Aid agencies ‘complicit in exploitation of most vulnerable’, says Mordaunt

International development secretary advises assist groups to deliver on promises, while Save the Childrens head dismisses reports he was made to step aside from a review into handling of complaints

The international developing secretary said the “grotesque” sexual exploitation of the most vulnerable by assistance employees was caused by Britain’s failure in its duty to set assistance beneficiaries first.

The scandal has shown that aid organisations had now become complicit in the exploitation of people they were supposed to help, Penny Mordaunt said.

To recover from the “wake-up call” of the Oxfam scandal, Mordaunt added, aid organisations needed to live up to their values and deliver on their promises to the world’s poor.

Mordaunt, who has accused Oxfam of a ” complete disloyalty of trust “ over the way it managed the Haiti revelations earlier this month, alerted assist groups:” You cannot help and support people, you cannot give them hope and a chance, you cannot promote human rights or the dignity of every human being, whilst paying them for sex, and whilst money an industry that exploits them .”

The aid sector is reeling from revelations that organisations including Oxfam, Save the Children and the United Nations have mishandled allegations of sex misconduct. Oxfam’s work was temporarily suspended in Haiti pending an investigation into how it handled claims of former personnel paying for sex.

Meanwhile the chief executive of Save the Children has rejected as” tittle tattle ” reports that he was forced to step aside from a review of its handling of complaints of sexual misconduct amid a conflict of interest.

Kevin Watkins, who has operate the charity since September 2016, said he had had no aim of taking part in the review process from the outset and had informed the board of his decision.

Penny Mordaunt, in a reflective speech to a seminar run by Bond, the UK network for international developing organisations, asked:” How did those, there to protect, subsistence and serve the most vulnerable people on ground, become complicit in their exploitation- by protecting the perpetrators, by failing to grip their own problems or turning a blind eye?

” Because we failed to set the beneficiaries of aid first. How did we lose sight of that fundamental obligation, for all the good people, many in this room today, and all the good works done? For be in no doubt that is what has happened.

” It may have started with an attitude bears of fundraising pressures, fierce competitor for bids or run, guarding an organisation’s reputation to maximise its reach and offer.

” That attitude procured a justification, via the chaotic and complex situations we operate in, the notion that reporting wrongdoing would do more harm than good, that we’ve so many other things to worry about, or that peacekeeping troops are doing far worse. And then any nagging doubts that persisted, as predatory individuals moved to another organisation’s payroll, were banished, in order to avoid any criticism of key sectors .”

In reference to Oxfam, the result, she said, was the” grotesque fact of aid workers sexually exploiting the most vulnerable people “.

Aid organisations required a “to be” listing as well as a” to do” listing, she said.

The MP for Portsmouth North, who has banned aid applications from Oxfam until it can meet the high standards expected, said she would stop funding organisations that fail to do so.

But she praised the” passionate, perpetrated, tireless individuals” doing astonishing work in key sectors and said she remained committed to the 0.7% of GDP spend on aid. She told them:” I believe in you, in why you chose this career and in why you are here today.

” Since the Oxfam scandal transgressed, you and UK aid have helped vaccinate around 1.5 million children from polio. That’s heroic.

” But if we have the courage and the will to change we can do more .”

She said it was important that the UK delivered on the sustainable development goals, for” the 10 million more children who will see their fifth birthday … and the 400 million more able to read and write “.

Separately, Save the Children’s chief executive, Kevin Watkins, said he was ” surprised” to read newspaper reports that he was forced to recuse himself from a review of the organisation’s handling of complaints of sex misconduct.

Watkins, who was a trustee of the charity for eight years, said that when he announced the review on 18 February he also advised that he would not be participating in it.

” It would be completely inappropriate for the CEO and former regent to do so ,” he said.

” The notion that I had to recuse myself has no basis in reality .”

Watkins said he announced the internal review, of organisational culture at the charity, as part of his commitment to fixing the issues thrown up by recent misconduct allegations.

Asked what he knew about claims of sexual harassment by senior figures when he was a trustee of the charity, Watkins told the Guardian:” When I was a regent if I had felt there was improper process I would have resigned as a trustee. I had no grounds for believing there was an improper process .”

He said:” But I’ve also made it clear that we need an independent review. The reason I set up the review was as a dispassionate diagnosis of where we are at .”

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