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Archive for July 7th, 2012

Sexual exploitation and abuse 10 years on

Posted by African Press International on July 7, 2012

– How much has really changed since NGO Save the Children, and the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) published a report that shocked humanitarian agencies a decade ago, when it exposed sexual exploitation and abuse (SEA) perpetrated on disaster-affected communities in West Africa by aid workers, peacekeepers and other community members?

The 2002 report documented abuses perpetrated by 67 individuals across 40 agencies. Accountability experts and aid workers say abuse has continued in UN agencies and NGOs, but the extent is unclear.

A few NGOs, such as Oxfam, give figures on their websites or in annual reports, but most do not, and there is no independent centrally held monitoring system. UN agencies are more transparent, reporting numbers annually on the Conduct and Discipline Unit website.

“Every agency is at risk from this problem,” a follow-on study by Save the Children entitled No one to turn to, concluded in 2008.


Since 2002 a lot of action has been taken to clamp down on SEA. Staff have been appointed to address prevention (PSEA), training programmes have been set up, coalitions built, and there is more monitoring and reporting of what goes on in the field. Many more agencies have instituted codes of conduct, partly spurred by Save the Children’s initial report, and dozens of staff have been dismissed following investigations.

Policy commitments are also in place, said interviewees who contributed to this series of reports. A task force set up by the Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC), which coordinates UN and non-UN humanitarian partnerships and reports to the UN Secretary-General, has been reinstated to put into action some of the recommendations of an independent review in 2010.

The task force’s co-chairs, Luc Ferran, senior technical adviser for beneficiary protection from exploitation and abuse in the human resources department at NGO International Rescue Committee (IRC); Marie Elseroad, human resources officer at the International Medical Corps, a global non-profit organization; and Jaqueline Carleson, from the UN Development Programme (UNDP), said the biggest step agencies took in 2011 was to accept adopting minimum operating standards on PSEA for all IASC members.

Helping humanitarian actors become more accountable to aid beneficiaries could be the antidote to SEA. In 2004 the Humanitarian Accountability Partnership International (HAP-I) set up Building Safer Organizations (BSO), which has helped train agencies to set up and carry out reporting and investigation procedures, and all HAP members are now required to put in place a code of conduct to prevent SEA.

But agencies changed their approach to PSEA more to protect their reputations than to become more accountable to communities, said a critic.

“Procedures and mechanisms are in place, but the initial momentum didn’t turn into action, and the momentum stopped once agencies had satisfactorily risk-proofed themselves,” commented an SEA expert who asked to remain unnamed. “We do not need more guidelines or policies – existing ones just need to be applied.”

The IASC task force co-chairs told IRIN: “Focus and attention should never be reliant on scandals. It is up to each agency to maintain its own focus on PSEA, even if that means couching the issue in terms of… accountability to beneficiaries, improved protection and more effective programming.”

Grey areas
Navigating the issue of rape, date-rape, sexual abuse and harassment in society is “complicated and difficult”, and preventing sexual exploitation and abuse (SEA) in the humanitarian context is no different, says one expert.

Agencies have different definitions of sexual exploitation and abuse – some bar all relations between their staff and the people they are seeking to help, others focus specifically on transactional sex with so-called beneficiaries, and some bar all transactional sex, including with those they consider “prostitutes”.

IASC definition

Views differ on where to draw the line between SEA and commercial sex work. “These grey areas affect the numbers,” said the expert.

There are few clear-cut cases – as when an adult staff member offers a 15-year-old refugee money for sex or for aid – and more harder-to-navigate issues, such as when an aid worker with a refugee girlfriend gives her money.

Perceptions of how to define an activity often shift, depending on the cultural lens. The IRC’s Luc Ferran, a refugee assistance NGO, says decisions must be framed by the organization’s values.

“You can choose between an organizational value-based approach and a more heavy-handed policy approach, and you need to strike the balance between the two,” he told IRIN.

The key to improved transparency could be to ask why staff might not be open about a relationship. “A lot of the time people hide it because they are aware that something in it compromises them or their agency,” said an SEA expert who preferred anonymity.

The change that is occurring is ad-hoc, not systematic, according to HAP-I, and this cannot continue. Various reports on agencies’ approaches to preventing SEA note that focal points are often untrained in dealing with SEA and are spread too thinly to give the issue the attention it needs. Most agencies have SEA policies and codes of conduct, but they are rarely discussed in person – rather, a document is handed to each employee, and half of the 14 agencies reviewed by the IASC did not know whether or how to inform senior management of incidents of reported abuse, or even what their organization’s complaints mechanisms actually were.


The UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO) has made far more progress than the NGO sector in institutionalizing prevention, and shifting the UN organization’s mind-set, the IASC review notes.

The DPKO has had much higher numbers of reported abuses and partly changed course to avoid further scandals (as occurred in 2002 and 2008), but its hierarchical management structure and the resources it allocated to the issue have delivered results.

“There is no one in DPKO that doesn’t know what the rules and measures are [for PSEA], and what the consequences are,” said Sylvain Roy, senior policy adviser at the UN Conduct and Discipline Unit.

Prevention will only work with stronger commitment from senior management, said many interviewees.

During the IASC review of humanitarian action in the northern Democratic Republic of Congo, the head of a large international NGO said they regularly discussed accountability with staff regarding financial integrity, but they were never called on to discuss or report on PSEA in inductions, training, country briefings or programme visits.

In contrast, the SEA expert told IRIN: “In peacekeeping, the senior staff know it will be their problem if it’s a scandal, rather than being ghettoized in an HR [human resources] or a gender department.”

Luc Ferran of the IRC, told IRIN: “It doesn’t matter where it [responsibility for perpetrating abuse] sits – if a leader says you could be fired it will be taken seriously.”

Complaint reporting

Complaints mechanisms can only work when staff are trained, said Smruti Patel, head of services and certification at accountability body HAP-International. “It is one of the most important things to get right to prevent SEA,” she told IRIN.

They are also effective when agencies and disaster-affected communities develop them together – as was the case in Nepal, Kenya and Liberia – and when communities know about them.

Some attempts to do this have worked well. In Liberia agencies agreed a joint referral pathway and outlined it clearly to complainants on posters.

When UN staff in Yemen showed the PSEA training DVD, To Serve with Pride, to refugees, many of them said they had not realized that some of the behaviours they had experienced could be called abuse.

In the Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya, 26 agencies so far have signed up to the Code of Conduct for Humanitarian Workers, sharing standards, training on how follow-up and investigations can work, agreeing to collaborate in maintaining the code of conduct, and raising awareness among beneficiaries.

Agencies texted communities how to complain in the Philippines, and in Zimbabwe they set up complaints’ tables for children.

Abuse of power

But many disaster-affected people are too scared to complain. Communities in South Sudan, Haiti and Côte d’Ivoire consulted by Save the Children said it was “unthinkable” to complain about the worst forms of exploitation and abuse when it was already so difficult to complain about basic day-to-day concerns.

Some feared their confidentiality would be breached, or there would be retribution by the perpetrator, or aid might be withheld from them. They lost trust in the process when their complaint was not acted upon.

UN numbers
Statistics for 2011 show 41 allegations were made against UN military personnel and 30 against UN civilian personnel. Up to April 2012, some 10 UN military personnel were accused, versus 12 civilian UN staff.

A large proportion of recent military allegations have been made against UN peacekeeping missions in the DRC, Haiti, Liberia and Côte d’Ivoire.

Figures go up and down each year – 124 allegations were made against UN staff in 2007; 82 in 2008; 106 in 2009; and 166 in 2010. Each allegation against UN military personnel accounted for 29-59 percent of the reported cases.

These fears underline the role of power in the relationship between an aid worker and a person in need. Save the Children found that most of the individuals who had experienced SEA were orphans, separated children, displaced people, the poorest families, and those most dependent on assistance, almost all of them female.

Working with survivors and mapping out the power differences, including those in communities, is the starting point to giving the vulnerable a voice, said Oxfam’s West Africa gender change manager, Margherita Maffii.


The external context and practical constraints in the field will always be a challenge. National laws can make dismissal of locally employed staff difficult; a weak and/or corrupt judicial system may render criminal cases inconclusive; high staff turnover can make SEA hard to implement; and practical issues like not having enough money can make it hard for smaller NGOs to investigate allegations while keeping staff members on the payroll.

Investigations of DPKO-related allegations are often drawn out as troops and police come under the jurisdiction of member states, said Roy of the UN Conduct and Discipline Unit. HAP’s Patel said the process needs to be speeded up to have legitimacy.

Just three out of eight agencies had standing operating procedures on follow-up, according to the IASC review. Follow-up on cases needs to be more systematic, said Patel.

It is also vital to communicate with complainants about the status of their case so they do not lose faith in the process.

Way forward

The point is to admit that sexual exploitation and abuse exists, and deal with it, said one aid worker.

Everyone needs to make the issue more visible – there should be regular training, and more transparency on SEA, say aid workers.

Most agencies are very reticent about communicating on the issue. Even Save the Children, which vigorously pushed for more transparency by humanitarians, no longer publishes statistics on its website or in its annual report, and could not provide the statistics when asked. Staff declined several IRIN requests to be interviewed.

The IASC review and others have urged aid agencies, donors and UN leaders to take a variety of actions to proactively stamp out sexual exploitation and abuse, including re-adopting IASC’s leadership role, launching intensive PSEA activity in five pilot countries, and giving PSEA activities a budget line by including them in funding appeals and cluster work plans. Progress is being made on some of these fronts.

Leadership is the key to progress, aid Patel. “PSEA competes with a lot of other things in terms of what needs to be done, but if you don’t have high-level buy-in, then any good work you do could be under threat.”

In a sense the humanitarian community’s approach to PSEA “defines who we are”, said a seasoned aid worker who has worked on the issue. “If we are causing harm to people, this isn’t who we are supposed to be at an essential level, and surely we cannot accept that.”

For more stories on humanitarian accountability, please visit our In-Depth


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Refugees in Kenya call for more effective aid delivery

Posted by African Press International on July 7, 2012

  – Hundreds of thousands of Somali refugees in Kenya’s northeastern Dadaab refugee camp depend on aid to meet all their basic needs; while they are grateful for the help and the relative security the settlement provides, many feel the aid could be managed in more effective ways.

Food distribution is one of the areas in need of improvement, say refugees. Each family should receive a food ration – including corn-soy blend, beans and cooking oil – twice a month amounting to about 2,100 calories per person per day. However, many refugees IRIN spoke to say the food is insufficient and delivery ineffective.

“The biggest challenge comes from the food distribution. Refugees do not get the right amount of food… That is why almost all the refugees… complain about food shortage,” said Aden Cagalab, a refugee leader. “The food cuts off before the next cycle of food distribution and people stay hungry for about five days or borrow from their neighbours.”

“[Agencies] should do constant monitoring during the food distribution and bring higher [numbers of] staff to closely check the quantity of food given to the beneficiaries,” he suggested.

According to Cagalab, the medical services at Dadaab leave much to be desired. “People with chronic diseases have lots of problems to get attention. The camp doctor is always said to be busy, and sick people have difficulties getting referral for further treatment in Nairobi or Garissa [town in the northeast].”

Dadaab, originally built to house 90,000 refugees, currently hosts close to 500,000. Administration of the camp was handed over to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) in the early 1990s; UNHCR runs the camp in partnership with several other UN agencies and local and international NGOs and with the support of the Kenyan government.


“There are refugee workers who are employed for the [food] distribution but they are not paid well so they manipulate and cut the share of beneficiaries and sell it in the market,” said Bilay Mohamed, another refugee leader.

''I would suggest that aid agencies be very strict on the service delivery and accountability so that refugees are treated with dignity''

“Some people have more ration cards which makes them get more food. They buy the extra ration cards from other refugees who leave for Somalia or are resettled inside Kenya like Garissa or Nairobi,” said Fatuma Abdi Bihi, a young mother.

The elderly and young mothers seem to be particularly affected by the problems with food distribution. “Some of us are pregnant while others are sick and elderly but no one cares about our condition… at the end what we get is not sufficient,” said Halimo Mohamed Badal, an elderly woman at the camp.

“We walk from very far distances… for almost two hours to a distribution site… but when we reach the site, we spend more than 10 hours in a long queue and we get back home hungry and exhausted,” Bihi said.


The large crowds on food distribution days are controlled by security officers whom the refugees accuse of excessive violence. “We are left in a very long queue in the sun and police are hired to control the crowd, but instead they beat us like animals. Some refugees go back to their homes with nothing after being beaten,” said Badal.

“I would request the aid agencies not to hire policemen to control the crowd,” she added. “The community leaders would be in a better position to control the crowd … [they] should be involved in the decision-making and should be given that role.”

And while most agencies operating in Dadaab have channels for feedback, the refugees say they are ineffective and their complaints are not dealt with effectively.

“Agencies always encourage beneficiaries to report all abuse cases but it does not happen accordingly, because refugees are not trained on the complaint mechanism,” said Ebla Abullahil, a youth leader. “I would therefore suggest more trainings to be conducted for all the refugees on their rights and what services, how and when they are entitled to [them] and the way they can channel their complaints so they will be able to demand their rights should they be violated.”

“I would suggest that [aid agencies] be very strict on the service delivery and accountability so that refugees are treated with dignity,” said Hassan Dahir, another youth leader.


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Seeing where the money goes

Posted by African Press International on July 7, 2012

LONDON,  – Commuters on the London Underground may have looked up from their newspapers recently and found themselves looking into the dark, wistful eyes of an African or Asian child. For just 50 pence – well under a dollar – a day, the child sponsorship advertisements promise, you can change this child’s life, and you can do it today, right now, just by sending a text message.

Action Aid is one of Britain’s longest established chid sponsorship charities, with 40 years of experience in the field. Sponsoring a named child is a tried and tested model for attracting donors and is extremely popular because of the immediate connection it offers to the beneficiaries.

Action Aid’s Andrew Robinson says it was always conceived as an approach which had accountability at its core. “It makes giving manageable,” he told IRIN. “It breaks down a global problem into a local problem, and lets donors see that they are making a difference in a child’s life.”

But once the text message is sent, the actual process of child sponsorship has changed very little over the years. Sponsors communicate with their allocated child the old-fashioned way, by written letter, via the sponsoring charity, and sometimes receive photographs or school reports, perhaps once a year. And in reality, most child sponsorship money is used for projects in the child’s country or local area, rather than going to one individual child or family.

Compassion, a church based agency, is one of the few which does use the money for the named child, to pay for a place on one of its programmes offering education, health care and social support, and it also allows sponsors to send gifts of money to the child’s family.

For its sponsors, like Chrissy Dove who has recently been linked up with Habitamu, a six-year-old Ethiopian boy, this is a very significant relationship. “For years I wanted to do this, but part of me was a little bit confused about whether it was the right thing to do. Now our youngest child is leaving home and it felt like the right time to start looking after another child. I have a photograph, and I will be praying for him. Knowing that there is a child out there who I can pray for makes a big difference.”

For Dove the chain of accountability runs through her own church to Habitamu’s church in Ethiopia, giving her a feeling of personal connection and of knowing where her money goes. This is the kind of connection that the bigger agencies can struggle to create.

Anna Forwood is one of those who have turned their back on the big-name NGOs. She says: “I just feel that something like Oxfam has become this gi-normous juggernaut. When you think of how much money they now get from the government, and they still call themselves a charity – I just think, ‘No’.”

''I just feel that something like Oxfam has become this gi-normous juggernaut. When you think of how much money they now get from the government, and they still call themselves a charity – I just think, ‘No’''

Instead she channels her support through a much smaller organization, the Burkina Women’s Education Fund, which helps young women in Burkina Faso to go to university. She can see a chain of accountability through someone she knows personally, a former colleague who became involved in the project after his retirement. “I trust him, basically. And he blogs and sends letters with pictures of who he has been talking to, so you see the girls and you see them as real people.”

So would she like to go a step further and communicate with the beneficiaries directly? For Forwood that would be a step too far: “I wouldn’t really want a personal connection. I have enough going on in my life!”

It is perhaps these smaller, more personal charities which have benefited most from the new technologies. Once a personal relationship of trust has been established with the beneficiaries, they can now operate without any kind of permanent, in-country presence.

Mobile phone order

One tiny charity which supports two schools in Liberia recently provided a motorbike for transport to a remote village near the Guinea border. The order for the bike was placed by mobile phone; it was paid for by money transfer; the agreements for its use were exchanged by scan and email; and proof of its safe receipt came in the form of a photograph which could be posted on the charity’s Facebook page for all its supporters to see.

The group’s treasurer, Peter Nettleship, says: “’Liberia is still a difficult place to communicate with but without the mobile phone network – accessed by Skype to keep costs down – we could not do anything. We’re eagerly looking forward to the next steps. Wider direct internet access, as it spreads, should make life a lot easier and cheaper.”

Bigger organizations are also starting to explore what can be done. The Kenyan NGO Vetaid is currently vaccinating against East Coast Fever. By supplying its local vets with basic smart phones, it can use a programme called EpiCollect to map exactly how many animals have been vaccinated, where and when and what with. Funding partners like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation can see exactly where their money is being spent.

One of Vetaid’s founders, Nick Short, told IRIN: “At the moment this is just for large donors, but I can see a time where the general public might see where Oxfam, for instance, was spending their money. At the moment they don’t quite know where the money is going, and if they could see photos of progress they would feel tied into it more.”

Middle-aged supporters

Over at Action Aid, Andrew Robinson, as the organization’s Digital Acquisition Manager, is exploring the way he can provide child sponsors with more of this kind of feedback.

Action Aid’s core supporters are middle aged, people with children of their own and enough disposable income to sponsor a child overseas. They are happy to communicate by letter and, he says, don’t want to ask for more feedback if it might take money out of programme work. “But,” he says, “I would expect that to change as the twenty-somethings of today move into our target age group. With their experience of using technology ever since they were little, I would expect that kind of demand to increase.

“It’s challenging for us because we work with the poorest and most excluded children, so by definition they are the farthest from urban centres. The big advantage of digital communication is its immediacy, but we have children in Nepal whose villages are a day’s vehicle travel from the nearest mobile phone signal. People aren’t necessarily asking for direct contact with a sponsored child, but they are interested in the community and the impact of their help on the community. And we need to be able to show the difference we are making.”


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