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safeguarding - new scandal

New allegations against sexual exploitation and abuse by aid workers point - again - to the unacceptable.

October 2020

Sexual exploitation and abuse undermines the aid sector as a whole. A recent investigation by The New Humanitarian (TNH) and The Thomson Reuters Foundation demonstrates - again - the unacceptable. The article includes allegations against one organisation certified by HQAI against the Core Humanitarian Standard on Quality and Accountability (CHS). HQAI is taking these very seriously and will undertake the necessary investigations.

Read here about the role the CHS and HQAI can play in improving the capacity of NGOs to effectively protect from and take corrective action on abuse.

The background

The New Humanitarian and the Thomson Reuters Foundation have uncovered cases of sexual abuse or exploitation of more than 50 Congolese women that incriminate aid workers from different UN organisations and international NGOs from 2018-2020. Read the investigation here.

Striking power inequalities between representatives of organisations and vulnerable and at-risk communities open the door for predators. Persons in charge, organisations and the aid sector as a whole must be held accountable.


While essentially directed against aid workers from the World Health Organisation, the THN/Reuters article mentions that one claim points against a person who said he worked with Oxfam.

Oxfam International is certified against the CHS by HQAI since 2018*. A maintenance audit in 2019 confirmed Oxfam’s continuous compliance with the standard and the mid-term audit is currently in preparation. HQAI’s audit methodology is robust and we are confident it provides a high level of assurance regarding the quality and accountability of our audited partners. It is however our duty to inquire on the allegations brought forward in the article. HQAI will conduct this investigation as soon as possible within the restrictions imposed by the COVID-19 crisis. If this investigation shows indeed an important failure by Oxfam, this will lead to a suspension of the certificate.

*The certificate was issued after a scandal broke out in 2018 concerning facts dating from 2010-2011. During the audit HQAI had thoroughly assessed the systems of the organisation and found that Oxfam was taking the necessary measures to conform with the standard, including on safeguarding indicators.

The CHS and HQAI

The recent revelations by TNH/Reuters are part of a long list of evidence demonstrating that the aid sector must take action now. One effective way to catalyse change is to drive up standards and ensure they are consistently met.

The Core Humanitarian Standard on Quality and Accountability (CHS)

The CHS sets out Nine Commitments to affected populations that organisations and individuals involved in humanitarian response should deliver to improve the quality and effectiveness of the assistance they provide. The CHS places communities and people affected by crisis at the centre of humanitarian action.

As a core standard, the CHS describes the essential elements of principled, accountable and high-quality humanitarian aid. The topic of safeguarding is a cross-cutting theme in the CHS. About one third of the requirements directly or indirectly refer to safeguarding issues, including staff behaviour, do-no-harm and complaints handling but also the involvement of communities in setting-up appropriate feedback and complaint mechanisms. In addition, the CHS Alliance has recently strengthened the CHS PSEAH Index to help organisations get better in safeguarding affected communities and staff from sexual exploitation, abuse and harassment.

HQAI independent quality assurance

HQAI audits organisations against the CHS. Independent quality assurance is an objective assessment of where an organisation stands in the application of a reference standard. Our audits involve document reviews, interviews with staff and partners, the direct input of communities and affected people and direct observations at selected country programmes on the field. The collection of feedback from local communities forms a crucial part of the audit process and directly informs the audit findings.

HQAI auditors also check and connect the related CHS requirements on safeguarding. They determine if safeguarding mechanisms exist, if these mechanisms can identify breaches and if they lead to corrective actions. All these elements are interconnected to draw conclusions.

There is no guarantee that an organisation can be completely and forever free of wrong-doing, be it corruption, sexual exploitation, abuse and harassment or else. The set-up and control of appropriate mechanisms, however, can minimise the risk that wrong-doing happens, identify an incident when it happens and take corrective actions (e.g. sanctions for perpetrators, assistance to victims and improving these mechanisms based on the learning from each case).

HQAI auditing processes are robust and we are confident they provide a high level of assurance regarding the quality and accountability of our audited partners. Further, our processes include the possibility for any stakeholder to file a complaint with HQAI against an audited organisation for matters related to the audit.

The entire sector needs to catalyse change to ensure organisations are accountable and have the leadership, capacity and systems in place to fight back against sexual exploitation and abuse and sexual harassment. It requires joint efforts in using the levers available to donors, organisations and members of staff. HQAI’s Annual Donor Round Table (end of October) will contribute to advance the recognition of the CHS and independent quality assurance by donors. And you will certainly want to join the discussion at the upcoming CHS Exchange.

Addendum to the above-printed 2020 article:

The short-notice audit confirmed the continued conformity of Oxfam with the Core Humanitarian Standard on Quality and Accountability. Thus, the CHS certificate is maintained. The short-notice audit report summary can be accessed here.
Addendum added by HQAI on 30 November 2020.

For inquiries about the above please contact Pierre Hauselmann, Executive Director at