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Aid beneficiaries continue to be abused by aid workers

14 January 2021

In its report, Progress on tackling the sexual exploitation and abuse of aid beneficiaries, the International Development Committee (IDC) finds that sexual exploitation and abuse (SEA) is still happening in the sector.

SEA is still happening in the sector

This is supported by a unique survey by the IDC where 73% of respondents believe there remains a problem with SEA being perpetrated by aid workers. This is likely to have been made significantly worse with the coronavirus pandemic, with reductions in aid and food supplies making female beneficiaries more vulnerable to exploitation. Further, perpetrators are continuing to move from organisation to organisation with impunity.

Some improvements have been made in the sector, such as hiring dedicated Prevention for SEA champions, improved training for aid workers, and new whistle-blower protections. However, predominately female aid beneficiaries are continuing to be preyed upon, with 26% of respondents to the IDC’s survey claiming they had witnessed or observed suspected sexual exploitation or abuse of aid recipients. This has also been made apparent with the recent exposure that aid workers from WHO and other aid giants exploited female beneficiaries in the 2018-20 Ebola response in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

The aid sector could prevent sex scandals if more effort was made to show zero tolerance to abuse, empower female aid beneficiaries and support survivors, the IDC argues today.

The UK Government has invested a significant amount in employment cycle schemes to prevent perpetrators of SEA from being re-hired. However, such schemes rely on individuals being identified. The IDC report found that when victims or whistle-blowers try to report abuse, little meaningful action follows allowing perpetrators to continue working in the sector with impunity. Our survey found that 57% of respondents felt the effectiveness of the whistleblowing policies and practices at their organisations were inadequate.

Enhanced use of in-country justice systems would help act as a deterrent and route to prosecution. The UK Government should work in partnership with governments around the world to ensure they are equipped to handle SEA cases brought against local aid workers.

There remains a huge issue with reporting. Female beneficiaries are understandably distrustful of the sector that may have abused and exploited them. Aid organisations must attach much more importance to engaging women on the ground; making sure they know their rights and design possible solutions in concert with them.

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

“Aid beneficiaries, by their very nature, are the most vulnerable people on the planet. I have huge admiration for the aid sector, but it needs to wake up to what is going on and embed safeguarding within all of its programmes. Our inquiry has found that abuse of beneficiaries is rife, and that the sector has effectively become the last safe haven for perpetrators.

“Throughout the inquiry we heard repeatedly of abusers acting with impunity, whistle-blowers being hounded out of their jobs and victims finding it impossible to secure justice. I know that the vast majority of aid workers are dedicated people proud to serve beneficiaries, but until the perpetrators of exploitation and abuse are driven out of the sector, there remains a dark shadow across their good work.

“It may feel for many that there is no hope when it comes to stamping out sexual exploitation and abuse. But actually, there is a very simple solution that would make a huge difference – speak, listen and engage with local people to see what works for them.

“We must stop this patronising attitude of aid giants imposing aid programmes on beneficiaries and local groups without including them in the design. It only builds distrust and gives an ‘us and them’ picture to the people that the aid sector is meant to support and also the abusers looking to exploit.

“As we draw this inquiry to a close, I urge aid organisations and the Government take our recommendations on board to build a more inclusive, empowering aid sector for beneficiaries with zero tolerance for any form of abuse or sexual exploitation.”

Parliamentary Debate

The report publication comes ahead of the Committee securing a debate in the House of Commons on the report, expected to take place in the morning of Thursday 14 January.

As a result of the IDC’s concerns around the culture of the aid sector being a contributing factor to the amount of SEA occurring, the IDC has decided to launch a new inquiry considering the philosophy of aid. Full details will be announced soon.

Some of the Committee’s recommendations are:

Aid sector

  • Zero tolerance for any form of abuse or exploitation
  • Safeguarding should be embedded in all aid programmes
  • Reporting mechanisms should be designed between aid organisations and the local population.
  • Aid organisations to have a duty to advise beneficiaries of their rights.
  • Aid organisations should report SEA cases and safeguarding allegations – and number of those upheld – to the FCDO and Donors.
  • Aid beneficiaries who are victims and survivors of SEA must have access to support and services, with the FCDO allowing the inclusion of the cost in grants and contracts for running programmes.


  • The FCDO should consider outcomes of SEA investigations on funding agreements with aid organisations.
  • Government to enable Aid workers to undertake an Enhanced DBS check, currently they are not included.
  • Investigations capacity should be strengthened, and as a result have more impact on perpetrators being identified in Employment Cycle Schemes.
  • On whistle-blower protections, the FCDO should require organisations it funds to report on non-disclosure agreements they have signed to ensure that partners are not misusing NDAs to silence those who speak up.
  • The Government should consider how existing legislation could be applied to prosecute aid workers who commit sexual offences overseas.
  • The FCDO should work with the UN to boost oversight of peacekeeping missions and to ensure perpetrators of SEA are not immune from robust investigation.
  • The FCDO should use the merger as an opportunity to reinvigorate the Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict Initatives (PSVI) and the Gender Equality Division should develop a coherent strategy to prevent SEA.

Further information

Image: PA