Where charity stops and exploitation begins

Another world: of contexts ravaged by conflict and disaster, where exploitation and abuse have become normalised.

Aid agencies and NGOs working in some of the most challenging social environments are having to face the problem of child grooming among their own ranks, reports James Fitzgerald.

Being charitable is one of those universal virtues that go along with justice, courage, faith and wisdom. Who hasn’t filled out a charity sponsorship form or reached into their pocket when passing a coin box? But how many people stop to ask where their money is going and if it is being administered wisely and justly?

“There is a girl who sleeps in the street, and there were a group of people who decided to make money off of her. They took her to a man who works for an NGO. He gave her one American dollar and the little girl was happy to see the money. It was two in the morning. The man took her and raped her. In the morning the little girl could not walk,” reported a young boy from Haiti to the Save the Children report, “No One To Turn To”, in 2008.

“These children are often alone; they are separated from their families; they are living in extreme poverty, and without the protection and support from parents many are using transactional sex just to survive,” Corinna Csaky, an international child development consultant and author of the report, told the UK parliament’s International Development Committee last week.

These children she says, are usually outside the system – they are not registered at birth, or for schools or other basic services. “It is these children we are expecting to come forward to report a case of abuse,” she says.

‘Many victim survivors and their communities regard this abuse as an inevitable fact of life.’

“It is also very important to note the abusers are both foreign and national staff. Some come from overseas but many more are locals employed by international humanitarian organisations.”

With the exception of peacekeeping forces, local people make up the majority of humanitarian staff – and not surprisingly they make up the highest proportion of abusers, says the report, which also claims that most cases of abuse are not reported.

Aid agency safeguarding mechanisms are mainly responsive; triggered when a member of the community reports the abuse. So, why are these people not speaking out?

“Many victim survivors and their communities regard this abuse as an inevitable fact of life,” says Ms Csaky. “They do not see the need to report it. These are contexts ravaged by conflict and disaster, where the social fabric is threadbare. Where children, especially girls, are regarded to be worth less. And where exploitation and abuse have become normalised.”

She quotes a fourteen-year-old boy from Cote D’Ivoire as saying: “We all work at the peacekeeping camp. We go there to earn money to help support our families. Sometimes they ask us to find girls, especially our age. Often it will be between eight and 10 men who will share two or three girls. They also use their mobile phones to film the girls. I find them girls in the town. They are often keen because of the gifts that are promised, such as mobile phones and food rations…”

Survivors also described how speaking out carries several risks: foremost, they risk losing the food and money they earn through transactional sex with aid agency staff; and children and communities are scared of retaliation; and fearful of the stigma associated with this abuse.

In South Sudan, some girls fear speaking out because they may be forced to marry their abuser, says Ms Csaky.

The lack of support, it seems, is both a problem in and of itself and a factor discouraging people coming forward.

Very few people in Haiti, Cote D’Ivoire and South Sudan have ever heard of a victim receiving medical, legal, psycho-social or financial support, according to the report. It quotes a Haitian girl: “The people in the office and people who are raping us are the same people.”

Few people had any knowledge of how to report incidents or say how it would be taken forward in an official capacity.

‘This industry provides easy, anonymous access to victims, where nobody says anything.’

The No One To Turn To report sets out a landscape of impunity for abusers. “They don’t even hide what they are doing. If a case is reported, the fact that nothing happens can put people off coming forward,” says one anonymous source.

“Children and their communities must value their own rights and protection in order to speak out when they are violated,” says Ms Csaky. “They must have confidence that speaking out will bring about a positive change. Children must receive feedback about what action is being taken against the perpetrators in order to build their confidence in the system.”

Finally, she says, the child reporting mechanisms must be child friendly and effective for all children — especially those who are living on the edge of society.

In the words of a mother in South Sudan: “An orphan can say nothing against her abuser because she has nothing”.

Pauline Latham, MP for Mid Derbyshire, sitting on the International Development Committee, suggested that people with paedophile tendencies were being attracted to aid work, as they are pushed out of the church and school systems. “This industry provides easy, anonymous access to victims, where nobody says anything.”

A number of claims put various NGOs under scrutiny earlier this year. MPs launched an investigation into abuse in the aid sector in February after it emerged that some of Oxfam’s staff in Haiti engaged in “sex parties” with prostitutes in the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake.

Save the Children, which was last year accused of working with criminal gangs smuggling migrants into Europe, has been under serious scrutiny amidst allegations that the charity failed to properly investigate claims of sexual misconduct by staff including former chief executive Justin Forsyth and former policy director Brendan Cox.

So far this year over 1,000 complaints about safeguarding in aid agencies have been made, according to the Charity Commission.

“It’s fair to say we underinvested in this area when we created Save the Children International,” said Kevin Watkins, chief executive. “We are improving our reporting systems and that is reflected in an increase in the number of cases that we are capturing.”

Mr Watkins also said there was “an enormous incentive as a sector not to reveal the full scale of what is going on”. He said his agency was investing more in documenting cases, in quarterly reporting, scaling up abilities in the UK.

He conceded that humanitarian response and development work could “become a magnet for paedophiles and organised criminals”.

But with a globalised workforce and challenges, there is only so much that reporting mechanisms can do to ensure safeguarding.

“As a sector — including multilateral organisations and development banks — we haven’t acknowledged the scale of the problem,” says Mr Watkins. We have failed to work together as a sector in generating a public good — in safeguarding.”

He says the sector must move towards a rules-based and regulatory system that tackles the underlying causes.

Steve Reeves, director of Child Safeguarding at Save the Children UK, says that engagement had to happen with people on the ground, so that “you create a safeguarding organisation, rather than an organisation that is safeguarding complaint”. He said these approaches needed to be imbedded in the DNA of the group, so that they became “organic and self-replicating”.

This leaves charitable donors with scope to tighten their demands for reporting standards from NGOs.

Meanwhile, Joel Davis, the campaign director of the Stop Rape in Conflict (SRC) coalition, was arrested in New York in June after a police sting operation that implicated him in alleged attempts to rape minors.

Davis, a 22-year-old college drop-out, had been championed by high-profile humanitarians such as Zainab Bangura, former United Nations Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict and current co-chair of Oxfam’s Independent Commission on Sexual Misconduct.

Davis, like others before him, demonstrated that paedophiles posing as humanitarians can craft public images as heroes and build powerful networks of like-minded colleagues.

It seems that no-one in the SRC coalition — which includes the Nobel Women’s Initiative, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Physicians for Human Rights, AIDS Free World, Global Fund for Women and many others — conducted the most basic verification of Davis and his “non-profit” group.


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