Issue 81 - Article 4

Tackling sexual exploitation and abuse by aid workers: what has changed 20 years on?

June 17, 2022

Asmita Naik

Victims receive psychological support from the TPO (Transcultural Psychosocial Organisation) NGO to recover from trauma and resume their daily activities

Over 20 years ago, in response to the first global scandal on sex-for-aid in West Africa in 2002, I argued that a humanitarian watchdog was the only way of providing redress for victims of sexual exploitation and abuse (SEA) by aid workers. Today, following the resurgence of the issue with the 2018 Oxfam scandal, the need for independent accountability remains as high but the likelihood of it happening, ever more remote.

In 2001, I was part of a team comprised of staff from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and Save the Children, which unexpectedly uncovered allegations of sexual exploitation of refugee children by aid workers in West Africa. The scale was truly shocking, implicating some 70 perpetrators, 40 child victims and 40 aid agencies, and involving the most egregious abuses – humanitarian workers demanding sex from children in exchange for desperately needed aid supplies, such as biscuits, soap and medicine. The allegations spanned several refugee camps hundreds of miles apart in Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone.

When the story came to light in February 2002, it prompted a frenzy of media attention. Donor and aid agencies alike expressed horror. On the one hand, there were genuine efforts to address these abuses; for example, the Inter-agency Standing Committee (IASC) set up the Task Force on Protection from Sexual Exploitation and Abuse in Humanitarian Crises in March 2002. But there was also a darker side to the response, a denigration of the victims by some in the humanitarian community, with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees at the time, Ruud Lubbers, Lubbers left office in 2005 following allegations of sexual harassment. going on public record to disparage these claims. Despite this backlash there was eventually a sound policy response due to pressure from some in the donor and aid community. The 2003 UN Secretary-General’s bulletin set out the first ever global policy on this issue, which continues to apply today. However, there was little in the way of practical change: the allegations were not promptly or adequately investigated, perpetrators were not sanctioned, no one in management was held accountable and the victims did not achieve redress.

When the Oxfam case came to light in 2018, it brought a strong sense of déjà vu to those of us involved in the earlier scandal, alongside renewed hope that finally something would be done. In the intervening years, stories about peacekeepers occasionally made headlines but sexual exploitation by aid workers still simmered below the surface of humanitarian operations. The IASC and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) such as the Humanitarian Accountability Partnership (HAP) (predecessor of the Core Humanitarian Standard Alliance) continued to quietly develop policies and guidelines on SEA that were poised and ready for implementation by 2018. Those of us who had been watching this space for years were optimistic that the time for action had come.

The Oxfam UK and Save the Children UK scandals of 2018 brought unprecedented attention to the issue of sex abuse in aid; on the back of the Me Too movement, and powered by the British media, the stories rebounded globally. The policy response was swift and assertive, with UK aid in the dock; the British government was central to the response and convened a global safeguarding summit. Much activity followed at policy level, with new strategies, multilateral coordinating mechanisms, and agreements such as the Development Assistance Committee’s Recommendation on Ending Sexual Exploitation, Abuse, and Harassment in Development Co-operation and Humanitarian Assistance. There was investment in new initiatives, with millions spent on employment cycle schemes aimed at preventing perpetrators from acquiring jobs in the sector; See, for example, discussion about Interpol’s Project Soteria; the Misconduct Disclosure Scheme; the Aid Worker Registration Scheme; and the UN Clear Check system. capacity-building hubs and training schemes; programmes for victims and survivors; and efforts to strengthen investigations, oversight and data collection. There was also independent scrutiny from the UK Parliament’s International Development Committee, which provided real-time accountability for decisions and actions taken.

With all this energy and activity, one would hope for evidence of impact three years on, but the signs are not promising. The New Humanitarian exposed extensive sexual abuse by aid workers from the World Health Organization and other agencies in the Democratic Republic of Congo in late 2020 – a sure sign that all the high-level activity was not translating into real change. Moreover, two recent reviews find inadequate progress. The IASC external review finds that despite standards and guidance being in place, the ‘pace of progress has not been steady’ with particular gaps relating to accountability to victims and communities. It concludes by calling for an investment in and scaling up of actions at country level. The Independent Commission for Aid Impact (ICAI), a UK body which oversees UK aid, is similarly critical of a lack of accountability to affected populations, a ‘top-down approach’ and an ‘imbalance in favour of global, high-level initiatives, with less focus on the grassroots and operational levels’.

These are damning conclusions given the widespread commitments made in 2018. What has gone wrong? Above all, there has been a fundamental failure by those leading the charge to build on what had come before; the standards, policies and practices developed under IASC, HAP and the like were ripe for implementation, there was no need to reinvent the wheel with new high-level strategies, coordination mechanisms and talking shops.

Yet there was still a desperate need to invest in actions on the ground, to inform affected communities of their rights, to enable them to raise concerns, to investigate their complaints and to provide redress. These are the key steps in achieving any kind of cultural change: set standards, enforce them, create deterrents and thereby change behaviour. I advocated for this back in 2002; first-hand experience of the West Africa scandal had shown me the difficulties in reporting and the sheer happenstance and unknown ripple effects that led to a global news story sufficient to prompt action. In 2018, I and other seasoned experts made renewed calls for mechanisms to give victims a voice, See Hilhorst D. (2018) ‘Aid agencies can’t police themselves. It’s time for a change’, The New Humanitarian, 22 February (; Naik., A (2018) ‘Trial by media not the answer to safeguarding concerns’, Civil Society, 17 May (; and expert testimony to the UK Parliament International Development Committee, ‘Progress on tackling the sexual exploitation and abuse of aid beneficiaries’, 15 December 2020. an approach which resonated with the Dutch government’s response to this issue and led to a feasibility study on an international ombudsman for aid but regrettably little else other than more research.

Instead, the early and heavy investment by leaders in the aid sector was in employment cycle schemes, based on the naive assumption that all would be well if organisations could avoid hiring perpetrators – disregarding the fact that perpetrators have to be identified first, which requires functioning complaints mechanisms and investigative and disciplinary processes. This approach put the cart before the horse. The ICAI review concludes that such schemes ‘have inherent limitations’ and calls for a cost–benefit analysis. This is a finding echoed by the IASC review, which shows little difference being made as of mid-2021. For example, the UN Clear Check system has only screened out one individual as compared to 75 by the NGO Misconduct Disclosure Scheme – both figures raise concerns about the capacity for and standardisation of investigations and disciplinary processes across organisations.

The sector was likewise taken down other futile and ineffectual paths that did not help to focus on the SEA of beneficiary victims by aid workers, through the introduction of the hitherto unused and nebulous concept of ‘safeguarding’; the conflation of traditional protection programming aimed at addressing external threats with the internal risks posed by organisations and their staff; the fusion of abuses against beneficiaries with abuses against staff resulting in a detraction in focus from those most vulnerable and lacking in recourse; the pursuit of criminal justice solutions for behaviours that either do not reach the criminal threshold or do not have a realistic prospect of criminal conviction; and the blind transference of approaches used in stable Western democracies for tackling child abuse and sexual violence into war-torn contexts without any semblance of the rule of law.

These approaches were driven by new and influential players lacking in experience and a willingness to listen. But fundamentally, the lack of progress points to insufficient political will and reluctance by donors to move beyond rhetoric and bureaucracy to actually funding operations on the ground. The UK government, likely one of the donors that has invested the most in this area, has nevertheless not provided sufficient funds to national and local organisations for implementation activities, according to the recent ICAI review. These findings have been echoed elsewhere.

The investment choices also reveal a good deal of self-interest on the part of aid organisations. Flagship initiatives, such as the impractical and ethically questionable global aid worker register are being pursued whilst the ombudsman proposal that sought to hold organisations to account has been shelved. This is likely for the same reason it was abandoned back in the early 2000s, when it was explored following the Rwandan genocide; namely, the resistance of aid organisations to external scrutiny and the complicity of donors in allowing them to be unaccountable, presumably because other common interests take precedence. The IASC review, too, found that UN member agencies preferred to handle their own complaints rather than participate in joint and more transparent efforts to respond to concerns from affected communities. Whilst there has been funding for victims and survivors (alongside, for example, investigations), these are comparatively smaller scale and have come too late to effect change. Instead, initiatives aimed at protecting the reputation of aid organisations or tackling other societal problems (such as terrorism or organised crime, etc.) under the guise of tackling SEA, appear to take priority.

Whilst the progress at systematic level is disappointing, the heightened attention to SEA has brought about some welcome changes. Coordination efforts have brought in a wider range of players than were involved before, including the private sector and bilateral donors. It has prompted some organisations to take their own concerted action, for instance, by strengthening investigations systems or setting up their own ombuds-type mechanisms for beneficiaries. Some donors, such as the US and UK have increased oversight of their own programmes, and thus provided some level of recourse for complainants who have nowhere else to turn. Most importantly, the renewed attention on this issue has led some to explore what the implementation of SEA standards means in practice. The Girls’ Education Challenge, for example, has an operating model that consists of very hands-on support to partners on the ground, making them aware of standards, building their capacity and helping them with the management and investigation of complaints. This encouraging experience shows that ‘protection is possible’ but that it requires serious investment.

The past three years have reinforced what we already know is necessary to making a difference – operational action to raise awareness of rights, to provide mechanisms for complaints and to carry out robust investigations and follow-up. This requires donors to turn away from partisan interests and misguided initiatives that do not work, and to be willing to genuinely stand on the side of beneficiaries, to provide implementing organisations with the funds they need to take action (rather than simply setting standards for them) and then be ready to hold them to account. The global media spotlight has moved on and is unlikely to visit again until there’s a new generation ready to be shocked by the incongruity of aid workers causing harm to those they are supposed to help. Without this, it falls on the integrity of the aid sector, donors and implementers alike, to do what’s needed to ensure beneficiaries of aid are protected from aid organisations themselves.

Asmita Naik is an international human rights consultant, a part-time adjudicator and a former UNHCR staff member. She co-authored the 2002 West Africa report on sexual exploitation and abuse of refugee children by aid workers.


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