Women Peace and Security. The announcement of the creation of FCDO has already catalysed some useful discussions both separately within DFID and within FCO – and also across the two departments – about how we can best work with organisations such as the UN and in specific situations such as the Rohingya crisis. 
  • The creation of FCDO provides in itself a great opportunity to look at how we can combine the best of current work in DFID on safeguarding and related issues such as support to human rights and our world-leading research into what works to prevent violence against women and girls, with the best of work in FCO on issues such as PSVI and improving peacekeeping standards, building for example on the recent ICAI reviews. The aim is to ensure that the impact of the whole is greater than the sum of the current work of the DFID and FCO parts.  Having the same Secretary of State lead on PSVI, broader gender-based violence and safeguarding might generate new ideas about how to improve the provision of support services to survivors and victims, and how to use the full capability of Britain’s overseas network to help bring perpetrators to justice. 

Documents to download

Related posts