Charities are working hard to fix abuse problems

The reality of international aid is often tough and messy, with on-the-ground delivery taking place in desperate, confused situations.

Those who are willing and able to fly far from home to work in these circumstances represent a mix of everything from the best of humanity to the worst. They come from all backgrounds, with experience in medicine, the military, economics and more. Most are committed and selfless, a few are cynical and manipulative.

When you need staff with specialist skills to work in dangerous places at short notice, your choices and your ability to carry out all the checks you may ideally like to are limited. Ethical dilemmas and logistical problems abound in international aid, and this was one of many.

Charities have been taking action for years, and are doing even more now

But it is far from the case that charities were or are relaxed about such matters, and much progress has been made since the 2001 report The Times highlighted this week. Many charities have been improving their reporting processes so that allegations or incidents of abuse can be identified and dealt with effectively.

Staff naturally still find it hard to speak up about exploitation, but it is an essential part of weeding out abuse. We owe a debt to those who do, and we have a duty to help those who don’t feel they can. Charities are working hard to create environments where everyone feels supported in coming forward with concerns. I’m pleased that The Times’ latest revelations have prompted more weight to be thrown behind such work.

Many aid organisations have been thinking about how to strengthen safeguards in recruitment. Some of the proposals are complex, requiring significant financial investment in infrastructure and great international cooperation. But there is now the momentum to take forward these ideas to improve recruitment – such as working with Interpol to create a global criminal records background check.

Charities of all sorts have come together since the latest revelations to set about creating the strongest possible culture of safeguarding of their beneficiaries, whether their work is in the UK or overseas. They are looking at how they can improve in areas from setting standards for rigorous reporting in order to ensure full accountability for misconduct, to investing more in organisational culture around safeguarding.

NCVO’s role

NCVO is part of this work, leading a number of the initiatives aimed at addressing the gaps and weaknesses that have led to things going wrong. There is a lot going on, both on the domestic and the international front: we are thinking about what needs to be done to ensure stronger reporting mechanisms, how we can make our charities a safe place for anyone who works for them or comes into contact with them, and what the values we need to champion throughout our organisations to ensure a culture of openness, dignity and respect are.

Last week, Dame Mary Marsh chaired the first roundtable to discuss work we are leading on a ‘code of ethics’ for charities. The level of support for this work across the sector has been incredibly encouraging: everyone wants to do their best for their beneficiaries and their cause.

Effective solutions will take thought and careful implementation: that is what is happening now. There is much to be done, but these charities are serious and committed organisations and they are firmly seized of the matter. Donors, the government and the public can be confident that they are doing everything possible.

I am confident that in the long run, aid charities will have been strengthened by this difficult period, resulting in higher standards of help for the world’s poorest.

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Avatar photo Sir Stuart Etherington was chief executive of NCVO from 1994 to 2019.

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