By Kieran McCartan, PhD, & Jon Brown, MSc.
The current crisis being faced by Oxfam (as well as other UK charities potentially) around inappropriate sexual behaviour, sexual abuse and sexual exploitation reflects the challenges that face a lot of charities and NGO’s – safeguarding. We have seen this debate played out across sporting organisations, social care, religious organisations and churches, namely “How do we protect and safeguard vulnerable people that our organisations work with, while at the same time enable members of the community to engage as well as work with us?”. Which is a challenge in the context of sexual abuse, safeguarding and child protection. The main areas of concern are who applies to work in these organisations and communities, the background checks conducted by host organisations, safe guarding on the ground, whistle blowing policies how the organisation responds to concerns and allegations and crucially, the safeguarding culture within the organisation.
A consistent message that we hear when sexual abuse happens in organisational settings is that paedophiles (although in reality we are talking about abusive and antisocial people to target children rather than “true paedophiles”) tend to target these organisations because it means that they can have access to vulnerable children. This is a problematic statement as it potentially labels everyone who volunteers or are employed by charity organisations are potential abusers and motivated by exploitative motivates. While it is true that a minority of people may join organisations to sexually abuse or sexually exploit, this is not the majority of people involved with international aid organisations or charities generally. We do not know the actual numbers of paedophiles employed by these organisations, but we would hazard a guess that it is quite small. The reality is that many people who work in this arena are people interested in helping, if there are people interested in abusing and exploiting vulnerable people it seems more likely that they are more broadly anti-social and abusive. Which raises the question of how do we identify these individuals at the screening stage and then make sure that abusive behaviour is identified in situ.
The screening of potential, or actual abusers, is challenging to say the least. Of course, there are background checks but this relies on people already being involved in the system, with previous offences against them and being known to the police as well as relevant agencies; but this is problematic. Sexual abuse and sexual exploitation are under reported, under recorded, occur in secret, with lower recidivism rates than other violent crimes and quite often perpetrators are unknown to the police at the time of arrest. Which means that the system does not really know the full scale of sexual abuse and who all real, or potential, preparators are. Therefore, background checks do not identify unknown abusers, only know ones. Individuals who would be applying to work with organisations with access to vulnerable people, so that they can offend against them, would not have previous offences or convictions, consequentially they will not show up on background checks. The reality is that the additional screening techniques need to work harder to identify these individuals, so interviews, workshops and other submitted material. However, are HR departments and interviewers trained appropriately to do this effectively? The reality seems to be no. The conversations that we have heard over the last few days is that there needs to be better screening of candidates and volunteers upon entrance to organisations. In this respect approaches like Value Based Interviewing which assesses individual’s beliefs and values as well as technical competence can be useful in ensuring safe and effective staff selection.
Any abuse that happens in situ while organisational staff and volunteers are on the ground needs to be responded to quickly and appropriately; it is not clear that this is happening. The issues related to sexual abuse and exploitation by foreign aid staff is particularly problematic as the abuse is happening abroad away from the parent organisations hierarchy therefore its more difficult to protect against abuse. The communities where these organisations work suffer from multiple vulnerabilities, where there maybe a culture of the non-reporting of abuse, may not speak English and maybe be concerned that if they speak out the support/help will be removed. All of which create a perfect storm where abuse can occur and not get reported. It therefore, becomes incumbent on the organisation to make sure that the local community trusts them, that all claims are investigated with rigour and that there are clear consequences which are identifiable to staff and communities sending a clear message that abuse and/or exploitation are not acceptable.
This leads us to the main accusation levelled at Oxfam, that it was guilty of covering up the scale and nature of the abuse and exploitation committed by its employees abroad. That there needs to be much more robust measures, investigations and consequences. The argument is that problematic staff not dealt with appropriately, got references and the relevant information was not passed on to the authorities or other organisations in the field. This means that abusers and exploiters can move on to similar areas and continue to commit similar offences; which reinforces that we can only be aware of the perpetrators that we know about and non-reporting perpetuates the secrecy of sexual harm. In addition, the reporting also raises the question of who do you report to the police in the organisations home country or the host country that the organisation is working in? Many of these host countries are receiving aid because they are in a state of crisis, therefore their legal systems may not be fully operational and that these offences are not set up for dealing with these offences.
The impact of the revelations of sexual abuse by overseas aid workers, as well as volunteers, reinforces the misconception that all of these personnel engage with these agencies because they are motivated to sexually exploit vulnerable people; this is challenging as it detracts from the good work that these organisations do and the fact that the majority of their staff are not involved in sexual abuse or exploitation. These revelations will have political, social, criminal and fundraising implications across the sector reinforcing the need for these organisations to learn from the mistakes and investigations into other charities as well as NGO’s ensuring that there are clear, robust safeguarding procedures in place.