Sexual exploitation is endemic across the international aid sector, which is delusional about its efforts to tackle the problem, a British parliamentary investigation found in a damning report released on Tuesday.
The report on sexual exploitation and abuse in the sector, produced by the International Development Committee scrutiny panel of MPs, said self-regulation had completely failed to deal with the issue.
“The overall impression is one of complacency, verging on complicity,” the report said.
Lawmakers were investigating the aid sector following revelations earlier this year of a prostitution scandal in Haiti involving staff from the British charity Oxfam.
The committee said the scale of the problem was impossible to define but there were suspicions that known cases so far were the tip of the iceberg.
“Sexual exploitation and abuse is happening and it is happening across organisations, countries and institutions. It is endemic, and it has been for a long time,” the parliamentary report said.
“The delivery of aid to people and communities in crisis has been subverted by sexual predators who exploit weakened systems of governance.”
In its conclusions, the report said the international aid sector’s response to tackling abuse had been “reactive, patchy and sluggish”.
It said there had been a collective failure of leadership and the aid sector was in “self-delusion” over its efforts to deal with the issue.
“Impunity for sexual exploitation and abuse is utterly unacceptable. The lack of accountability entirely undermines the notion of zero tolerance,” the MPs said.
The committee called for a global register of aid workers, to prevent sexual predators seeking to drift around the sector.
“Reactions driven by concern for reputational management” will “never bring about meaningful change,” the MPs said.
Britain is hosting an international safeguarding conference on October 18 aimed at striking a common front agreement across the sector.
Britain’s International Development Secretary Penny Mordaunt said survivors needed to be put first.
“Until the sector is fully prepared to address the power imbalance, cultures, and behaviours that allow sexual abuse, exploitation and harassment to happen, we will never stamp it out,” she said.
Judith Brodie, who heads Bond, Britain’s network of international development non-governmental organisations, said the sector was working to end sex abuse.
“We as NGOs know that ‘business as usual’ is not going to cut it and change has started,” she said.
Oxfam chair of trustees Caroline Thomson said the report made for “incredibly painful reading.”
“We failed to protect vulnerable women in Haiti, and we accept we should have reported more clearly at the time — for that we are truly sorry,” she said.