The International Rescue Committee (IRC) has become the latest humanitarian organisation pitched in the spotlight following the revelations that Britain’s Oxfam failed to report a former country manager for illegally using prostitutes in Haiti.
As outrage over the Oxfam scandal mounts, top non-government organisations such as IRC and Save the Children have also been accused of a culture of cover up.
A leaked report seen by British tabloid The Sun from the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID) revealed the IRC, which is fronted by former UK foreign secretary David Miliband, had its government funding suspended over allegations of sexual harassment and fraud.
Funds were eventually released to the charity but the public was kept in the dark about the incident.
“The IRC followed good practice, reporting allegations to donors, conducting investigations and providing reports to donors and local authorities,” an IRC spokeswoman said about the report.
Data collected by the Daily Mail showed that Save the Children, the London-based NGO which promotes children’s rights across the world, were made aware of 176 incidents in three years involving potential abuse of children by its staff. The newspaper said only a fraction of these incidents were reported to police.
A former colleague of Roland van Hauwermeiren, the Oxfam employee who admitted to using prostitutes in Haiti, came forward on Tuesday saying that Mr Hauwermeiren had been dismissed from his post in Liberia for similar misconduct while working for a different charity.
Problems with transparency in reporting sexual abuse within the charity sector were exposed in a recent survey by the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Reuters surveyed 10 international aid agencies in November 2017 for figures on sexual abuse. Only six of those involved disclosed information about the number of alleged misconduct cases involving their staff.
The Oxfam revelations have come as no surprise to many in the community. Megan Nobert, a humanitarian worker and human rights lawyer, was drugged and raped in South Sudan by a UNICEF contractor which led her to set up Report the Abuse in 2015, a campaign aimed at ending sexual violence against aid workers.
Ms Nobert described to British radio how sexual misconduct is a “common occurrence” within aid work, adding that “the humanitarian community is the latest to have to grapple publicly with an issue that it's been trying to figure out how to respond to quietly”.
Testimonials gathered by Report the Abuse indicate years of sexual misconduct going systematically underreported amongst aid agencies. One female USAID contractor in Afghanistan said that it was difficult to speak about her sexual assault as “it was supposed to be secret”. While another aid worker, Sarah Pierce, believes her contract was terminated by the Carter Center, a large American NGO, because she reported being raped in her tent by a colleague while also working in South Sudan.
Report the Abuse investigated 92 UN agencies, INGOS and government organisations on how they dealt with claims of sexual misconduct in 2017 and found that only 16% had any means to address such allegations and 17% of survivors spoken to felt happy with their treatment.
While the Oxfam scandal has put pressure on charities to create methods by which whistle-blowers and victims of sexual misconduct can come forward and have their cases dealt with seriously, it remains to be seen whether this will tackle the problem. However, Ms Nobert has told The National that recent revelations are a "tipping point for sector-wide change regarding sexual exploitation and abuse".
Penny Mordaunt, the British Secretary of State for International Development, told charities funded by the UK government on Wednesday that funding will cease if organisations continue to fail in reporting serious allegations and do not safeguard everyone within their remit.
She said: "No organisation is too big or our work with them too complex for me to hesitate to remove funding from them if we cannot trust them to put the beneficiaries of aid first."
Ms Mordaunt called upon the sector to “regain the trust of the public”, adding: “We must make staff aware of their moral responsibilities as well as their legal duties but above all else we must strive to ensure that no child, no one is harmed by the people who are supposed to be there to help."