A report by Britain’s aid watchdog says the government needs to do more to safeguard people in humanitarian crises from abuse after rating its current efforts as inadequate.
The Independent Commission for Aid Impact (ICAI) has been reviewing the UK's approach to protecting those in crisis against abuse following a number of scandals in the aid sector.
One includes some Oxfam staff who allegedly used prostitutes in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake.
The ICAI is now calling on the government to do more to listen to and learn from people who receive humanitarian aid.
“The UK has played an important role in galvanising international action on protecting people from sexual exploitation and abuse in humanitarian crises,” ICAI commissioner Sir Hugh Bayley said.
“But its top-down approach requires those delivering UK aid to spend more time reporting back to the Foreign Office, than listening to the people they are seeking to protect and addressing their needs.
“We also recommend that the government should review its procedures for managing safeguarding complaints, including allegations of sexual exploitation and abuse against people receiving aid in humanitarian settings.”
In one example, the ICAI says that after consulting with refugees and residents in northern Uganda, its research revealed there is widespread underreporting of safeguarding incidents as well as a reluctance among victims to report allegations to aid agencies.
It cautioned the government against over-reliance on using employment screening programmes in a bid to prevent perpetrators from being given the opportunity to reoffend.
The ICAI says the scheme has had “limited use” with locally recruited staff who make up the majority of humanitarian workers and recommends people recruited within a nation also be subjected to checks.
The organisation also raised concerns about evidence gaps about where abuse is taking place and said it has observed “profound power disparities” and gender inequality, which have contributed to a culture that has normalised sexual exploitation and abuse in humanitarian settings.
The aid watchdog reported that it had seen evidence that the Foreign Office was attempting to address this culture, but that so far, evidence showing whether the measures taken have mitigated the problem is limited.
It said that the Foreign Office should put greater attention on ensuring the prevention of sexual exploitation and abuse are tailored to local situations.
“There are no easy solutions and the problem will take time to address effectively,” the report says.
“Continuous effort is needed at international and in-country levels to identify and mitigate risk, strengthen the reporting of cases, stop perpetrators from operating with impunity, and provide real accountability to victims and survivors.
“Consultation with victims and survivors and whistleblowers has been sporadic and unsystematic. Emphasis has been on accountability towards the donor rather than towards people affected by humanitarian response.
“Reporting remains weak and more needs to be done to engage with national institutions to encourage reporting and tackle impunity.”
It recommends the government use the voices of affected people to help in its policy and programming.
The report follows commitments to reform made by the UK at the International Safeguarding Summit in 2018.
Last year, the government faced heavy criticism after announcing £4 billion ($5.66bn) in cuts that it said were temporary and necessary given Britain's record levels of borrowing during the Covid-19 pandemic.