New Measures to Tackle Exploitation and Abuse

Dutch NGOs have launched a Joint Integrity Plan in response to public concern over recent cases of abuse in the humanitarian sector – but how does the plan work in practice? We talk to Caroline Scheffer from Save The Children to find out…

Caroline SchefferRecent news concerning abuse and sexual misconduct by NGO workers – particularly the sex scandals uncovered in Haiti during February – has deeply affected the humanitarian sector.

Dutch NGOs responded to these issues immediately with the creation of a Joint Integrity Plan – including proposals for more robust screening of emergency workers.

Save The Children’s Caroline Scheffer is part of the Dutch Relief Alliance (DRA) working group addressing reputational issues. She works with Edwin van Gerwen from the International Committee of the Red Cross to implement the Joint Integrity Plan. She explains how the plan’s measures will be implemented…

Why is a new screening policy necessary?
NGOs have to work in severe contexts where lives are at stake – which is why it’s necessary to deploy people quickly and effectively worldwide. Recruitment and selection should be focused accordingly. However, due to time pressures – among other things – we don’t conduct enough checks on integrity during the recruitment process.

This is true across our sector – and not only with regard to sexual and child abuse but also corruption and abuse of power in general. The new screening policy and an improved exchange of information should prevent emergency workers accused of misconduct switching from one crisis area to another without detection.

What is required to achieve that?
An increased number of processes. We would like to implement a double reference check in every recruitment and selection procedure, in which we will ask managers and line-managers background questions concerning various integrity issues. HR staff undertaking these checks should be able to access the personnel files of the applicant in question – in order to find out if any codes of conduct have been breached. The major obstacle to enforcing this is the fact that applicants can currently refuse – sometimes for valid reasons – to consent to these reference checks.

We also want all candidates and employees to declare in writing that they have never been found guilty of any breaches of integrity. The working group is also calling for a sector-specific ‘Certificate of Good Conduct’ to be a mandatory requirement for all NGO employees. The certificate – to be signed off by the state Secretary for Justice and Security – serves as a declaration that the candidate has committed no criminal offences and that their prior behaviour is appropriate for the profession in question.

These certificates already exist for certain professions – and we now want them made available for all ‘high-risk’ professions in the humanitarian sector. The main areas of focus should be instances of sexual abuse, child abuse, financial abuse and the abuse of power.

Yet a general Certificate of Good Conduct can be requested on behalf of all Dutch nationals – do Dutch NGOs currently use these certificates during their recruitment processes?
Not in practice – among the 16 NGOs in the Dutch Relief Alliance only six require ‘good behaviour’ certificates as standard procedure. This is partly because a sector-specific certificate doesn’t currently exist – and the general certificate of good behaviour doesn’t cover all competencies typically required in humanitarian work. This is why we want a mandatory, sector-specific Certificate of Good Conduct.

Much needs to change if this is going to happen – we would need new regulations for one thing. Another troubling obstacle is the new European privacy legislation, which means it is now much harder to obtain and record information about integrity issues. Then there also is the application time, which can take up to two months. We don’t always have that long in emergency situations.

Each NGO already has its own specific code of conduct – so will the standardised, cross-sector initiatives you mention perhaps be too broad?
This is something we have to discuss, but it’s definitely not a problem. What we could do is exchange information about integrity and breaches of good conduct in order to identify individuals guilty of misconduct. This will give organisations the information to decide whether specific individuals should or should not be hired.

Will the various interventions you call for – a double reference check, a written declaration and a sector-specific Certificate of Good Conduct – guarantee that individuals guilty of misconduct will be rooted out?
Unfortunately there are no 100 per cent guarantees in any sector. Even so, we can still greatly improve the exchange of information, which we need to ensure that people guilty of misconduct will no longer work in Haiti, South Sudan or anywhere else.

We know the interventions will require people to share sensitive information but we need to demand that these steps are taken for the greater good. We think these measures will work effectively with regards to prevention, signalling and enforcement – particularly if they are applied to the entire sector.

Read part two of the interview >