Child Abuse by Aid Workers

The front page today was about the abuse of children by aid workers. I was going to follow up my 2004 piece, pointing out it was still going on, but the real story is much more interesting – and more positive.

The newspaper stories are based on a report by Save the Children UK, who sent researchers into Sudan, Côte d’Ivoire and Haiti to investigate the problem of sexual abuse of children by aid workers and peacekeepers. That is the real story here – the UN (at the top level) and some aid organizations like Save the Children are taking the realistic approach of assuming it’s going on and working out how to get rid of it, rather than waiting for proof that they can’t deny.

It’s an excellent piece of work – I’m surprised and very impressed. The report concentrates on the underreporting of abuse by the victims. It recommends creating a global watchdog within the UN, which makes sense if they believe that not every charity and UN agency shares their determination to deal with the issue openly. They also recommend setting up local contact points to which victims can report abuse.

If I were to quibble, I’d say they needed to pay more attention to how these complaints will be investigated. The victims will see no benefit in reporting if there is no possibility of their allegations being proved. They cannot be compensated on the basis of unproved allegations, because that will encourage floods of false allegations, and obviously nobody can be punished on the basis of unproved allegations. So there needs to be some mechanism for investigating complaints. From the survey, it appears it is not uncommon for individuals to persistently abuse their positions, in which case it should be possible to catch them in the act after a complaint, provided the complaint goes through a secure alternative channel and the offender is not tipped off.

But that’s a minor point; what’s most significant is the seriousness and realism being brought to the question, which if it is followed through should be enough, not to eliminate abuse – the huge power asymmetry is bound to create it – but to limit it.

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