New ICAI review – The UK’s approach to safeguarding in the humanitarian sector

24 Feb 2022

ICAI review finds the government needs to do more to learn from people affected by humanitarian crises, including victims and survivors of sexual exploitation and abuse, to improve safeguarding in the humanitarian sector

The UK government is strongly committed to preventing sexual exploitation and abuse in humanitarian crises – but its top-down approach means insufficient attention has been given to learning from the recipients of humanitarian aid on how to reduce the risks they face, a new review published today by the Independent Commission for Aid Impact (ICAI) has found.

ICAI’s review assesses the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office’s (FCDO) approach to safeguarding in the humanitarian sector. The report follows the significant commitments to reform made by the UK at the International Safeguarding Summit in 2018, held in the wake of high profile ‘sex-for-aid’ scandals. ICAI’s review awarded an amber-red score and made five recommendations.

The review commends the FCDO for developing a wide-ranging strategy and recognising that tackling sexual exploitation and abuse in the humanitarian system requires long-term and sustained effort. While FCDO has made significant improvements in its system for investigating and overseeing safeguarding cases, further work is necessary to ensure the prioritisation of cases involving victims and survivors who are recipients of humanitarian aid, as well as the guidance on due process, protecting the rights of the accused and whistleblowers. ICAI has learnt that changes to the system are already underway.

ICAI’s consultation with refugees and residents in northern Uganda suggests there is still widespread under-reporting of safeguarding incidents and highlighted a reluctance by victims to report allegations to aid agencies. ICAI calls on the government to do more to listen to, and learn from, people who receive humanitarian aid, including victims and survivors of sexual exploitation and abuse by aid workers.

Commenting on the findings of the review, ICAI Commissioner, Sir Hugh Bayley, said:

“The UK has played an important role in galvanising international action on protecting people from sexual exploitation and abuse in humanitarian crises.

“But its top-down approach requires those delivering UK aid to spend more time reporting back to the FCDO, 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 the review ICAI praised the UK for becoming a “key actor” whose investments and leadership have been “instrumental” in strengthening coordination on protection from sexual exploitation and abuse. The aid watchdog recognised the importance of the FCDO’s efforts to improve safeguarding in the wider humanitarian system, including through the development of training and guidance, and international information-sharing systems. However, ICAI warned that too much focus on global initiatives may reduce the space for locally led work that could have the most immediate impact on crisis-affected people.

ICAI cautioned against an over-reliance on employment screening schemes – which aim to prevent perpetrators being given the opportunity to reoffend – which have so far had limited use with locally recruited staff who make up the majority of humanitarian workers. ICAI also highlighted the need for FCDO to develop a strategic approach to addressing critical evidence gaps, such as “where, when and how” sexual exploitation and abuse takes place in humanitarian contexts, and who is most at risk.

While acknowledging that FCDO’s enhanced contractual requirements and minimum standards are necessary, the report warns that this does not remove the need for accountability to victims and survivors. ICAI also raised concerns from some smaller NGOs, who said they did not have sufficient funding to enable them to comply with the stringent requirements.

FCDO has made a large financial contribution to the UN’s Trust Fund in Support of Victims of Sexual Exploitation and Abuse, and has supported the UN Victims’ Rights Advocate. But the report found that the FCDO has not yet established a consistent approach to ensuring the needs of victims and survivors are met.

ICAI observed that “profound power disparities” and gender inequality contribute to a culture that has normalised sexual exploitation and abuse in humanitarian settings. The aid watchdog reported that it had seen evidence that FCDO was attempting to address this culture, but that so far evidence showing whether the measures taken have reduced sexual exploitation and abuse in humanitarian crises is limited.

ICAI recommends that the FCDO should focus greater attention on ensuring: approaches to preventing sexual exploitation and abuse are tailored to local contexts; the voices of affected people, victims and survivors are captured and used systematically to inform policy and programming; key evidence gaps are filled; employee screening schemes include humanitarian aid workers recruited in country; and that the FCDO should review its approach to investigating allegations of sexual exploitation and abuse by aid workers.

Read the full review


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