In October 2017, Penny Mordaunt, the international development secretary, announced a zero-tolerance policy for aid organisations. It followed revelations of sexual harassment and use of prostitutes by the staff of major NGOs. Mordaunt said that the Department for International Development (DFID) would cut funding to any organisations which failed in safeguarding or financial probity.
This was more than a box-ticking exercise. “It doesn’t matter if you’ve got a whistleblowing hotline,” Mordaunt told the Andrew Marr show last February. “It doesn’t matter if you’ve got good safeguarding practices in place. If the moral leadership at the top of the organisation isn’t there, we cannot have you as a partner.”
The details of the policy, needless to say, are trickier. Last week details emerged of a test case: last year, a staff member at the International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF) faced allegations of sexual and financial misconduct. DFID went ahead with a £132 million grant for a two-year IPPF programme.
The advocacy group NGO Safe Space told Reuters that DFID’s decision was “simply unacceptable”, while a leader in the Times suggested that DFID had failed to make good on its 2017 commitments: “Ms Mordaunt has, it seems, failed to make good on her pledge of zero tolerance for bad conduct in the humanitarian sector.”
It remains unclear what “zero tolerance” means in practice. And DFID’s critics did not fully explain what they expect: it would be hard for DFID to implement a rule that, as soon as an organisation receives an allegation, it immediately loses funding.
I asked DFID whether it had one rule for most NGOs, and another for IPPF. A spokesperson replied: “We expect all our partners to uphold the safeguarding standards and good financial practice we require of them.
“This is applied consistently across all organisations, large and small, whether they are distributing life-saving supplies, vaccinating children or protecting young women from harm by giving them control over their own bodies. If we have concerns over an organisation’s ability to meet those standards we will not fund them.”
The phrase “control over their own bodies” is a reminder of the bigger picture. DFID’s £132m grant to IPPF will support the provision of contraception to “six million couples”, according to IPPF’s website. Of course, any Catholic must be appalled that even a penny of taxpayer’s money is spent on birth control; all the more so when the money passes through IPPF, which not only provides abortions but campaigns against laws which protect the unborn.
Last year, international development minister Alistair Burt said: “DFID is absolutely clear that safe abortion is a crucial element of the full range of comprehensive sexual and reproductive health and rights services.” Nevertheless, DFID’s approach to abortion is frustratingly opaque. Last year, there were repeated parliamentary questions about the amount of money given to fund and promote abortions. Ministers replied each time that they do not collect figures.
Meanwhile, there is no clear picture yet regarding the specific misconduct allegations about IPPF, and how the situation compares to other NGO scandals. An internal investigation found evidence of wrongdoing, but an appeal is ongoing. And the Charity Commission has also launched an inquiry into what happened. Did IPPF receive special treatment from DFID? The jury is still out.
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